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Helping Adult Students Thrive Online

The EvoLLLution | Helping Adult Students Thrive Online
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing a hurried transition of face-to-face classes to online delivery, higher learning educators need to remember that each student (especially adult students) learns differently, and their learning is intrinsically tied to whether their basic needs are met.

For years, adult education theorists have worked to determine the best ways to teach adult students. From Malcolm Knowles to Jack Mesirow, John Dewey to Carol Kasworm, and many others, adult educators have worked to incorporate the best methods to help their students succeed in academia. As with other educators, I felt that I knew the best ways to educate students. I had worked with learners at public institutions, a private liberal arts college and community colleges. My youngest adult student was 25 years old, and my oldest was in her late 70s. My thoughts adjusted as I worked with each group, but the basis of my thoughts on teaching learners remained static. Then, COVID-19 happened.

When working with non-traditional students seeking four-year degrees, I was sure that theories of self-directed or self-planned learning and social constructivism applied to all learners. The meaning-making process for adult students involved learning from a teacher, books, peers and then reflecting on one’s prior knowledge. From there, an adult student would not abandon his or her prior knowledge but add to it. The learning process between teacher and student would be reciprocal, each one learning from the other to create a new way of viewing a subject. At some point, students would take over responsibility for their own learning and become self-directed learners.

This shift could happen in multiple ways, such as taking a directed study or independent learning course, or simply studying on one’s own to broaden the mind. This could even occur by taking an online course that in order to succeed, one must be diligent and independent in studying and completing coursework. While I believe all adult learners can adopt self-directed learning some students’ successes are influenced by their comfort and confidence in learning online, and whether their other basic needs are being met. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in order for learning to truly occur, basic needs, such as food, safety (shelter), protection and thirst all need to be fulfilled.

However, the facilitating, somewhat hands-off approach to andragogy looks different when working with an adult student group that requires more structure and frequent contact. I oversee a department of programs, such as adult basic education, English as a second language (ESL), and adult high school/high school equivalency. Many students enter the College and Career Readiness [CCR] department with only elementary math and reading levels, yet CCR departments are evaluated with criteria that parallels that of K-12 schools. In other words, in order to receive funding, students must show improved test results.

The students also have their own objectives. They want to earn their high school diplomas and move on to a workforce development program or curriculum program. Some ESL students want to improve their English language skills to advance in their careers and in their lives. Others, who do not have high school diplomas, are also working towards completing their high school education.

Social constructivist theory states that “knowledge is constructed when individuals engage socially in talk and activity about shared problems or tasks” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999, p. 261). While it still works with CCR students, I am no longer a proponent of general self-directed learning, having experienced education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other colleges, my department was forced to transition online in order to continue providing an education to students.

For programs in CCR, the majority of the online classes were served through a pre-designed, third-party educational platform. It was supposed to be easy to use and navigate, allowing students to enter sites and guide themselves, while the instructor occasionally intervened. It was geared to be the ultimate form of self-directed or self-planned learning. In the 21st century, we might as well add technology to the list of basic needs, as our first-world society often requires its use in order to survive and thrive. So, what happens when a group of adult basic education students are thrust into an online environment and the majority of their basic needs (and access to securing) these needs cannot be guaranteed?

As I and other deans in my position have observed, some students simply would not (and will not) engage in online self-directed learning because they learn better in a traditional, face-to-face environment. The lack of engagement can occur even if laptops and hotspots are provided to students without those resources. In this case, learning is not solely about intrinsic motivation.

While basic needs not being met is one reason why engagement is not occurring, there is another reason that is often not addressed in adult education theory: teaching students to navigate classes online. If students are not taught how to maneuver their online classes, access digital resources such as library articles or academic support services, academically engage with others via advanced online platforms, and then apply what they have learned in the online classroom, they cannot reach a true level of self-directed learning. Being thrown into an online environment will not make them successful, as learning is a process, and adult learning a social process.

Moving forward, it is imperative that adult students know how to academically succeed by engaging with their peers, comprehending their class assignments and forming new meaning in an online environment. Even if CCR programs return to face-to-face classrooms in the upcoming semester, it would only benefit students to incorporate an online component into every class, so that they will become comfortable (and confident) with it. From that point, students can learn how to become self-directed learners and succeed academically.



Merriam, S. B. and Caffarella, R.S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. (2nd ed). Jossey-Bass.

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