Published on 2015/09/24
The EvoLLLution | Knowing Your Adult Learners: Use Data!
By collecting and measuring data, institutions can vastly improve their level of service for non-traditional students, creating a positive impact on persistence, completion and lifetime retention.

In last week’s article , I suggested that colleges should consider collecting more data on their adult students at the time of admission. Since the article focused primarily on the needs of undergraduate, part-time adult students, I also recommended appointing a counselor or adviser at the time of admission to use and follow up on this data as a student progresses through their academic career. The purpose of this article is to provide some specific insights into how data can be used to engage adult learners and to help them succeed in achieving their education goals.

Without a doubt, we live in data-driven society. Big data and analytics have become common in business, government, sports, and education. Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t, was on the New York Times best-seller list for much of 2012 and 2013. Silver went into great detail about when data are helpful and when they can be problematic. The essence of Silver’s message was that data (“the signals”) must be captured on a timely basis and provide pertinent insight into the object(s) of analysis. He also cautions against collecting too much data (the “noises”) that are superfluous and distract from the important issues at hand.

Data for Helping Adult Learners Succeed

First, in addition to basic data—demographics, academic transcripts, academic area interest—it is critical to capture data on why an adult learner is enrolling in an academic program at a particular stage of life. Most adult learners have specific goals and objectives when deciding to invest their time and money in a college course or program. Parental or peer pressure is no longer an issue. They likely have genuine job, career, or other professional needs. They may want to take a course or two to enhance already acquired skills or to experiment in a new academic area to which they are not ready to commit. On the other hand, they may have decided they need to complete a degree program either for advancement in their existing field or to enter a new field. Obviously the commitment to complete a degree is far greater than taking a course or two. Knowing an adult learner’s goals is important and counseling should be provided that understands and recognizes them. The counselor’s focus should be on how the college or university can help this adult to achieve their stated goal(s) rather than trying to sell an entire academic program.

Second, it is important to collect data on what other commitments an adult student has. Most adults have family and work responsibilities. Are they married? Does the spouse or partner work? Do they have children? Are they taking care of aging parents? Do they have a full-time job? These kinds of data can provide insights into an adult student’s ability to complete a program of study and the amount of time at his or her disposal. If time is a potential barrier for participating in courses, an astute counselor will advise accordingly and perhaps suggest that the student start slowly rather than enroll in too many courses that will conflict with other commitments.

Third, it is important to know the academic history of an adult applying for an academic program. Frequently, adult undergraduates have had some coursework but not a degree. Data on the student’s previous college/university and area of concentration are routinely provided at admissions, but other data on drop-out, stop-out, and incompletion behavior can provide valuable information on non-cognitive qualities related to persistence and motivation. Also a history of remediation and basic skills (reading, writing, mathematics) needs should be noted by counselors. These data can provide insights into the suitability of the student for particular areas of concentration. For example, students interested in science or technology, concentrations that require a firm grounding in mathematics, should be counseled with skills results and course history in mind.

Concluding Comments

The suggestions above offer commentary on the importance of collecting data beyond what is routinely required on an application. The data are best provided in narrative form if at all possible. Counselors should review these data and schedule an interview(s) and follow-up with the student if there are any concerns. The commitment of the counselor first and foremost must be the best interests of the student and not necessarily the best interests of the college or university. Counselors should not be the marketing agents for an institution nor should they be rewarded for the number of new students that they admit. In the end, this strategy will pay off in the reputation of the institution and the counselor will be rewarded with the knowledge that they have assisted many students in achieving their academic goals.

Finally, in this age of Big Data, analytics and data-driven processes, attention should be paid to the quality of the data collected rather than the quantity. Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate for economics in 1978, is often quoted as saying “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

However, when used well, quality, timely data can be critical to good decision making, counseling and advisement. College counselors can use data to gain insights into the lives of their adult students, who combine their studies with other important responsibilities that can make them vulnerable to falling behind academically and in the worst cases forcing them to put aside their education aspirations.

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Silver, N. (2012). The signal and the noise. Why so many predictions fail-but some don’t? New York: Penguin Books.

Simon, H.A. (1971). Designing organizations for an information-rich world in Martin Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, communication, and the public interest. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press.

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Readers Comments

Hannah Jacobs 2015/09/24 at 10:53 am

A previous article on this site included a comment about how our ability to collect data has far outstripped our ability to analyze or process that data, and I think this piece goes a step further, illustrating how that can be harmful. If the data we collect doesn’t directly impact our ability to know and serve our students, than it’s a waste of resources and ultimately a drain on our ability to serve students.

Joel Blair 2015/09/24 at 1:45 pm

The data that are worth collecting are largely non-academic, which I think throws a lot of people off. The academic needs of students of all ages are largely the same, and it’s the circumstances outside the university or college that change how we need to approach those students.

Eric Norton 2015/09/24 at 4:24 pm

I think previous stop-out or drop-out behaviour is a crucial piece of information (which is also largely non-academic in the end) that can go a long way to preventing similar behaviour from happening again and also showing students that the administration cares about removing the specific barriers they have previous faced in getting their education.

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