Published on 2012/05/15
Research systems have changed significantly over the past ten years and many adult students require a little extra help getting up to speed when it comes to effective research methods when they return to the academy. Photo by Fang Guo.

There are many stereotypes out there: Adult students are out of touch with technology while younger students are technologically gifted. Adult students need instruction in doing research (having been out of school for a while), but younger students have the research skills they need. And so on.

Stereotypes, of course, are generalizations that don’t work as well in individual cases. Sometimes, they aren’t even valid as generalizations.

Adult students, the 25+ aged crowd returning to higher education (or coming into it for the first time) are, indeed, a different demographic from the 18-22 year olds we traditionally think of as university students. Adult students tend to have rather specific goals for being in an educational program, have little time for busy-work, often have families, jobs and other responsibilities, and generally take their studies pretty seriously. They may or may not have technological skill deficits, but most are somewhat out of touch with the demands of higher education level research.

Do adult students need specialized help in developing research skills? The answer would have to be, “Yes.” To their credit, adult students tend to have more advanced levels of critical thinking ability (something that is highly dependent on physical maturity) and of what we might call “street smarts.” Life experience has enabled them to become adept at assessing situations, identifying problems, and working toward solutions. All of this should give them a leg up in doing research in college or university.

Yet the research environment most higher education students encounter has changed rather dramatically in the past decade with the rise of complex library catalogs and databases. So too has the very nature of information changed—from a concentration on books and journals to the rise of websites and alternative methods of publication. Thus adult students do need help in getting their bearings. This is best accomplished by using the gifts adult students already possess – their skills in critical thinking and problem solving.

Perceptive colleges and universities see the need to offer adult students opportunities for instruction that updates their knowledge and skill in the new research environment while affirming their natural tendencies to handle problems well and work toward solutions. This instruction is can be done through seminars or even credit courses. Yet however diligently we address the problem, I can almost guarantee that we will underestimate how much instruction is needed to develop needed research skills, even with those street smart adult students.

But we shouldn’t let the 18 to 22 year olds off the hook. The biggest blind spot in higher education today is our mistaken notion that college and university students, with all their technological abilities, have no read of research skill instruction. Numerous studies have shown that estimations of student technological skill levels are overblown and that they do not develop research skills without extensive instruction, whether they be younger or older. For a summary, see “What Students Don’t Know,” (Inside Higher Education, August 22, 2011) or the home website of Project Information Literacy.

Until we begin addressing the research skill needs of all of our students, the blind spot will remain, and we will send out graduates that, in one major respect, are not fully educated.

For more on how higher educators can produce skilled student researchers, see my book, Teaching Research Processes: The Faculty Role in the Development of Skilled Student Researchers. Oxford: Chandos Publishing; New York: Neal-Schuman, 2012.

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Readers Comments

Chuck Zahn 2012/05/19 at 11:51 am

Interesting! I think some of the biggest differences come from expectation…

While students today have grown up with the ability to get any information at any time, students from yesteryear (used to textbooks) are used to a single answer being available.

This fundamentally changes the way we research, as today’s students never have a shortage of possible answers available and must sift through the muck to find the best one. This could lead to a lot of wasted time spent searching and sifting though.

Adult students will be more likely to find an answer, find supporting documentation and simply go with it.

I’m not sure which is better though

Daniela Thomas 2012/05/22 at 5:35 pm

@Chuck – I don’t know if that’s true… I think each student regardless of age will have tendencies based on their own approaches to research. Books were available when adults were going through school, and multiple answers were also possible to come by.

    William Badke 2012/05/23 at 12:15 pm

    The primary challenge is not in sifting through information to find answers but in finding a way to harness information to deal with issues and problems, often containing more than one possible solution. Information is thus a tool in the process rather than an end in itself. Adult students are more adept than younger students at identifying problems and understanding problem-solving processes using information. But they, like all students in higher education, need a lot more instruction than we are giving them if their research skills are to be more than rudimentary.

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