Research Paper: Adult Learning Education beyond high school, even beyond a Bachelors degree is a critical requirement to obtain a decent rewarding employment in today’s society. However, many individuals do not graduate high school or college for many reasons: unexpected pregnancies, lack of family support, need of financial aid, etc. These individuals who return to some kind of higher education later in life are known as adult learners, or the non-traditional students. Adult learners over age 24 currently comprise about 44 percent of U.
S. postsecondary students. (Kahiz, 2007) These individuals make up a group of students who differ from traditional students. An adult learner possesses any of the following criteria: married or divorced, have dependents, earned a GED, is a veteran, or is twenty-five years old or older. “Adult learners include the fifty- something grandmother, as well as the 18-year-old mother of an infant. The thirty-something man who is changing careers due to complications of diabetes is an adult leaner, as is the 22-year-old Marine veteran. (2001) There are also differences between adult learners and traditional-student learners when they experience learning. First, adults are people with years of experience and a wealth of information and have established values, beliefs and opinions. Dirkx, Lavin (Zemke 1984) and Pelavin (Tuijnman, 1995) state that these learners vary widely among ages, abilities, job experiences, cultural backgrounds, and personal goals; and range in educational backgrounds from no formal schooling through many years of schooling. In Addition, adult learners carry well-developed personal identities.
Second, adults relate new knowledge and information to previously learned information and experiences. Adult learners want to be able to relate content to specific contexts in their lives. These contexts are often in the form of a problem issue or concern in their worksite. Third, adults have pride and have a deep need to be self-directing. Adult learners prefer to have some degree of control over their learning. They may evidence a greater or lesser degree of self-directedness depending upon their maturity level and familiarity with the content.
Finally, adults tend to have a problem-centered orientation to learning. Learners have differing degrees of self-efficacy and awareness of their own learning styles. They may feel embarrassed about returning to school or to join classes with younger students. They hold negative impressions of their own abilities or negative impressions of schools and teachers. (“Principles of Adult Learning,” 1988) According to, A Quarterly Summary of Challenges to Student Learning (2001), non-traditional students exhibit a wider range of differences, more sharply etched.
They have multiple demands and responsibilities in terms of time, energy, emotions and roles. They hold a richer array of ongoing experiences and responsibilities. Adult learners have more concern for practical application, less patience with theory, and less trust in abstractions. They have greater self-determination and acceptance of responsibility. Finally, these students have a greater need to cope with transitions and with existential issues of competence, emotions, autonomy, identity, relationships, purpose and integrity.
Since this group of adult learners is more heterogeneous than traditional students, educators and institutions should and must change the way they interact with and provide services for these individuals. In order to do so, higher education providers first need to fully comprehend adult learning. Stephen Brookfield (Tuinjman, 1995) states that “despite the plethora of journals, books and research conferences devoted to adult learning across the world, we are very far from a universal understanding of adult learning”.
Brookfield also mentions that adult learning is inherently joyful, and adults are innately self-directed learners. Good educational practice always meets the needs articulated by learners themselves and that there is a uniquely adult learning process as well as a uniquely adult form of practice. There are four areas of adult learning, self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning, and learning to learn (Brookfield, 1999).
First, self-directed learning focuses on the process by which adults take control of their own learning, in particular how they set their own learning goals, locate appropriate resources, decide on which learning methods to use and evaluate their progress. Second, adult’s developmental psychology, where a host of constructs such as embedded logic, dialectical thinking, working intelligence, reflective judgment, post-formal reasoning and epistemic cognition describe how adults come to think contextually and critically.
Third, the gradual accumulation of experience across the contexts of life is often argued as the chief difference between learning in adulthood and learning at earlier stages in the lifespan. Finally, the ability of adults to learn how to learn, they become skilled at learning in a range of different situations and through a range of different styles; this has often been proposed as an overarching purpose for those educators who work with adults.
