Academic Advising for Adult Learners

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently highlighted the diverse needs of adult learners, noting the importance of developing course rotations, a broader approach to remediation, and advising strategies that make sense for returning adults and are tailored to their diverse sets of needs.

We turned to Denise Hart, director of adult education and creator of the Success Program at Fairleigh Dickinson University, to learn more, asking for specific advice on removing barriers to adult learner success. While course rotation and flexible scheduling are essential, the single most critical step, Hart suggests, is to take a "high-touch approach" to academic advising for adult learners.

Recruit the Right Advisors

"It takes a certain type of individual with certain skills to be an academic advisor for adult students."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Hart recommends identifying potential advisors who, at a minimum:

  • Know the academic program very well
  • Are intuitive thinkers
  • Are strong interviewers

"Advising adult students is not a matter of memorizing curricula," Hart warns. "Your advisors need to have people skills, and they need to be able to open an in-depth conversation with adult learners about their goals, their life situation, and their needs."

Hart recommends that your advisors identify themselves as partners in the adult learner's success. An advisor needs to open a session not with asking what courses interest the student, but with an inquiry into the factors that are likely to have an effect on the courseload the adult learner can effectively manage.

  • An ineffective advisor, Hart suggests, will ask the question, "Here is the spring schedule, what interests you?"
  • An effective advisor will approach the session differently: "Tell me a little about yourself. How's work? Do you have a hard commute?"

"You want advisors who will look proactively for opportunities to remove barriers, and who will strive to understand the whole of the individual, not just talk about curricula."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Advisors need to be able to see "the whole picture," so that they can help returning adults bring all aspects of their life into focus so they are empowered and informed to see how they can bring their skills and experience to bear on their studies, and to assess what courses or programs will be most applicable to reaching their goals.

Hart recommends having a formal application process for advisors, and including in the recruiting interview a Myers-Briggs or similar test to help assess -- and open a discussion of -- the potential advisor's strengths in intuitive thinking and interpersonal communication.

What to Cover in the Pre-Assessment Conversation with an Adult Learner

"Pre-assessment tools may include testing, but pencil-and-paper tests can be anxiety-ridden for adult learners returning to school. The written test is not an adult-friendly assessment strategy. An oral examination or a demonstration of their skills is much better."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

The pre-assessment conversation with a prospective adult student is a critical opportunity, Hart adds. It is important to benchmark where a returning adult is, so that the adult learner and the advisor are informed and can work together to develop strategies for the student's success. This pre-assessment needs to include quite a few information points that are usually not factored into the equation for traditional students. For example, ask questions to assess:

  • Computer literacy
  • Writing skills
  • Difficulties in studying
  • Time management skills
  • Stress management skills -- how do they prioritize and juggle multiple commitments?
  • The way that the learner prefers to study

Don't underestimate the importance of engaging adult learners pro-actively in a discussion about their study habits and preferences. For example, if you have an employed student with an infant at home who says, "I really do best face-to-face, and I already sit in front of my computer all day," then the advisor needs to step in and suggest that taking accelerated courses with intensive, condensed material --- or an intensive schedule of online courses -- may not be ideal. Learning about both the adult learner's commitments and study preferences can help you determine together, for example, that this student may thrive best in face-to-face courses that fit their schedule, with faculty who will be understanding if a life situation intervenes and the student needs to take an incomplete.

The advisor needs to foster an open conversation both about what pacing would be appropriate, and what programs and courses are adult-friendly. Query the student to determine which course format will best fit their needs and best contribute to their academic success. "Is it a good idea for the student to take a ceramics class when she has no time for homework, or is it better to take an online course that semester? Or is it better to do a mix -- face-to-face, blended, purely online, a three-weekend course?" That is the conversation in which your advisors need to engage their adult students.

Be Prepared to Offer Continuous, Not One-Time, Support

"Supporting the adult learner doesn't end with that first advising appointment."
Denise Hart, Fairleigh Dickinson U

Hart advises providing continuous advising and providing returning adults with key resources:

  • Ensure that your career center provides tests such as Myers Briggs, as well as an occupational interests inventory -- particularly for adult learners who are seeking a career change
  • Ensure that you have a 24/7 help desk or "concierge" -- accessible online, by phone, or in person -- for adult learners who leave work after most offices on campus close
  • Besides remedial courses and tutoring services to build writing and math skills, offer courses for adult learners who need computer literacy -- "there are adult learners who still do not have computer skills that we take for granted"
  • Offer seminars on proper citation and conventions for academic writing -- "if many of your returning adults are used to technical reports and memos, they need to be briefed on the new rules of the road"