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is part of the Jossey-Bass higher education newsletter series. It highlights best practices in helping students fulfill their potential, plus keeps readers informed of critical legal issues. It is available in print, online and as a PDF delivery. Read More
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Adult Learning
2/18/2015 12:00 AM

As colleges see their adult-student enrollments grow, it’s imperative that those tasked with serving this population have a deep understanding of adults’ learning needs. Fortunately, decades of research into adult learning provide some key strategies for serving adults.

As colleges see their adult-student enrollments grow, it’s imperative that those tasked with serving this population have a deep understanding of adults’ learning needs. Fortunately, decades of research into adult learning provide some key strategies for serving adults.

Roger Hiemstra, author of Lifelong Learning: An Exploration of Adult and Continuing Education Within a Setting of Lifelong Learning Needs and Taking Responsibility for Personal Learning, explains that continuing education is more important than ever because: (1) change is rapid and constant, and affects everyone in various ways, causing an increased need for learning; (2) occupational obsolescence occurs as new developments, techniques and/or knowledge evolve and individuals become less competent; and (3) changes in lifestyles have created a desire for self-actualization and to lead an enriched life.

Understanding those drivers can help us develop programs and courses that meet the needs of those we serve. We should ask, “What is changing and what skills do our adult learners need to cope with these changes?”

In The Adult’s Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning, Allen Tough noted that most people regularly engage in learning efforts. Our continuing education offerings should focus on tapping into adults’ natural desire to learn.

Tough defined a “learning project” as a deliberate attempt by an individual to gain a certain knowledge and skill or to create a change in their behavior. Tough identified 40 key details that learners address when undertaking a learning project, including what skill or knowledge to learn; what resources, methods and activities to use; when and where to learn; the pace of learning; and the current skill level of the learner.

Course and program creation should consider the learners’ perspective. Specifically, ask yourself:

  • What skills do the learners want?
  • How can we create a learning environment that meets the learners’ needs with regard to time, location and pace?
  • How will the learners know they are being successful?

Further, offerings for adults should take into account their need for self-directedness. In Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, Malcolm Knowles defined “self-directed learning” as the act of taking the initiative, with or without the help of others, to diagnose your own learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify appropriate learning resources, choose and implement learning strategies, and evaluate outcomes.

Self-directed learning is often motivated by the desire to put new knowledge to practical use. Those factors mean that lecture-based courses aren’t likely to get and keep the attention of adult learners.

Rather, instructors in adult-oriented programs should adopt a facilitating approach that puts students at the center of the learning process, recognizing not only that adults like to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to learning, but also that adults are well-equipped to direct their own learning, given that they come with a vast number of skills and knowledge.

That approach has been effective for McLennan College’s corporate training unit. The department often attracts students who are seen as leaders of their respective organizations. Despite that, some may be initially reluctant to be in class. They may have had bad experiences in prior classroom settings. Putting them in charge of their own learning, recognizing everything they bring to the table, and engaging them with content that is relevant to their daily work helps them overcome that reluctance. Speaking to students early on to set clearly defined expectations and agree on learning objectives sets the stage for successful participation.

In addition, it’s essential that courses teach them what they feel they need to learn — not what you think is important for them to learn. Partnerships with quality online education providers have proven to be a useful option. Co-hosting conferences, seminars or trainings in partnerships with other organizations that can deliver the content your adult learners need or help you make learning more accessible is another option.

McLennan College’s continuing education department recently hosted an “Appy Hour” course at a local wine bar. “Appy Hour” provided seniors an opportunity to bring in their smartphones and receive guidance on the functions and applications available on their devices. While many of the participants were highly accomplished individuals, rapid developments in technology meant that many felt increasingly uncomfortable fully using the features of their phones. The idea of learning over a glass of wine or tea reduced the intimidation factor. Instructors served as facilitators, ensuring that participants took away from the experience the skills and knowledge they wanted.

Generating Opportunities
1/15/2015 12:00 AM

As more individuals leave military service and re-enter civilian life, institutions find themselves in competition for a pool of prospective adult students who are goal-oriented, motivated and have a built-in source of educational financial support. Making sure your campus is truly veteran-friendly can help you stand out and attract more student-veterans.

Each year, several publications release their lists of colleges and universities deemed veteran-friendly. Criteria for rating and ranking the institutions has ranged from minimal, such as membership in the now-defunct Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, along with acceptance of the concurrent application, to more in-depth examination of the quantity and type of services offered.