Many who did not continue their education straight out of high school experience different obstacles when they finally are enrolled in any higher education course. Brookfield (1995) mentions five significant themes adult learners’ experience while learning. These themes stand out for two reasons; first, they represent the experiential clusters that emerge with the greatest frequency and the greatest validity across the diverse educational settings in which adults learn; and second, they contradict much of the inspirational rhetoric that surrounds discourse on adult learning.
Brookfield (1995) states that, “adults face moments of transformative breakthrough, of empowerment, of emancipation and of liberation, what figure equally strongly in adult students’ accounts of learning, particularly those focused on critical reflection, are feelings of impostorship, acknowledgments of a disturbing loss of innocence, accountings of the cost of committing cultural suicide, descriptions of incrementally fluctuating rhythms of road running, and recognition of the significance that membership in an emotionally sustaining learning community has for those in critical process”.
These stories are the dark weaknesses of the inspirational rhetoric of adult learning. Impostorship is the sense that one possesses neither the talent nor the right to become a college student. (Brookfield, 1999) While these students want to be in college, they secretly doubt their worthiness to be a college student and a critical thinker. Brookfield (1995) states that in his research, not all but most adults felt this sense of impostorship regarding the rightness of their taking critical perspectives on familiar ideas, actions and social forms. He also mentions that, this feeling does decrease over time, but it rarely disappears entirely.
Brookfield (1999) also mentions that the moment of public definition as a student sets off the feeling of impostership. Instead of feeling pleasure when receiving the news that one has been admitted into an educational program, a sense of disbelief is experienced. A social setting, like the first day of class also contributes to this experience. For example, teachers have participants introduce themselves at an opening program orientation session as a way of relieving students’ anxieties; however this seems to have the converse effect of heightening these same anxieties for many students.
Rather than affirming and honoring their prior experiences, this round table recitation of past activities, current responsibilities and future dreams serve only to heighten adults’ sense of impostorship. Cultural suicide is what often happens to adults who are seen by those around them to be re-inventing themselves, to be in critical process. Their critical questioning of conventional assumptions and traditional values, justifications, structures and actions puts them at risk of being excluded from the cultures that have defined and sustained them up to that point in their lives. Brookfield, 1994) Students have reported that those around them view them with fear and loathing, with a hostility borne of incomprehension. The student may be viewed as getting too “big for her boots. ” (“A Quarterly,” 2001) His or her significant others may feel as if they are no longer good enough for this person who is venturing beyond the comfortable world they know. Thus, adult learners feel they commit “cultural suicide” with their decision to attend college. Christine Bean Ui Chasaide conducted research at the Limerick Centre with 194 students.
One adult student in her research stated (Chasaide), “Some found it a bit threatening. They altered the way they reacted to me because I changed. I changed the way I spoke, the way I reacted to things, everything altered. They found themselves drifting away from me rather than me from them. I was sorry to see that happening” in regards to his cultural suicide experience. In the same study the following was discovered (Chasaide): Eighty per cent of her respondents recorded strong support from partners, but this did not ensure understanding as 45. % recorded that their partners did not realize how important the course was to them. While 54. 8% considered that they began to talk to partners more, 33. 3% felt that partners were not really interested in the new ideas they were expressing, and a further 13. 4% recorded marginal interest only. Brookfield (1994) states from his research, “Many students complain that being critically reflective only serves to make them disliked by their colleagues, harms their careers, loses fledgling friends and professionally useful acquaintances, threatens their livelihoods, and turns them into institutional pariahs. In speaking of critical reflection as a learning process, adults often describe a rhythm of learning that might be called incremental fluctuation. (Brookfield, 1995) It can be understood as two steps forward, one step back, followed by four steps forward, one step back, followed by one step forward, three steps back, and so on in a series of fluctuations marked by overall movement forward. When learners experience these temporary regressions, they report that they encounter them as devastatingly final, rather than inconvenient interludes.
They are convinced that they will never ‘get’ critical thinking, that “it’s beyond me,” and that they may as well return to the comfortable, known and familiar. (Brookfield, 1999) Adults often come to campus with high hopes that they will now learn “the truth. ” Many of these students may be stuck in the dualistic mode of Perry’s schema of intellectual development (Perry, 1999), seeking right from wrong, and thinking in terms of a black/white dichotomy for all issues.
