“Student” in today’s higher education lexicon is a total misnomer, conjuring up some half-asleep kid wearing a backwards baseball cap, madly tapping away on a smartphone instead of paying attention to the lecture. Our population of adults are much more mature, arriving half asleep with warm yogurt, madly tapping away on a tablet instead of paying attention.
In all seriousness, adult students are indeed different, and we sometimes lose sight of the difference. Here, I outline the two primary factors to consider when running a program for working adult students and provide a short list to consider when developing program content, delivery and curriculum either online or on ground.
Factors to Consider
The first factor is that working adults often return to the classroom because they’re in some kind of trauma. It can be good trauma or bad trauma, but nevertheless, it is trauma: a divorce, loss of a job, loss of a parent, overlooked for a promotion, a marriage, birth of a child, a location move or preparation or desire for a career change. They have chosen to return (or sometimes are told to by an employer). But choice born of trauma manifests itself as control.
This is the most fascinating aspect in developing and running a program for working adults. Control emerges two ways. We can all recognize one: the need for a 4.0 average. The learning is secondary. How many times have we been wrestled to the ground by an adult student after awarding a mere A-minus? Another form of control is the amazingly cavalier attitude toward deadlines and attendance: if I can’t control my life, then I can control when I submit my work. This approach fits the proverbial ‘more than I can chew.’ It may also be subliminally connected to this second factor — the reason they left, or never entered, the college classroom in the first place.
There is a reason why the college drop-out rate is so high. Higher education from its millennium of endurance can set a student up for failure regardless of socio-economic status or understanding of the college experience. There are the pesky general education classes, courses where ensuring most students fail is the norm, a demeaning professor, being locked out of preferred or required subjects, the impossibility of changing a major, and lack of sufficient academic support, among other things. There are personal reasons. Parents die, money runs out or students are not mature enough for the responsibility of a college education. Or they just don’t care.
Each of these two factors, in the form of our adult students, walk (or are on the other side of the computer screen) into our classrooms daily. And to this, the federal government adds yet another wrinkle: the need to take several classes each term to qualify for financial aid.
What Can We Do?
We can acknowledge these students’ pasts. We cannot fix their previous educational experiences nor right the wrongs of an incompetent administration or faculty. Nor can we fix the trauma. But we can acknowledge to ourselves that these factors exist. That removes taking students’ behavior personally.
We can set boundaries. We can also acknowledge that these students are no better at time management than their younger counterparts. The LinkedIn group, Online Faculty – Adjunct, Full-Time, University Administrators, and Instructional Designers, has logged over 250 comments on handling late submissions. Tie consequences for late submissions, spotty attendance or sloppy work to how the workplace will not tolerate these behaviors and neither will the program.
We can stop wasting their time. Did you hear the story about returning Iraq War veterans, enrolled as freshmen, who had to take an obligatory drug and alcohol abuse course required of all freshmen? No comment necessary.
We can make the learning friendlier. Focus on the key components of the degree they’re seeking. Can the degree be streamlined through prior learning assessment? Can courses be offered at different times, online or in highly condensed form? Do faculty know how to teach adults? Is the curriculum cohesive, not redundant? Is there administrative and academic support available? When class starts, are materials available? Unless you’re playing Jeopardy, no need to hide readings until the last minute.
Mostly, we can show compassion. Yes, there are students with an endless supply of dying grandmothers, but they are the exception. Our students come back to the classroom at great risk to their egos, their finances, their families and their future. When they graduate, their accomplishment is far greater than that of the traditional student. Given their trauma and their life experiences, their accomplishment becomes ours.
Full disclosure: The author, who directed programs for and teaches working adults, returned to the classroom as a working adult with sole support for her mortgage.
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