Learning theories in practice/Adult education

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Many students in both formal and informal settings are adults. Courses in colleges and universities, continuing education classes for the professional and in-service classes in industry are some examples of the settings where adult learners are found. Teaching environments, approaches and styles of teaching will be more effective if they are tailored specifically to adults and not simply an application of the pedagogies used with teaching children. The educator working with adults, in addition to planning for the differences in the adult learner, also needs awareness that an adult classroom may contain people from different generations. This group identification affects the learning style preferences and best practices for teaching different adult age groups. This chapter will define adult learners, describe the characteristics that make adults different in the classroom and identify the generational considerations that are required when working with adult groups from different generations.

Adult Learners[edit | edit source]

Several definitions have been used to describe adult learners. Malcolm Knowles’ definition of the adult learner is: One who has arrived at a self-concept of being responsible for one’s own life, of being self-directed. Some simply look at the age of the learner, and define adult learners as anyone over the age of 20. Then there are those who feel that the setting defines the adult learner. In other words, if the learner is in community college, university or work setting, then they are adult learners. As the population ages and life expectancy lengthens, educators can expect more adult learners. A person born in the 1950s for instance, had a life expectancy less than 60 years; a person born in 2004 is expected to live almost 80 years (Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics Reports, vol. 54, no. 19, June 28, 2006. Web: www.cdc.gov/nchs).

Characteristics of Adult Learners[edit | edit source]

In his work defining andragogy, Malcolm Knowles identified the following characteristics of adult learners. Those characteristics are listed below, with suggestions of how to apply them in a classroom or in-service setting:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed.
    • Their teachers should actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them.
    • Allow participants to share responsibility for presentations, discussions and group leadership.
    • Faculty or trainers should act as facilitators, guiding participants to their own knowledge rather than simply supplying them with facts.
  • Finally, they must show participants how the class will help them reach their goals.
    • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education.
    • The teacher should draw out participants' experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic.
    • They must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize the value of experience in learning.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. They have enrolled in a course or taken an in-service training session for a specific goal.
    • Instructors must show participants how this class will help them attain their goals. This classification of goals and course objectives must be done early in the course.
    • Assure that the educational program is organized and has clearly defined elements leading towards the end results and goals.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something.
    • Show how the learning is applicable to their work or other responsibilities.
    • Instructors should identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins.
    • Theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. For instance, let participants choose projects that reflect their own interests or field of expertise.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work.
    • Demonstrate how the course or class will provide necessary advantage at work.
  • Adults need to be shown respect.
    • Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom.
    • Treat the adult learner as valuable, and allowed them to voice their opinions and experiences freely in class.

Generation considerations[edit | edit source]

What is a Generation? Another aspect of working with adults is that the classroom and workplace likely contain people from different generations. Ages of adults in these learning situations may vary from as young as teen years to as old as in their sixties. These groups bring different backgrounds, needs and expectations to the classroom setting. A generation is basically a group born within about twenty years of each other. Because of their proximity at time of birth, as a group they are exposed to similar societal events and conditions and develop similar characteristics. Of course, these comments are generalizations and individuals vary. However, there is validity in recognizing the generalizations of various generations within the classroom. Three generations will be discussed predominately: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. The older adults known as the Veteran Generation born from 1922 – 1942 will not be discussed as they are not encountered much in the classroom, although some may still be in administration, dean or faculty positions. Those people belonging to the Veteran Generation are today from 65 years old to 85 years old.

Baby Boomers – born from 1943 – 1960 The largest single population group active today is the Boomers. There are about 72 million baby boomers. As children, they mostly had two parents and grew up in economic prosperity. They had attention from their parents and came to be known as the “me” generation because of the sense of freedom from authority. Social events that defined the generation included the Viet Nam war and television. Baby boomers make up about 2/3 of the current workforce. In their work they find personal satisfaction and fulfillment (Cordinez, 2002). Boomers are seeking both financial prosperity and also to make a societal contribution. In general they remain suspicious of authority (“don’t trust anyone over 30”), yet have risen in the workplace to take authority positions themselves.