Most first-year students enter college as dualistic or absolute thinkers, expecting the instructor to have definite answers. The majority of students move away from simplistic forms of reasoning between the first and second years of college; however, this developmental process takes time and often requires a planned effort on the part of educators. (“Understanding Students”) When adults learn that there are no right answers and that they must discover the meanings on their own, they experience feelings of surprise and disillusionment.
They further experience feelings of cheated, lost or confused. Brookfield (1995) mentions that students speak of a loss of innocence, innocence being seen in this case as a belief in the promise that if they study hard and look long enough they will stumble on universal certainty as the reward for all their efforts. Although this kind of comment represents a loss of epistemological innocence, an absence of a previously felt faith in the impending revelation of certainty, it also signifies what could be viewed as a corresponding growth in wisdom, in wise action (Sternberg, 1990).
Once the adult learner understands that knowledge and truth are constantly created and recreated in a community of seekers, they have successfully made the epistemological adjustment that is the hallmark of an educated person. If they can’t endure this reframing process, they are at high risk of dropping out of the whole college experience. (Brookfield, 1994) Brookfield (1994) also mentions “Roadrunning”, which is when questioning can be confusing, and cause uncertainty and demoralizing. This feeling can lead to the revisions to one’s old method.
A teacher support group can provide a parachute so that while you are being a sort of “Wiley Coyote” pursuing the impossible “Roadrunner”, you don’t have to crash to the canyon floor of reality. As adults speak of their time on campus, they attest to the importance of belonging to an emotionally sustaining peer group, those who have shared the same feelings and experiences of impostorship, lost innocence, and cultural suicide. Knowing that others have faced the same phenomena and have survived the trials and tribulations, adult learners gain the strength and resolve to complete their education.
The feeling of “belongingness” can be manifest in two ways: physically and emotionally. Brookfield’s (1994) research finds adults who belong in such groups, speak of the group as “a second family”, “the only people who really understand what I’m going through”, “my partners in crime”, and they provide a safe haven in which adults in critical process can confirm they are not alone, and through which they can make sense of the changes they are experiencing.
Adult learners gain the strength and resolve to complete their education by knowing that they are not alone and that others have faced the same phenomena and have survived the trials and tribulations. Teaching, suggests Brookfield from his experience, means muddling through. (Hibbison 2001) Brookfield (1994) offers examples on how teachers of adults can be become critical reflectors and help ease the learning on adult learners. He states (Hibbson 2001) that “Critical reflection is a deliberate, consistent, systematic effort to uncover assumptions.
For instance, prescriptive assumptions surface in mission statements and program documentation [and probably in course objectives]. It may be least easy to uncover paradigmatic assumptions that undergird our practice as teachers or the operation of the institution; it is most easy to notice and question causal assumptions. ” Brookfield (1994) first asks teachers to reflect on the following question, “Are we relaxing students or unsettling them; if we admit that we don’t know everything, that their experience matters, that students and teacher will discover knowledge together? Brookfield suggests to teachers to make their class a “discovery learning” course instead of providing just passive learning. Brookfield’s next question, “Does group work foster existing social differences and benefit mostly those who bring a great deal of “social capital” to the experience, or does it level social differences and help all students to prosper? For instance, cooperative learning strategies that make all students in a group responsible for each other’s learning can help all members to survive and maybe thrive. A third questions teachers should ask themselves, “Is visiting small groups as they work assistance or surveillance?
Teachers should not dominate and control the classroom instead they should be there to guide and facilitate students. Final question asked, “Is discussion inherently more democratic than lecture? Discussions should show all sides to a debate, teachers should show fairness and should not stereotype. Brookfield (Hibbison 2001) offers the “four lenses” approach to view teaching practices. The four lenses approach is to use own experiences as learners, students, colleagues, and reading the professional literature to help reveal the assumptions behind those practices and call them into question.
