Published on 2013/04/29

Accelerated Learning for Adult Students
As institutions start to adapt their available services to the growing population of adult students, their curricula and teaching approaches must follow suit.

As the returning adult student market continues to expand, many schools are recognizing the importance of tailoring their services to meet the needs of working adults. By the same token, administrators and educators must also attempt to tailor the classroom experience to better serve the adult market.

Accelerated, intensive courses serve working adults more effectively than traditional, full-semester courses because they are designed around the schedules and learning styles of busy adults. Many educators believe accelerated degree programs lead to improved access to higher education for adults and better retention, due to the adult-focused classroom approach.

Adult students often experience anxiety upon returning to the classroom. While some of the anxiety comes from their adjustment to a new environment, it may also result from insecurity based on doubt of one’s ability to cope with the cognitive demands of the classroom. In many cases, adult students may carry negative experiences from previous academic endeavors that caused them to either drop out of college or to forego it entirely. Of course, with maturity, these students can experience more success upon their return to the classroom; however, the feelings of doubt can prevent many potential students from ever reaching the point of considering a return.

Educators must remember that adult students lack the support traditional students enjoy, such as guidance counselors, teachers and parents. No such formal or informal advising process exists for adult students, who must make their own decisions about returning to school, including selecting a major, how to access financial aid and which school to attend. This lack of support often prevents would-be adult students from returning to school. Of primary concern to returning adults is the transition into the culture of the academy. In some cases, adults are more than 20 years removed from the classroom environment, which can create tremendous anxiety about returning to school. These students are far removed from the routines, language and culture of an academic environment. Instead, they have most likely integrated themselves into professional and family environments, a far cry from the academic world.

Many institutions have responded to the needs of the adult market by creating adult-focused, accelerated or intensive programs of study. Such programs offer courses in five, eight and 10-week blocks rather than 15-week semesters. These classes may only meet for half the seat-time of a traditional semester, with students making up the time through out-of-class work. The primary purpose of this type of program is the emphasis on a learner-centered teaching approach that capitalizes on adult student motivation. According to Raymond Wlodkowski, adult students are better able to attach meaning to their vast life experiences, which enhances their ability to learn. On the other hand, younger students have fewer life experiences upon which to attach meaning, so more time must be given to developing theoretical principles.[1] Accelerated classroom environments allow adult students to engage in coursework with similarly career-focused students, resulting in a support network of students with similar career, school and family priorities. These shared experiences create a powerful learning environment.

As an educator of adult students for the past 25 years, I believe adult students in accelerated programs fare significantly better than those in traditional learning environments. Wlodkowski maintains that adult students learn more in the abbreviated time as a result of their motivation to learn, self-directedness and previous work experience. Therefore, compressed class time may actually lead to better comprehension and understanding of course content by adult learners. The Council for Accelerated Programs (CAP) advocates for accelerated learning by providing best practices, research and collaboration among hundreds of accelerated programs across the country.

To learn more about accelerated academic programming, visit CAP’s website at or attend our annual conference (July 31 to Aug. 1, 2013; Denver, CO).

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[1] Wlodkowski, R. J. (2008) Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

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Readers Comments

Lisa C 2013/04/29 at 7:09 am

While I think accelerated programs are on the right track, they still fall over the most significant issue facing higher education which is our obsession with seat time rather than competencies.

Yes, we can reduce time to completion by cramming a 15-week semester into intensive 5/8 week programs. But the fact remains that these students are being rewarded for sitting in a chair in a classroom, and minimally for what they actually learn.

My biggest concern with the accelerated program approach to education is that the seat-time approach is based on the fact that students need time for concepts to really sink in. The accelerated programs don’t give them a chance to absorb materials and then, just like that, you’re on to the next section.

I’m sure students who complete accelerated programs are left with significant gaps in their overall comprehension of the program, even if they did manage to get their degree faster.

Quincy Adams 2013/04/29 at 4:10 pm

Why only offer accelerated programming to adult students? I’m sure there must be some really bright young people around with interesting life experiences they would be able to tap into to help with a course.

I think the main point this article demonstrates is that, depending on life experience and prior learning, some students could achieve better outcomes in an accelerated learning environment. However, there is currently very little wiggle room for students in any program to establish their own learning pace. This needs to change.

Glenda Cullen 2013/04/29 at 4:21 pm

Castle correctly points out that there is a lack of support for adult students as they’re making the decision to enroll in postsecondary education. Traditional-age students tend to make decisions about their education with the support of their families and perhaps guidance counselors or teachers. On the other hand, adult students almost always make all of the decisions related to their education by themselves, which can make the process quite frightening and lonely. What I would like to know is: what does Castle suggest institutions do to assist adult students during this process? Institutions have to, in a sense, identify these students and provide support before they’ve even enrolled. This can be quite difficult. Does Castle have any best practices to share in this regard?

Jason Bennett 2013/04/30 at 2:43 pm

I agree with the points Castle is making, though I would add that it is important to keep in mind that what he is discussing applies only to non-remedial adult students. For remedial students, research shows that more class time and a slower pace are needed to produce better results.

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