Smoothing the Journey for Adult Learners: Helpful Strategies for Higher Ed InstitutionsBarry Thomas | Adjunct Professor, Carroll Community College
As mentioned in my last article, Adult Learners and Their College Experience: Challenges Colleges Face, the trend of more adult learners entering colleges is here and present on American college campuses. While my initial article focused on such variables as self-perceptions, self-esteem and suggestions for colleges, this particular article will identify areas of adult learners’ concerns from the outset of their journey and recommendations for colleges to work with and guide this specific student population during the tenuous and apprehensive first semester.
The foci of attention of adult learners as they embark on their college programs are intertwined with several variables, some that are directly related to academics and others that are not. For example, mingling with traditional students in the classroom often poses a quandary for adult learners. As data suggests, the adult learners have the skills necessary to display more than adequate interactions with their classmates but are hesitant to display these skills. Another variable worth mentioning in the adult learners’ different expectations of the course and faculty. Through personal observations it has become clear to me that adult students strive to get more from their academic experience. While traditional college students oftentimes seek marginal interactions with their professors, the adult learners regularly seek out explanations and clarifications for certain concepts and data delivered. Herein lies one premise of adult learners—not only comprehend the content but also understand the reasoning behind the content.
Finally, as adult learners begin their college careers they often have a “Do It Now” philosophy. As I have seen in classroom observations and talking with my adult learners, this theme seems to permeate the adult learners’ focus for first semester. For the most part, they transfer this philosophy from their workplace environment to their collegial settings with the same emphasis and enthusiasm. This philosophy helps to guide them and focus their energies accordingly.
Self-perceptions of adult learners entering college are fascinating aspects of human character. Several self-perceptions seem to be centered around the following examples:
- Criticism of themselves (often due to past endeavors)
- Skepticism of outcomes (“Will it work for me?”)
- Patience (only so far). They are anxious to complete and move on to next task.
- Concern about keeping up with younger classmates.
- Fear of lack of tech savviness.
- Returning to the college scene and hoping a lot has not changed (and see their reactions when they encounter Day 1 of classes.
- Concern around whether professors will acknowledge prior experience and skills.
Colleges and universities have organized policies and programs to adapt to the new population on campus. For example, many colleges have established resources—such as student affairs, advising, counseling and related programs—designed to assist the traditional students, and they perform admirably. But, in the study of adult learners, these offices oftentimes do not have the directives to assist the adult learner population and the many challenges they bring to their individual campuses.
The following suggestions on how to help and guide the adult learners are divided into separate sections for explanation and clarity: the first investment at the college, the first week of school, midterm check-up and the end-of-term wrap.
First Investment At the College
With regards to enrollment and orientation, I recommend the enrollment counselors and advisors recruit an adult learner on board specifically trained to help adult learners. With orientation, tailor the orientation to the specific needs of the adult learners, discussing critical areas like financial aid, curriculum, meeting professors and similar areas. I urge colleges to design their orientation with the adult learners in mind.
First Week of School
The first week of classes can be challenging for every college student—traditional and non-traditional. I recommend encouraging adjunct and full-time faculty to check on the comfort level and adjustment of adult learners during the first week. Listen to their observations and reflections. Create a mini-checklist of learning functions and procedures which affect adult learners. Keep the lines of communications open.
Midterm Check Up and End-of-Term Wrap Up
Mid-term and end-of-term wrap-up can be consolidated into one area. Academic success is a high priority of college students especially for adult learners and grades are often the key indicator of success in the classroom. In a similar fashion to the first week connections with adult learners, during mid-term, colleges need to check the variables that affect the adult learners, such as class assignments, conferences with professors, comfort in the classroom, time management, availability of resources on campus, etc. College staff need to investigate concerns quickly in order to support adult learners and improve the retention rates.
The end of the term/semester is usually a time to reflect, take the final exams, and plan for the next semester. Seasoned and experienced advisors should meet with the adult learners (face-to-face and not merely using emails) and recap the concluding term. What was successful? What was challenging? What was learned in various classes? Were comfort levels challenged? Were college resources used?
The conclusion of the term is a great opportunity to plan for the next semester and perhaps beyond. A key reminder to college advisors is the theory of balance in planning for adult learners.
Ultimately, it’s critical for institutions to better support adult learners as they begin their college journeys and to improve their approaches to interacting with this growing student demographic.