First, getting feedback from students, such as by using the “Critical Incident Questionnaire,” can be quick, revealing, and helpful, but it takes a veteran teacher, a secure teacher, to use. For example, responding to students’ commentary on may mean justifying a class activity rather than canceling it. Brookfield (Ibbotson 2001) also suggests teachers share experiences with formative feedback and critical reflection. Publication is one way to offer modeling a use of critically reflective teaching. Such reflection is for renewal, justifying a teaching method, and showing a diversity of responses to learning.
Team-teaching is another way to cause assumptions to surface. For instance, to some not answering shows respect for peers by not placing oneself before the crowd. Interning can lead the host teacher to be more reflective, especially if feedback from the intern and open discussion after class are part of the experience. Mentoring can also surface assumptions about teaching and observing each other’s classes can, too. Educators must remember that learning occurs within each individual as a continual process throughout life.
People learn at different speeds, so it is natural for them to be anxious or nervous when faced with a learning situation. Positive reinforcement by the instructor can enhance learning, as can proper timing of the instruction. (Lieb 1991) Learning results from stimulation of the senses. In some people, one sense is used more than others to learn or recall information. Instructors should present materials that stimulate as many senses as possible in order to increase their chances of teaching success. Stephen Lieb (1991) states that there are four critical elements of learning that must be addressed to ensure participants learn.
These elements are motivation, reinforcement, retention, and transference. First, to motivate students, the instructor must establish rapport and not intimidate his or her students. One way to do this is for instructors to try to establish a friendly, open atmosphere that shows the participants they will help them learn. Another way is for instructors to set an appropriate level of difficulty, set high enough to challenge participants but not so high that they become frustrated by information overload. In addition feedback should be provided; feedback must be specific, not general.
Also, students must be interested in the subject matter. Adults must see the benefit of learning in order to motivate themselves to learn the subject. Second, Lieb states that reinforcement is a very necessary part of the teaching/learning process; through it, instructors encourage correct modes of behavior and performance. Third, students must retain information from classes in order to benefit from the learning. The instructors’ jobs are not finished until they have assisted the learner in retaining the information and students will not retain information that does not have meaning to them.
Also, the amount of retention will be directly affected by the degree of original learning; if the participants did not learn the material well initially, they will not retain it well either. Finally, transference is the ability to use the information taught in the course but in a new setting. There are two types of transfer: positive and negative. Positive is when the student uses the behavior learned and negative occurs when the participants do not do what they are told not to do. Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F.
Gamson (1987) offer seven principles for undergraduate teaching. Good practice in undergraduate programs should include encouragement of contact between students and faculty. Frequent student-faculty contact in and out of classes is the most important factor in student motivation and involvement because it shows concern and helps students get through rough times and keep on working. Second, an outstanding program should develop reciprocity and cooperation among students. Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort that a solo race.
Working with others often increases involvement in learning and sharing one’s own ideas and responding to others’ reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding. Third, encouragement of active learning should be incorporated. Students must talk about what they are learning, write about it, relate it to past experiences and apply it to their daily lives. Fourth, instructors must give prompt feedback. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses. Fifth, instructors emphasize time on task. Learning to use one’s time well is critical for students and professionals alike.
How an institution defines time expectations for students, faculty, administrators, and other professional staff can establish the basis of high performance for all. Sixth, instructors should communicate high expectations. When instructors expect more, they will get more. Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when teachers and institutions hold high expectations for themselves and make extra efforts. Finally, the institution respects diverse talents and ways of learning. People bring different talents and styles of learning to college.
Students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be pushed to learn in new ways that do not come so easily. Adult learners will face many obstacles when returning to earn a higher education. However, with support from family, faculty, or peer groups, many will be able to overcome the challenges and succeed. An adult who has fulfilled their dreams of a higher education while facing everyday problems will feel powerful and will able to accomplish all they set their mind to. Learning does not end on graduation, lifelong learning occurs until the final hours of life.
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