As more individuals leave military service and re-enter civilian life, institutions find themselves in competition for a pool of prospective adult students who are goal-oriented, motivated and have a built-in source of educational financial support. Making sure your campus is truly veteran-friendly can help you stand out and attract more student-veterans.

Each year, several publications release their lists of colleges and universities deemed veteran-friendly. Criteria for rating and ranking the institutions has ranged from minimal, such as membership in the now-defunct Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, along with acceptance of the concurrent application, to more in-depth examination of the quantity and type of services offered.

Some of the lists provide a broad cross-section of institutions in their reviews, while others focus on a select group of institutions, such as those offering online programs. What’s important to remember regarding the development of these lists is that the criteria, selection methods and rankings have very little to do with what veterans need to help them be most academically and socially successful in higher education.

Qualifying as veteran-friendly entails more than maintaining membership in initiatives similar to SOC or offering the Yellow Ribbon Program with the Post-9/11 GI Bill. It doesn’t mean a college must have a one-stop-shop veterans’ center to attend to all issues impacting student-veterans either. Agreeing to review military transcripts for applicable academic credit and having a veterans’ club also doesn’t automatically put a school in the veteran-friendly category.

While these and other functional resources do contribute to providing better support to student-veterans, using only these criteria to set the bar for veteran-friendly institutions winds up doing a disservice to student-veterans.

That’s because some veterans use these lists to make serious decisions about where to use their hard-earned education benefits to obtain valuable further education and training to support their next career move after military service. Veterans rely on the information provided to help them determine where to attend, what available services will help provide them with needed support, and how long they will need to attend before graduating.

This triggers concern because veterans don’t know the true meaning behind the veteran-friendly label and therefore become subject to making decisions based on false information. Without a clear picture of what veteran-friendly truly means, veterans can find themselves drawn to educational environments that don’t support their retention and persistence to graduation and may lead them to spend valuable benefits on courses of study that don’t lead them to viable careers.

I’ve seen this happen at a number of institutions that had been rated as veteran-friendly in publications’ lists but then turned out to lack a true veteran-friendly environment for the student-veterans who chose to attend those institutions. A truly veteran-friendly institution needs to go beyond the “friendly” label by fostering an institutional culture that’s supportive, appreciative, respectful, embracing and inclusive of student-veterans.

Veteran-friendly institutions must offer all of the resources and support services mentioned earlier, but in addition to incorporating other important strategies to build a campus climate geared toward developing student-veterans’ holistic success and engaging them in their growth toward a new career in civilian life.

Take the right steps to become more veteran-friendly

You can help your institution qualify as truly veteran-friendly by taking the following critically important programmatic steps:

  1. Military Cultural Competency Training. Implement military cultural competency training campuswide, particularly for those responsible for teaching and advising activities to learn how to effectively educate and make thoughtful referrals of student-veterans to supportive resources.
  2. Academic Outreach. Explain how veterans can equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to pursue new careers, how they will receive credit for their military experience, and the requirements for graduation.
  3. Career Services Outreach & Staff Training. Preemptively initiate contact with student-veterans to ensure they’re aware of and know how to access available resources because they may not otherwise know about or seek career services assistance. And ensure staff have adequate training in this area.
  4. Integrated Counseling, Disability Services & Health. Provide information about campus resources that can collaboratively address mental health, disabilities and other health challenges that may be unique to their military background.
  5. Financial Aid & Business Services. Fully explain to student-veterans their available financial aid options, the true cost of their education, and their education benefits, keeping in line with the president’s executive order. Student-veterans need support services that help them manage the unique needs they bring to campus. Instead of media outlets’ veteran-friendly labels based on rankings drawn from only the most basic criteria, institutions should seek to meet a higher standard of becoming veteran-friendly by meeting veterans’ holistic needs in helpful, supportive and inclusive ways. As we seek to raise student-veteran graduation rates, it’s incumbent upon higher education to provide the resources that provide student-veterans with the best possible chance for academic and social success.
Retention
12/30/2014 12:00 AM

Well-designed articulation agreements can help your adult learners transfer seamlessly from a two-year to a four-year college. But officials at Missouri State University have developed partnerships with two-year institutions that encompass much more than streamlined course transfers.

Those partnerships help both the community colleges and MSU meet enrollment goals and enhance students’ academic experiences. The collaborations involved the campus communities from the presidents down. Academic administrators and faculty members at all the institutions work together to promote good curricular developments and effective transfer policies.

