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Leading from Experience: An Adult Learning Advocate Who Has Been There

It’s important to help guide students from experience, and knowing first-hand the accommodations that these non-traditional students require, including flexibility and stack-ability. 

Having experiences in common with those you help can be quite an advantage. The shared perspective not only builds relevant expertise but empathy too. A great example of someone who has “walked the walk” and now “talks the talk” of adult learning is Kathy Hancher, an academic advisor and prior learning coordinator for adult learning programs at the University of Indianapolis, a CAEL institutional member. Kathy, who works with the university’s Center for Advising and Student Achievement, has been with the university for over 25 years. I recently spoke to her about her work and some of the ways she and her university support adult learners.

Kathy started her career in postsecondary education in the registrar’s office. She was a single mother of two small children and living on less than $15,000 per year. She had previously taken classes at a few different institutions before she was familiar with the ins and outs of accreditation. That left her with around 15 credit hours she could build on. Fortunately, she benefited from an excellent mentor who helped her take full advantage of the tuition benefits she received as a university employee. Her short-term goal was to get an associate’s degree. She knew that starting with that achievement would prove to herself that she could advance her education even as she worked full time and cared for her family.

Sure enough, the associate’s degree was just the beginning. Kathy earned a bachelor’s degree shortly before the university launched its School for Adult Learning. Right after she completed it, the dean for the School recruited her to work for that program, which she did happily. When she earned her master’s degree, the dean urged her to add teaching to her repertoire. Although it was something she had never considered, she embraced that role as well, teaching traditional classes, then expanding to evening programs. Kathy stresses how valuable these experiences have been in preparing her for her role today. As she puts it, there is very little a student can come to her with that she hasn’t experienced before. 

Given that Kathy has taught all types of students, I asked her what she thinks sets adult learners apart from “traditional students.” She made a great point about our need to reevaluate the labels we often instinctively apply to students. About 25 years ago, there was a much sharper contrast between “daytime” and “evening” students. Today, the lines are blurred. Even among adult learners themselves, individual students are motivated by different circumstances and pursue different goals.

Still, Kathy pointed out that some trends are evident. When advising students, she notices that adult learners tend to be focused more on the bottom line. They want to know what they need to do, how quickly they can do it, and what it will cost. They seek essential facts that relate to their immediate goals. These typically include a promotion at work or finding new employment after industry upheaval, often while serving as the sole income earner for their family. 

Switching to the instructor role, Kathy shares a sentiment held by just about every teacher I’ve known. She loves teaching adult learners. She hails their willingness to engage in classroom discussion on almost any topic and to challenge any point. She credits this to the life experience they bring to the classroom, which adds another dimension to instruction that benefits all students. As Kathy puts it, they are as much her peers as they are her students.

At the same time, they face daunting challenges. While many traditional students enjoy leisure time outside of the classroom as a social experience, for adult learners, most of that time is consumed by responsibilities like work and family. Time often gets away from them, something evidenced by the flood of completed assignments that Kathy receives on Sunday evenings. Almost like clockwork, they appear in her inbox just ahead of the deadline. That’s one reason Kathy devotes an entire section of one of her classes to time management. She uses it to establish good study habits and using a proactive mindset to fit competing demands into finite schedules.

To get even more from that limited time, Kathy would love to see more opportunities for incorporating college-level learning completed outside of the classroom within formal credentialing. She notes that there is a general lack of awareness and understanding about prior learning assessment (PLA) among students and faculty at most institutions. She remembers sitting through classes that were teaching her things she already knew and wondering why she had to be there. She reflected on how much worse it would be for students who had to pay full tuition. This perspective would motivate her to complete CAEL’s PLA training and become master certified.

Focusing on portfolio assessment, Kathy also worked with PLA experts at NYU and Regis University who helped her put together a program at the University of Indianapolis. She launched a class that helped students take inventory of their experiential learning, connect it to their degree goals, and write portfolios. The course offered a great return on investment for students. Once they completed it, they could earn up to 30 hours via their portfolio submission. With the shift from serving adult learners via the standalone School for Adult Learning to resources and programs incorporated throughout the university, the course is no longer offered. But Kathy continues to help students with portfolio work outside of the classroom and says a similar course will return soon (students can still earn up to 30 hours via PLA).

In the meantime, Kathy continues to make students aware of PLA early in the enrollment process, so they can map out all their prior learning with the potential to save them time and money. She also works to disabuse faculty of the misconception that recognizing prior learning comes at the sacrifice of academic rigor. At the same time, she makes it a point to enlist the help of full-time faculty early in the portfolio review process. Proactively including their expertise and perspective is surely saving PLA students a lot of grief.

Kathy also talked about the university’s accelerated programs, another great resource for adult learners. Accelerated courses began through a partnership with Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company, initially offering two degrees. Adult learners loved it, and it showed in stellar retention rates. The program expanded to include an accelerated offering for every class in every major each semester. Today, the accelerated courses have spread from their former, centralized location to all of the university’s colleges, integrated within respective departments. Accelerated classes meet one night per week over an eight-week period. The courses have transitioned to include different modalities: face-to-face, hybrid, and online. This offers opportunities to complete a bachelor’s degree in as little as two years, depending on students’ previous transfer credit and taking advantage of PLA options. Among the benefits Kathy has seen from the classes moving into the traditional colleges is greater full-time faculty participation and support of accelerated learning.

I wrapped up our conversation by asking Kathy what suggestions or best practices she had for serving adult learners during the COVID-19 crisis. She stressed the need for flexibility, especially during a time when so many are forced to make decisions with little visibility of long-term outcomes. She also underscored the role of listening. Sometimes, it can be as simple as being there without judgement when students need to talk. With negativity seemingly everywhere, any source of positivity can have a clear and immediate impact. And, perhaps hearkening back to her own experience again, she suggests breaking big goals into smaller accomplishments, encouraging us to celebrate good things, even if they come in small doses. 

Kathy also feels that adult learners often lack a voice at the table, especially in comparison to traditional students. She urges faculty and staff to fill that void by advocating for resources on their behalf. After all, as she rightfully observes, finding ways to help adult learners is ultimately a recipe for the long-term success of the institutions they attend. Just consider the enrollment trends of traditional students. Whether they are major initiatives like childcare solutions and scholarships or more modest programs like textbook assistance and relaxing the threshold for dropping students behind on their payments, such resources help adult learners take additional steps toward their goal, however big or small it is.


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