Generation X, Gen X – born from 1961 – 1980 – sometimes called the “sandwich” generation because they are between two larger population groups This is a relatively small generation – about 17 million people. Many grew up as latch key kids – both parents working, or in single mother homes. For many, the normal routine was to come home alone from school and get on the computer. About 40% of Gen Xers were raised in single parent homes because of the divorce rate during their young years (Strauss & Howe, 1991). Being frequently left alone resulted in a generation that is more resourceful and independent. This generation also came to rely on friends more than previous. As children, they were included in discussions about family choices and came to expect their voices to be heard. As adult workers, this is the group that created the dot com boom of businesses. They work hard and play hard; Gen Xers do not want jobs that interfere with their free time. They are media savvy and expect instant information. Because of the large cohort of more experienced workers above them (the baby boomers) coupled with corporate downsizing, Gen Xers often have to change jobs to find scarce advancement opportunities. (Weston, 2006).

Generation Y (Millennials) - born from 1981-2001 The generation known as Generation Y, or the millennial, is a large cohort of about 60 million people. As a group they are the most diverse of all generations: one in three is not Caucasian. As children, their parents were attentive and supportive; about 70% of fathers of Gen Y babies were present at their births (Raines, 2003). In About 60% of homes, both parents work, yet child-support and family structures provided schedule and care for everything from before and after school care, soccer games and music lessons. Gen Y grew up with technology, the first true “digital natives”, and not only are comfortable with it, but also expect inclusion of technology in educational settings. Communication is the cornerstone of this generation; and they expect instant connection through technologies. They grew up in a multi racial, global world and are comfortable with pluralistic backgrounds. This is the generation of the World Trade Center bombings, and as a result is demonstrating renewed family values and patriotism. They are described as sociable, optimistic and confident.

Teaching considerations related to generations[edit | edit source]

The baby boomer, as a learner and/or teacher Most current college faculty members are Baby Boomers, with an average age of 49. In fact, 73% of all instructors and managers are from the Boomer generation. In the faculty ranks of community colleges, only 22% are between 35-44 years old. (source: http://nces.ed.gov) Baby Boomers prefer a traditional classroom set-up and expect students to be agreeable and respectful. Boomers expect homework and extra assignments, both as a student and as an instructor. They possess considerable professional experience that should be recognized in the classroom. Boomers often have fears about technology and are not naturally comfortable with it. Whereas the younger generations played video games that required characters to “die” (that is required the player to make mistakes to learn how to conquer one level to the next), Boomers do not like to make mistakes and are fearful of making mistakes. Consider the technical changes in the classroom that Baby Boomers must contend with, either as a faculty member or a student:

  • Instead of paper and pencil tests…now test are given on-line
  • Used to be carbon paper copies…then there were ditto machines…now digital copies and internet postings
  • First, there were posters…then, filmstrips…then, video…now, DVD and streaming video and pod casts and video conferencing
  • First, they used chalkboards…then, dry erase boards…now, SmartBoard
  • From overhead projectors…to Elmo and PowerPoint
  • Classes were teacher-driven before…now, student driven
  • Before, assignments were theoretical projects and problems…now, real world constructs
  • Previously, classrooms used lecture…now, active participatory classroom
  • Previously, individual work…now, group collaboration
  • Library stacks vs. internet and data base

GenX as learners As learners or teachers, Gen Xers are independent and seek a relaxed fun atmosphere. They want clear simple directions and can be cynical. Humor can soften this cynical tendency. Gen Xers do not confer respect automatically because of position; they expect the professor to earn it. Neither do they like teachers who are forceful or authoritative; they want to be coached. In the classroom they enjoy visual and dynamic materials instead of staid lectures. Generation X students do not want big homework assignments or heavy reading; they expect to have free time outside of the classroom and are not likely to try to contact the instructor. They do want technical support available via internet if the class has a computer component.

GenY as learners Generation Y expects the appropriate and integrated use of technology in the classroom. They are comfortable with group work and can multi-task with ease. They have short attention spans and need movement in the classroom. Gen Yers require mentoring and expect instant communication and feedback with the instructor. Whereas Baby Boomers would seldom contact an instructor outside the classroom time, Gen Yers frequently seek feedback through the e-classroom, email or instant messaging. Provide realistic expectations for them, i.e. what time frame to expect a response, office hours or virtual office hours, etc. Generation Y is motivated by earning potential and want their education to have practical value in the workplace. So, begin the lesson with practical reasons about how the class will pay off for them in the future. They are stimulated in the classroom by visual and dynamic materials much as Gen Xers are and expect integration of technology into the lesson. Please visit this link for a video made by Gen y students to represent their generation in the classroom. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education First published in 1987 by the American Association of Higher Education, these seven principles were described by Art Chickering and Zelda Gamson, with help from higher education colleagues, AAHE, and the Education Commission of the United States. They are designed with recognition of the learning styles of adult learners of all generations. The below information is useful but I’d like you to not only just list them but put them into context in your own words.

