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Connecting the Disconnected: Fostering a Sense of Community Among Adult Learners in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Connecting the Disconnected: Fostering a Sense of Community Among Adult Learners in Higher Education
Removing the barriers that separate “traditional” and “non-traditional” learners, and creating a postsecondary ecosystem that addresses the needs of modern learners at every level, is critical to increasing student engagement and persistence.

Over the past fifty years, socio-cultural and cognitive models of development have held that people learn over the course of their lives, and, as a result, seek educational opportunities throughout their lifetime. Unfortunately, while many higher education institutions provide programs and services that specifically cater to adult learners, the design and delivery of some programs do not always meet the needs of adult students.

Malcolm Knowles (1913–1997), one of the early advocates for adult education, popularized the term “andragogy,” defining it as “the art and science of helping adults learn.” Knowles’s humanistic approach to adult learning holds that humans are motivated by an innate drive to fulfill their potential. According to Knowles, adult learners are self-directed and independent. They’re ready to learn, orientated to learn and motivated to learn. More importantly, research tells us that adult learners come to higher education with significant life experiences and are very committed to the process of learning for the purpose of self-discovery and application, rather than purely to obtain knowledge (Brookfield, 2013; Knowles, 1980).

Adult learners in the 21st century want to succeed in higher education; however, as a group their composition is much more diverse than in the past. The number of women adult learners has continued to increase, and individuals from various racial/ethnic groups now comprise a significant portion of the adult learner population. Moreover, each of these groups possesses varied learning styles and maintains multiple roles and responsibilities.

There are several factors that can contribute to adult learners feeling disconnected from their respective institutions. Higher education programs that lack quality instruction or quality curriculum; relevance and pragmatism; interactive technologies and effective management practices; progressive assessment and timely feedback; self-directedness; a conducive learning environment; and effective academic advising practices will fail to maintain a connection with adult learners.

Despite these challenges, it is essential for higher education to find ways for adult learners to connect with their respective institutions so that they stay relevant within their communities.

So, what can be done?

Academe continues to identify its students as “traditional” and “non-traditional.” These labels were incorporated into higher education long ago, originally to designate the difference between full and part-time students as well as identify learners by their age (i.e. 18-22 years of age = traditional; 25 year of age and above = non-traditional).

Moreover, in some instances these labels have influenced the level of service and attention adult learners receive. Sustaining these labels will become more problematic in the future. Many colleges and universities are finding that students they considered “traditional” in the past now possess many of the characteristics associated with non-traditional students (i.e. attending part-time, financially independent, and having other roles and responsibilities that compete with their studies). Likewise, non-traditional students have taken on some of the characteristics that would usually qualify them as traditional learners.

Postsecondary student bodies have become more diverse and these old labels only serve to disconnect adult learners from their respective institutions. Donaldson and Townsend (2007) maintain that it is necessary to move past old labels (like traditional and non-traditional) to create a new language that better reflects the complex reality of today’s undergraduate student body. Kim (2002) proposed that research on non-traditional students should be more accurately labeled as research on adult learners, reentry students, educationally disadvantaged students, first-generation students or minority students. Adult student labels are commonly used to refer to “non-traditional” students who are participating in higher education primarily for career-related reasons while having other major responsibilities and roles.

Many adult students are still consistently limited in their involvement in on-campus activities and interactions outside the classroom. It is important to consider the contexts of adults’ lives and figure out ways to remove demotivating barriers to access and completion of academic goals. Adult learners who enroll and continue participating in higher education programs must perceive their courses as being important, useful, interesting, and worth the investment of their time. They must also believe they can handle the consequences of spending time improving their academic credentials, which may include temporarily having less time for work and family.

While some universities may want to continue to divide college students into two worlds, it would be a wiser to:

  • Invest in instructional approaches that motivate engagement and persistence for adult students.
  • Understand more about adult learners’ motives and circumstances (i.e. in relation to their jobs, family, financial situation, health, childcare, and other forces) in order to build support systems that can contribute to better persistence.
  • Identify and implement technologies that can support persistence in ways that increase motivation rather than decrease student participation.
  • Understand the importance of textbook selection and course activities, and measure their impact on persistence and motivation.

The current era of lifelong learning is fraught with declining industries and new innovative enterprises that require adult learners to retrain and develop new knowledge and skills. Colleges and universities that focus on connecting with adult learners will have a significant advantage if they invest in support measures that give them a sense of community.

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Brookfield, S. (2013). Teaching for Critical Thinking. International Journal of Adult Vocational Education and Technology, 4(1), 1-15.

Donaldson, J. F., & Townsend, B. K. (2007). Higher education journals’ discourse about adult undergraduate students. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(1) (pp. 27-50).

Kim, K. A. (2002). ERIC review: Exploring the meaning of “nontraditional” at the community college. Community College Review, 30(1) (pp. 74-89).

Knowles, M. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

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