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Peer Tutor Guide

Tips for Working with Adult Learners

Working with Adult Learners

Community colleges throughout the state have a large population of “adult learners.” These are students who are not enrolling immediately after graduating high school.

Adult learners:

  • pay careful attention to sequence of content and reinforcement;
  • act with reflection or learn by doing;
  • have respect for learners as subjects of their own learning;
  • enjoy working in small groups;
  • want to feel engaged in what they are learning;
  • are creative and adaptable;
  • are often apprehensive or anxious;
  • learn unevenly;
  • have outside responsibilities beyond school;
  • view themselves as responsible, self-directed, and independent;
  • prefer to make their own decisions;
  • resent being treated like children;
  • want practical lessons, satisfying personal goals;
  • have varied life experiences; and
  • expect perfection from themselves.

Helping Adult Learners with Limited Basic Skills

In the interest of helping adult students reach their educational and professional goals, it is best to address any limitations immediately. More often than not, such limitations are not due to an inability to do the work; rather, they can occur from a variety of correctable situations such as: the student has been away from studying for some time, the subject was poorly introduced and disliked in elementary and/or secondary school, or the student is in an environment that does not value good grammar or mathematical skills.

In some cases an adult learner simply has not been introduced to effective study habits and now has to balance study with work and family. A bit of guidance will put students on the right track.

The basic education skills of adult learners can often be improved by peer tutoring or in- class study groups. Oftentimes peer tutors are able to reach the student on a different level than the professional. Students proficient in writing or math make a more credible source for them, because they are going to school also.

Adult Learning Pattern One

Adult learners tend to expect learning to be delivered in a traditional, teacher-led way, and to expect the faculty member to do the “work” of the learning. The adult learner is there to absorb the learning.

Now, this does NOT say that this is an effective way to teach adults. This is saying that most of us, for years, have been taught via a certain method, namely, faculty-led instruction. We have not been expected to be part of the hands-on learning process. This is a pattern that is in the process of being broken down; however, we are talking about breaking down a pattern that has been in existence for decades, even centuries. This mindset is not going away easily, and to expect adult learners to automatically embrace a brand new way of learning immediately, or without proper orientation, is expecting too much.

Adult Learning Pattern Two

Adult learners who tend to undertake a project on their own (as opposed to being assigned the project) do so with the purpose of solving a problem, or applying the information right away, as opposed to learning a new subject for the sake of learning it.

This may be a factor of our “hurry up” culture; our plates are full with home, work, and family responsibilities. Any free time we have in our lives should be used as economically as possible... and we can see how this carries over into adult education.

Adult Learning Pattern Three

Motivation for adult learners in education tends to come from a need to fill a professional gap or a direction from superiors.

So, this pattern should come as no surprise, based on the fact that pattern two illustrates the “practicality” mindset that adult learners have toward continuing education. This may be dependent on where adult learners are in different professional stages of their lives, though. The higher up the individual may be on the professional ladder, for instance, the more likely the individual may wish to learn new subject matter for the sake of learning it.

Adult Learning Pattern Four

Adult learners tend to rely on colleagues or friends who may also be experts in their professional field for advice when seeking advice on learning or embarking on a new educational venture.

This has both positive and negative consequences: obviously, if we have colleagues who share our learning interests and who have had positive experiences, we want to know more about those experiences and apply that potential to our own lives. We trust and know these individuals to help us make a significant decision that will impact our free time, finances, and professional development.

On the other hand, reliance on opinions of others (and not doing the work of discovering our own personal likes, dislikes, and preferences) instead of our own may result in disappointment when the learning experience is not all what we expect it to be. A word to the wise here would be to seek out opinions of others, but balance them with the knowledge of our own preferences.

Adult Learning Pattern Five

Adult learners tend to appreciate – and continue learning – in courses where they feel they have a significant contribution to make to the discussion, and that their contributions are acknowledged and appreciated by the group as a whole.

Trends in Adult Learning

A variety of sources provide us with a body of fairly reliable knowledge about adult learning. This knowledge might be divided into three basic divisions: things we know about adult learners and their motivation, things we know about designing curriculum for adults, and things we know about working with adults in the classroom.

  • Adults seek out learning experiences in order to cope with specific life-changing events- -e.g., marriage, divorce, a new job, a promotion, being fired, retiring, losing a loved one, moving to a new city.
  • Adults who are motivated to seek out a learning experience do so primarily because they have a use for the knowledge or skill being sought. Learning is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  • Increasing or maintaining one’s sense of self-esteem and pleasure are strong secondary motivators for engaging in learning experiences.
  • Adults need to be able to integrate new ideas with what they already know if they are going to keep - and use - the new information.
  • Information that conflicts sharply with what is already held to be true, and thus forces a re-evaluation of the old material, is integrated more slowly.
  • Information that has little “conceptual overlap” with what is already known is acquired slowly.
  • Adults tend to compensate for being slower in some psychomotor learning tasks by being more accurate and making fewer trial-and-error ventures.
  • Adults tend to take errors personally and are more likely to let them affect self-esteem. Therefore, they tend to apply tried-and-true solutions and take fewer risks.
  • Regardless of media, straightforward how-to is the preferred content orientation. Adults cite a need for application and how-to information as the primary motivation for beginning a learning project.
  • The learning environment must be physically and psychologically comfortable; long lectures, periods of interminable sitting and the absence of practice opportunities rate high on the irritation scale.
  • Adults have something real to lose in a classroom situation. Self-esteem and ego are on the line when they are asked to risk trying a new behavior in front of peers and cohorts. Bad experiences in traditional education, feelings on authority and the preoccupation with events outside the classroom affect in-class experience.
  • Adults bring a great deal of life experience into the classroom, an invaluable asset to be acknowledged, tapped and used. Adults can learn well -and much - from dialogue with respected peers.
  • New knowledge has to be integrated with previous knowledge; students must actively participate in the learning experience. The learner is dependent on the instructor for confirming feedback on skill practice; the instructor is dependent on the learner for feedback about curriculum and in-class performance.
  • Integration of new knowledge and skill requires transition time and focused effort on application.