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Adult Learners: Now What?

Adult learners account for an increasingly meaningful proportion of higher ed students. It’s therefore critical for institutions to focus on hearing, understanding and meeting their needs.

This article is the last in a three-part series on Adult Learners. The first presented the characteristics of adult learners and the critical ways in which they learn best. The second explored adult learner identities and applications of engaging them. This piece will recap what we know and explore concrete strategies that institutions and class spaces can adopt to engage and retain these students.

To recap, adult learners bring strong characteristics that influence their needs. They are overrepresented in outgroup identities and seek the integration of their existing identities with the new student identity. Adult learners want learning environments that honor their experience and maturity with co-constructed, experiential and active learning, and to solve problems that are relevant and applicable to their lives. We can engage the assets adult learners bring with frameworks such as funds of knowledge (Gonzalez et al., 2005) and cultural wealth (Acevedo & Solorzano, 2021; Yosso, 2005).

Institutional Innovation

As adult learners vie for the best institutions to meet their needs and we compete with training from others such as Google, how will we innovate on an institutional level to be adult-learner-friendly? One example is the Amazon experience, where you can do everything with one touch, at your convenience, 24 hours a day. When you have a concern or question, you can ask for a call back, and a real person will explain. This level of ease and support is reflected in some of our most innovative higher education institutions and is a call to action for many of us (“Technology Enabled”, 2021).

Adult learners are beholden to old systems of course placement, often resulting in critical time focused on ESL or developmental coursework. Many institutions are reshaping approaches with co-requisite models, where adult learners (and others) engage in supportive course pairings that award college credit and work toward degree completion immediately. Engaging linguistic cultural wealth, some institutions are offering gateway courses in other languages so students are not delayed (Lewey et al., 2022). Even the institutions that still do placement testing are often offering preparatory sessions to allow adult learners to score their best.

Adult learners have navigational and resistant cultural wealth, believing that finding their way in higher education is logical. We have confusing terminology and offices that are not co-located. Adult learners need a success coach who will be their Amazon-like customer support—someone assigned to them, who can help them manage everything from academics to registration to basic needs (“Lourdes University, N.D.”).

How will adult learners know your institution is their best choice? Are you engaging familial cultural wealth by including their families and supports? Schedules to accommodate adult learners at night or on weekends, cohort models and co-curricular events for adult learners are common. Have you created accelerated pathways for year-round study, shorter terms, credit through prior learning or stackable credits to start small and finish with a degree? Are your policies reflecting their diverse identities, and are they formed with an adult learner advisory board?

Theory into Practice

While the profile of the adult learner has changed over the past few decades, educators have been reluctant to adjust their instructional approaches accordingly. How can we bring theory into practice?

The Value of Time

Adults view time as the ultimate commodity, envisioning themselves primarily as professionals, workers, parents, partners and community members—not solely as students. They expect to engage in learning that uses their time wisely and connects one learning activity to another. Thus, adults manage their time for learning within the context of the multiple roles they enact.

Instructors can respect an adult’s need to effectively manage their time by maximizing the flipped classroom model, facilitating the self-paced learning adults value. By creating pre-recorded presentations, learning modules and other pre-class activities, adults can absorb material at their own pace, scheduling the time they devote to school on their own terms (Bouchrika, 2022).         

Maximizing Class Interactions

Numerous learning activities create space for student interactions. The group project assignment constitutes one of these activities; however, Buglione (2012) notes that 50% of adult learners view group projects with disdain. Stevens (2015) concurs with this sentiment, noting that adults view mandatory group projects as performative, inequitable and time-consuming. Yet, group projects are one of the activities faculty regularly assign.

Interestingly, faculty may be the root cause of an adult learner’s disregard for group work (Buglione, 2012). Her research suggests that while faculty create groups, they do not always provide guidance for group behavior, group tasks or group outcomes. In some cases, adults are left to parent younger students by assuming roles they neither wanted nor find beneficial; in other cases, the demands of meeting with the group strained adults’ available time as they fulfill other life roles. Thus, while group projects may foster intergroup relationships, faculty should assume greater responsibility for directing, guiding and clarifying group activities.         

Respecting Past Failures and Advocating for Future Success

One thing we know about adults is that they are motivated by intrinsic factors and less concerned with how other students view them. Conversely, extrinsic factors affect an adult’s anxiety about academic performance, and some of this anxiety may reflect past failures (Billups, 2019; Buglione, 2012). Kenner and Weinerman (2011) found that this persistent fear of failure can be assuaged by regular, timely and meaningful communication between adult students and their faculty, where transparent exchanges about academic performance address doubts regarding course assignments, expectations and the adult’s capacity for success. Further, as Buglione (2012) posits, many adults revert to histories of challenges, real or imagined, which weigh on them as they pursue their education. In the end, these histories and fears can be leveraged as a foundation for success buoyed by partnerships with faculty.

Building Community

When Aspen (2022) reports that only 37% of adult learners say they feel supported by higher education and 40% of all college students have considered stopping out in the last month, are we ignoring the essential qualities and assets adults bring? As noted, institutions need to change the way they serve adult learners; current practices often cause adults to feel invisible.

Faculty can support adult learners by creating learning environments that cultivate a sense of community. Class climate is an essential ingredient in developing spaces where reflection, debate, a safe space to tell one’s story, disagree, experiment and even fail, is allowed and encouraged. Further, while adults do not view their courses as the only source of meaningful relationships in their lives, they want and expect to engage with others as part of their educational experience. Professional networking, peer mentoring and friendships are integral to building community for adult learners. Individuals who feel connected with a community are more likely to persist and successfully complete their programs (Billups, 2019; Merriam & Bierema, 2014).

Now What?

For the first-generation student whose aspirations reflect familial hope, who has stop-outs and transfers, maxing her aid and her credit, finally completing her bachelor’s degree alone in the arena, knowing no one except an advisor and a few faculty members, we advance our work for her and all the diverse adult learners as well as the families and communities they represent.


Acevedo, N., & Solorzano, D. G. (2021). An overview of community cultural wealth: toward a protective factor against racism. Urban Education, (20210520).

Aspen Institute. (2021). Student parents in college experience unique mental health challenges but lack access to support on campus.

Billups, F. D.  (2019). Empowering faculty who teach adults: Implications for higher education. In J.Gregory (ed.), School leadership for learning: Learning theory to improve professional practice. TopHat Publishing.

Bouchrika, I. (October 5, 2022). Adult learning theory: Methods and techniques of Teaching adults.

Buglione, S. (2012). Nontraditional Approaches with nontraditional students:

Experiences of learning, service, and identity development. (Doctoral dissertation). Scholarworks. (Paper 65).

Gonzalez, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.

Kenner, C., & Weinerman, J. (2011). Adult learning theory: Applications to non-traditional college students. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 41(2), 87-96.

Lewy, E., Bickerstaff, S. & Beal, K. (December 2, 2022). Five strategies to reform developmental ed. Community College Daily.

Lourdes University. (n.d.). What is success coach and what do they do?.

Merrriam, S., & Bierema, L. (2014). The spirit in learning. Adult Learning Linking Theory and Practice, 197-206.

Technology-enable teaching and learning at scale. (2021, June). Retrieved April 20, 2023 from

Stevens, J. (2015). Perceptions, attitudes, & preferences of adult learners in higher education: A national survey. Journal of Higher Education, 10(2), 65-77.

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91.

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