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.