Well-designed articulation agreements can help your adult learners transfer seamlessly from a two-year to a four-year college. But officials at Missouri State University have developed partnerships with two-year institutions that encompass much more than streamlined course transfers.

Those partnerships help both the community colleges and MSU meet enrollment goals and enhance students’ academic experiences. The collaborations involved the campus communities from the presidents down. Academic administrators and faculty members at all the institutions work together to promote good curricular developments and effective transfer policies.

“There’s an enormous value in collaboration,” said Gloria Galanes, the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at MSU. She spoke at the American Conference of Academic Deans Annual Meeting last year, along with Tamera Jahnke, MSU’s dean of the College of Natural and Applied Sciences; and John Bookstaver, the dean of the Division of Business, Science, Education, Math and Computer Science at St. Charles Community College.

MSU's A+ program encourages a smooth transfer by offering:

  • General education completion. If a transfer student has earned an associate degree, MSU considers general education requirements for the bachelor’s degree to be completed — rather than evaluating transfer credit on a course-by-course basis.
  • Transfer guides. To promote seamless articulation into particular majors, MSU officials created guides that help students choose what courses to take at the community college. By following the recommendations in them, students can arrive at MSU on track to graduate when they plan to with the majors they choose. About 88 percent of students come to St. Charles with the goal of transferring, said Kathy Brockgreitens-Gober, the dean of enrollment services. The transfer guides are available in print on campus at St. Charles and are posted online.
  • Curriculum redesign. In the past, students who transferred from Ozarks Technical Community College to MSU for biology and chemistry majors had trouble graduating in four years, Jahnke said. OTCC officials redesigned their curriculum so students would arrive at MSU on track to complete their degrees. The two institutions created a pathway all the way to graduate school, Jahnke added. Plus, OTCC students in chemistry courses use MSU’s labs, so they are comfortable on campus when they transfer.
  • Connections at top levels. “Relationships are extremely important,” Galanes said. The presidents from MSU and OTCC meet regularly. Plus, about five key officials from each campus meet regularly to keep collaborations moving forward, said Don Simpson, the associate vice president for enrollment management at MSU. MSU and St. Charles are 230 miles apart, so collaborations require commitment. The deans have worked together to plan ways for faculty members to visit with one another, Bookstaver said. Those visits “undid misconceptions about the quality of the faculty,” Galanes said. Plus, once a semester, a faculty member from MSU’s College of Natural and Applied Sciences visits St. Charles to attend a class and meet with students and faculty members. That gives MSU an ongoing presence there, Jahnke said.
  • Reverse-transfer agreements. “Reverse transfer is more and more important for community colleges in Missouri,” Bookstaver said. That’s because the completion rate is a factor in determining amounts for performance funding. “A lot of students don’t care if they get the associate degree. They just want to get what they need to go on,” he said. So many of them leave without completing the degree. With reverse transfer, they can earn an associate degree by transferring classes to the community college from MSU. Simpson started a reverse-transfer effort by identifying students who transferred from OTCC with 30 or more hours but no degree. He emails those students, asking them to consider taking advantage of reverse transfer to complete their degrees. The emails include a link to a website that explains the process. And MSU waives the transcript fee when former OTCC students send transcripts to OTCC.
  • Presence at community colleges. An MSU enrollment staff member has her desk at the information center at OTCC to discuss transfer options with students there, Simpson said.
  • Cooperative programs. MSU and OTCC collaborate on choosing a common reader for entering students. They also provide some language courses together. And St. Charles students can participate in MSU’s study-abroad programs.

Implement strategies that promote collaboration

Transfer students are vital to enrollment goals at Missouri State University. Academic administrators and faculty members serve a critical role in creating and maintaining effective collaborations to recruit those students. Strategies MSU’s deans use include:

  • Making collaboration a priority. Administrators need to set the tone for staff and faculty members who participate in the initiatives.
  • Advocating for seamless articulation. Good policies help students progress on schedule. For example, MSU gives credit for general education completion to students with associate degrees from Missouri community colleges. And administrators from MSU and partner community colleges work together to align curricula to ensure that students arrive at MSU on track to graduate.
  • Providing resources to support collaboration. For example, faculty members from MSU visit classes at St. Charles every semester. It is several hundred miles away, so they need funding to pay for the travel.

For more information, you may contact Don Simpson at donsimpson@missouristate.edu.

