Published on 2012/11/02

Approaching Learning: Of Earbuds and the Alps

There are a number of differences between the ways that adult students and traditional-age students approach their education and learn, but that’s not to say one group is particularly easier to teach than the other.

The topic of this article is: Do adults and traditional-age students typically approach their classes and coursework differently? One obvious answer is to chalk any difference up to technology. Today’s 18-year-old freshman was born (gasp) in 1994… a couple of years after “you’ve got mail” became a household phrase.

Traditional-age students do have expectations about technology, as evidenced by the equipment now found in classrooms all over the world. A colleague offered a further example of this supposed digital divide. She told a story about listening to student podcasts, developed for an assignment. She continuously heard music in the background as students described their experiences observing different groups of people off-campus. Background music was not required for the assignment, but music was present, an unrelated backdrop to the work, in several students’ submissions. So she queried the class to see where the music was coming from. The answer, obvious to any 18 to 22 year old, was that their music was running while they were in the field “observing” and it got picked up in the recording. For these students, there was nothing odd about listening to music while fulfilling the assignment even if, in my colleague’s estimation, observation requires intense use of as many of the senses as possible.

Another colleague chimed in: what about instant messaging? Or, for that matter, Google, or World of Warcraft  Don’t those prove that young students approach class and coursework differently? If by differently we mean they are easily bored by talk-at-me lectures, or they have no sense of history, because everything is and needs to be instantaneous, our response is predictable. It is not definitive. Older generations are not immune to boredom and they, too, know very little history.Maybe the answer is in our own perceptions.A couple of years ago a professor of English looked, with absolutely palpable yearning, at several of us who primarily taught adults. With great sighs, he told us how lucky we were to teach people who wanted to learn. Ours were people, he panted, that were unlike his traditional undergraduates who arrived in class hung over or debilitated by lost love. Your students want to be in class, he said nearly weeping, until we stopped him to spare his anguish and his misconceptions.

His implication was that somehow the young are completely disengaged from learning, while adults want to learn. No, we said to him, our students don’t usually come in hung over.

They do, however, lose their jobs, have babies, care for ill or dying parents, have immovable work deadlines, get married, get divorced, travel, find new jobs, and often use the classroom—virtual or physical—as one of the few places where they feel they have complete control. Complete control is not synonymous with wanting to learn.

Neither is wearing a baseball cap backwards—or coming in, as my English professor friend lamented, hung over—an indication of not wanting to learn. And a lost love at any age brings sadness and longing.

Today’s undergraduates may only be able to learn with music playing in their ears, or able to respond only via text. But why or how is this different than the adult who may only be able to learn if the course material is absolutely relevant to his or her own work experience? These undergraduates will become adults. When they return to the classroom, they may revert to the habits of their undergraduate years. They may no longer wear earbuds when engaging in field research, but they will expect leniency when they tell you they can’t possibly meet a deadline because they will be on vacation in the Swiss Alps.

So this article ends as it began: Do traditional students and adults approach classes and coursework differently?

The answer can easily be absolutely yes or no, with one caveat: to fantasize that adults want to learn more than the typical undergraduate is to do a disservice to ourselves as faculty members by disparaging both.

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Readers Comments

Vera Matthews 2012/11/02 at 9:27 am

Well done for breaking down that pervasive false dichotomy between adult learners who “want to learn” and traditional 18-22 year old learners who apparently are bored, apathetic, and unmotivated.

This misconception does a disservice to both sets of learners, not only lowering expectations for traditional students, but overestimating adult learners in a way that might overlook the specific challenges and stresses they face in the classroom and in their lives.

As she rightly points out, an adult learner is most likely juggling many different aspects of their life, possibly including a job, family, children. They are much less likely to be fully committed to a full-time education than a traditional-age college student. I am sure adult learners would greatly appreciate sensitivity to these external factors in their lives.

Daniela Thomas 2012/11/02 at 4:20 pm

I think it is equally presumptuous to assume that many adult learners use the classroom as “one of the few places where they feel they have complete control” over their lives. I concede that this may be the case for some adult learners, but I think that it would be the result of a particular set of circumstances and that it cannot and should not be extended into a generalization. Ms. Hitch’s assertion that “complete control is not synonymous with wanting to learn”, though apt, is again not a statement I think it is fair to make so generally about adult learners. I realize this article is just scratching the surface on this debate, but I would have liked to see a little more depth, as opposed to just somewhat disparaging comments and complaints about adult learners. For example, the adult learner tendency to want control could be positively skewed as an opportunity to really share control of content–and the direction that the course takes– between students and instructor– a version of the increasingly popular “flipped” classroom.

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