A free copy is available from Seven Principles Resource Center Winona State University PO Box 5838 Winona, MN 55987-5838

The 7 principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education: Good practice… 1. Encourages contacts between faculty and students 2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students 3. Uses active learning techniques 4. Gives prompt feedback 5. Emphasizes time on task 6. Communicates high expectations 7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning

Using these principles with technology in a classroom or online. Since Generations X and Y expect technology use in learning environments, here are some examples of how to incorporate these best practice principles through technology.

1. Good practice encourages contacts between students and faculty  This is good practice in that it increases student motivation and involvement, encourages them, and enhances their commitment to learning.  Technology can increase contact through – On-line office hours – E-mail communication availability – Discussion boards, encouraging shy students to speak out and share their ideas without pressure of public performance – Computer conferencing to enable small group and faculty communication, i.e., clinical post-conferences for nursing students – Non-native English speakers have more time to process faculty comments electronically, and form a response 2. Good practice develops reciprocity and cooperation among students  Learning is enhanced when it is collaborative and social instead of competitive and isolated.  Technology enhances possibilities of student interaction, without requiring a physical presence.  Same methodologies mentioned in Principle 1 can be applied with student to student contacts.  Some student uses of technology: study groups, collaborative learning, group problem solving, group discussions, group assignments.

3. Good practice uses active learning techniques  An anonymous quote recognizes that “Telling is not teaching, listening is not learning.”  The degree of learning is directly proportionate to the active participation of the learner.  Technology affords a huge range of tools to encourage active learning: – Simulation activities – Design and “dimensional” practice – Demonstration and practice of practical skills – Software providing “real world” models students can manipulate, i.e. weather

4. Good practice gives prompt feedback  As soon as a practice session or test has been completed, a student benefits from immediately knowing what aspects were mastered, and which need more work.  This allows a student to focus learning.  Technology supports this principle very well – Pre-assessment to assure entry-level behaviors exist – Recording and organizing performance milestones – Storage of portfolio products – Tracking of early efforts, comparing to show growth – Testing on-line gives immediate score and feedback

5. Good practice emphasizes time on task  Increased time spent by the learner on task increases chances of mastery for most students.  Time management by the learner and faculty is important in maximizing outcomes.  Technology features help monitor time and plans, i.e. calendar features with reminders  Practice sessions on the computer are timed, tallied and recorded.  The “fun” aspects of computer learning games encourage more time on learning practice.

6. Good practice communicates high expectations  Expecting students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Technologies can communicate high expectations efficiently… – Allowing exemplary assignments to be posted as a model. – Posting and explaining a rubric for grading to encourage achievement of objectives.

7. Good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning  Different students bring different styles and talents to college  Technological resources can – Use powerful visuals for visual learners – Well organized, colorful print – Add audio for audio learners – Virtual experiences and tasks requiring analysis, synthesis, and evaluation with real-life applications can engage the kinesthetic learner – Technology can supply structure for those needing it; and open-ended assignments for others – Self-paced student learning accommodates any style

Resources and references[edit | edit source]

Baker College. (2005). Effective Teaching and Learning [PowerPoint Presentation]. Retrieved June 20, 2006 from www.baker.edu/departments/etl/resources/Teaching%20across%20Generations%20with%20notesv3.ppt

Chickering, A.W., and Ehrman, S.C. (1996, October). Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin. pp. 3 – 6. Retrieved June 10, 2006 from http://icebreakerideas.com/implementing-the-seven-principles/

Cordinez, J.A. (2002). Recruitment, retention and management of generation x: A focus on nursing professionals. Journal of Healthcare Management, (47), 237 – 249.

Raines, C. web site about working with generations. http://www.generationsatwork.com/articles/millenials.htm

Strauss, W. and Howe, N. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books.

Weston, M. (2006). Integrating generational perspectives in nursing. On-line Journal of Issues in Nursing, (11)2.

World Campus Faculty Resources. (2000). 10 Characteristics of Adults as Learners. Retrieved June 1, 2006 from https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/public/faculty/adults.html

Zemke, R., Raines, C. and Filipczak, B. (1999). Generation Gaps in the Company Classroom. Training. Retrieved June 21, 2006 from http://web.archive.org/web/20070122145557/http://www.aacrao.org/sandiego/tuesday/T6_176.pdf