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Engaging Adult Learners In and Out of the Classroom


A panel discussion on Capitol Hill last week concluded that US colleges will need to enroll and graduate many more adult students in order to meet President Obama's goal of having the world's largest share of post-secondary graduates by 2020. The panel called for colleges to recognize the unique needs and life situations of adult learners, and recommended more flexible academic scheduling and support services.

We asked Janice Hadfield, dean of undergraduate studies at Doane College, for her advice on addressing some of the less obvious needs of adult students. She offers these tips for keeping adult learners enrolled, engaged, and academically successful.

Engagement Matters for Adult Learners, Too

To make time for class, adult learners might be sacrificing extra hours at work that might mean promotion. They might be sacrificing their son's little league ball game. In order for them to stay enrolled and succeed, the classroom experience has to be worth the sacrifice. That experience has to be more than just gaining the credit and the degree.

Janice Hadfield, Doane College

It is a given that many adult learners are returning to school to develop job skills or to become more attractive for promotion or advancement in their career. But Hadfield cautions against assuming that this is all that matters to adult students. "Job skills are a major factor in their return to school. But that's not what keeps them there. It's the social experience that keeps them in school."

Co-Curricular Engagement

Co-curricular activities are a primary means of engaging traditional students and fostering learning communities, but this is unlikely to work for adult learners. Adult students will already have social communities and social commitments away from campus, and will be reluctant to participate in social events on campus. "There is not a lot that adult students want outside of that classroom," Hadfield remarks.

When you do offer social events -- perhaps a few times a year -- give thought to what types of events are likely to be meaningful to an adult student with a family and a career, and ensure that the events are "family friendly."

At a winter event, have Santa Claus come so that children can sit on his lap and have pictures taken. Don't just replicate your events for traditional students, and don't ask your adult students to sacrifice family time to come to your social event.

Janice Hadfield, Doane College

Engagement in the Classroom

"You have to work with what you have," Hadfield advises. "Because you don't have club, band, theater, or greek life for adult students, you have to focus all the more on making the classroom learning experience amazing."

People need to walk out of that room saying, "I can't wait to be back next week, to be here with these people doing this thing."

Janice Hadfield, Doane College

For an adult student, a 50-minute lecture is not ideal. Adult students must be active participants in the learning experience. This means:

  • Engage them in simulations, scenarios, and problem-solving activities
  • Find opportunities for them to bring relevant practical expertise and prior learning into the classroom, and to teach each other
  • Encourage peer mentoring relationships
  • Schedule longer class times

Hadfield recommends offering three- or four-hour class sessions. This allows for adult learners to both meet less frequently (which may accommodate more schedules), while digging deeply into the material and engaging in collaborative and active learning exercises.

The bulk of the learning needs to happen within the hours of the class session, and that session needs to be made as valuable as possible. Assigning groupwork outside of class is a less optimal approach for adult learners. "They may not even be able to get together outside of class," Hadfield warns. "They may have incompatible schedules, and they don't all live near each other in a residence hall. They have to balance kids' activities, laundry, grocery shopping, work."

It may sound like a good idea, but by forcing adult students to arrange group time outside of class, we are burdening our students, and we are not inviting them into a good learning experience.

Janice Hadfield, Doane College

If the course in question is an online course, focus on making that learning experience interactive and intensive in the same ways. Look for both technology and instructional techniques that will enable this. Videoconferencing and audio conferencing may be very worthwhile investments, as they will facilitate more engagement across that distance. Put the students in groups within an online lab with specific objectives, Hadfield suggests. "Do everything you can to create that social experience online."

And when hiring or selecting faculty to teach courses for adult learners, look for instructors who:

  • Consider themselves creative
  • Can offer specific examples of creative problem-solving
  • Demonstrate that they are pedagogical risk-takers

Finding the Right Approach to "Remediation"

Finally, moving adult learners through remediation classes needs to be handled discreetly and effectively. "Be very practical and up front about it," Hadfield advises. "Your message to adult learners in need of English or math remediation needs to be: We want to set you up for success, and we want to strengthen this area so you can be successful."

We don't call this remediation. We call it setting a student up for success.

Janice Hadfield, Doane College

Hadfield advises giving reading and math evaluations when adult learners first enroll, but taking one other step first. Start with a learning styles inventory. This is a validating instrument, and can lead to a very valuable discussion between the student and an adviser. Once a student knows his or her learning styles and is prompted to think back to past classes, the reasons for past difficulty are much clearer. And if you know what the student's learning strengths are, you can relay this information to the faculty teaching the remediation class. "If we know the student's learning style," Hadfield remarks, "we can remediate math in no time."

In the News

Capitol Hill Panel Urges More Attention to Supporting Adult Students


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About the Authors

Daniel Fusch, Director of Publications & Research

Daniel provides strategic direction and content for AI’s electronic publication Higher Ed Impact, including market research and interviews with leading subject matter experts on critical issues. Since the publication’s launch in 2009, Daniel has written or edited more than 500 articles on strategic issues ranging from student recruitment and retention to development and capital planning. If you have a question or a comment about this article, feel free to contact Daniel at