Leaders & Innovators: Stephen D. Brookfield, John Ireland Endowed Chair, University of St. Thomas
2/3/2015 12:00 AM
Image of Stephen D. Brookfield
Stephen D. Brookfield

Stephen D. Brookfield’s list of awards alone could take up more words than fit on a page. For instance, he won the Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education six times between 1986 and 2012.

Ironically, Brookfield’s career began as the result of his own academic failures. He always did poorly in school. He failed to get into the college track of his high school in England, and when he finally managed to do that, he failed his college entrance exams. He finally enrolled at a technical institution, graduating close to the bottom of his class. He got into graduate school after failing those college entrance exams as well, and only found success as a doctoral student, where formal coursework and exams were a thing of the past.

Stephen D. BrookfieldStephen D. Brookfield’s list of awards alone could take up more words than fit on a page. For instance, he won the Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education six times between 1986 and 2012.

Ironically, Brookfield’s career began as the result of his own academic failures. He always did poorly in school. He failed to get into the college track of his high school in England, and when he finally managed to do that, he failed his college entrance exams. He finally enrolled at a technical institution, graduating close to the bottom of his class. He got into graduate school after failing those college entrance exams as well, and only found success as a doctoral student, where formal coursework and exams were a thing of the past.

When he accepted a position teaching adults in evening classes to finance his doctoral studies, he found a population of learners like himself. Many did not learn well through traditional teaching methods, had been labeled academically mediocre, and were trying to make up for lost time. He made it his life’s mission to help them.

Brookfield, who serves as the John Ireland Endowed Chair at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, has written, co-written or edited 17 books, many of which deal with adult teaching and learning. They include Powerful Techniques for Teaching Adults and The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating Adult Learning and Teaching, by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Brand. The third edition of one of his most popular books, The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom, is due out this March.

Asked to share his best advice for engaging adults in the classroom to boost retention, he offered the following three strategies to share with instructors:

  1. Be open to varying teaching approaches. It can be tempting to teach to your own strengths, but your teaching strengths aren’t necessarily how your students learn best, he explained. “Never assume there’s one best teaching approach, because you won’t reach the majority of your learners with just one,” he said. “Work in, at a minimum, three teaching modalities.”
  2. Position yourself as an authoritative ally. Show your adult learners that you’re someone who has something that makes it worthwhile for them to stick around, whether that’s content expertise, a set of skills they feel they need to learn, or good teaching. Use that authority to support students in their learning. “And when you ask them to do something outside of their comfort zone, build the case and demonstrate why it’s in their best interests to do so, modeling those things as best as you can to show that you’re in the struggle along with them,” he said.
  3. Be aware of how students are experiencing learning. Find some quick ways to get a sense of whether students understand what you’re teaching them, what they’re responding well to, and what they find confusing. “Don’t just assume that the choices you’re making as an educator are actually correct,” he said. Quick check-ins during and immediately after class are best, he said.

As adult-oriented programs embrace the use of adjunct instructors, Brookfield stressed the importance of providing initial training for adjuncts on how to best work with adults. Most people bring into the classroom the teaching strategies they experienced as learners, even if they were ineffective, he explained.

When talking to adjuncts about teaching adults, don’t just provide them with a list of useful teaching strategies. Rather, he likes to ask them to think about times in their lives when they felt they’ve been treated as adults. Inevitably, some will say things like “when people are interested in what I bring to the table,” “when people actively seek out my opinion or understanding of something,” and “when someone uses my first name and knows who I am.” Those responses can lead to discussions about the need to treat older students in the same manner.

Also, help adjuncts connect to each other. Brookfield remembered feeling terribly frustrated over his teaching skills as an adjunct early in his career, and because he was on campus only to teach his courses, he never had other adjuncts to talk to.

Finally, don’t assume that it’s only adjuncts that need help learning to engage their adult learners. If professors from your institution’s traditional programs also teach in your adult-oriented programs, they need to know how teaching adults differs from teaching 18–22-year-olds, he said. Hold training sessions for them as well, and incorporate adult learners into those trainings to share how professors can best engage them in the classroom, he suggested.

For more information, you may contact Stephen D. Brookfield at sdbrookfield@stthomas.edu.

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  • Meet the Editor

    Cynthia Gomez
    Managing Editor

    Cynthia Gomez became the editor of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners, formerly known as Nontraditional Students Report, in 2010. She has covered higher education for more than a decade, and has written and edited pamphlets and books for higher education audiences.
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