Understanding the unique challenges of teaching adults

May 24, 2019

Teaching can be a strenuous and challenging profession no matter the age group of the student body.

However, teachers who work in adult education face unique challenges, as students often return to school with rooted habits, work and family obligations, and certain biases that affect their learning.

Adult education expert Ramo Lord, Capella University Department of Education faculty, has experience navigating the challenges that come with teaching nontraditional students.

“As professors of adults, we need to understand that school cannot always be our student’s first priority,” he says. “Even though it’s a personal or professional goal of theirs, they may still have things that are more important. We are not in their shoes, but as their instructors we are positioned to facilitate their growth.”

Whether you feel supported and prepared to teach adult students or desire further guidance, learning about the challenges you may face will help you better address them. Here are four challenges you may experience and advice to guide you through each situation.

Challenge #1: Adults learn differently.

Because non-traditional students likely have been in the workforce and out of the academic setting for a while, they learn new material differently. “Non-traditional adult students come back to higher education with a larger set of experiences,” Lord comments. “Adults make meaning out of new information against years of experience, formation, and past education.”

Solution: Allow scholars to be participants in their own learning process.

Lord suggests that educators of adults talk with their students about their workplace experiences and how this affects their view of the concepts they are learning. Adult learners prefer being acknowledged for what they know about a subject and appreciate instructors who help them apply their prior knowledge and experience to new subject matter.

Challenge #2: Adults usually have not been in a courseroom setting for years.

Traditional students haven’t lost the rhythm of being in a classroom as they have transitioned directly from high school to college. For adult, non-traditional students, adjusting to being in the classroom with an instructor and coursework to be completed outside of class hours may prove a more difficult transition.

Solution: Consider shifting teaching methods.

Encouraging adult students to ask questions and offering extended or more flexible office hours may help make them more comfortable in the courseroom. Another way to engage adult learners in course material is by allowing them to interact with their classmates through online forums or group discussions. This offers students the opportunity to share their own experiences and takeaways while learning from the larger group.

Challenge #3: Adults challenge themselves rather than comparing themselves to peers.

“Adult students don’t compare themselves to their peers [as often as traditional students],” says Lord. “But they do bring a lot of pressure upon themselves to perform well because they have skills and abilities they want recognized.”

Solution: Encourage personal growth.

Lord believes that educators should recognize this inner competitiveness in their non-traditional students and make sure it’s not making students doubt their abilities. Encouraging personal growth in both student’s abilities and skills or even using it as part of the grading process is another way to reassure adult learners that their hard work is paying off.

Challenge #4: School may not be adult students’ first priority.

Because most non-traditional students are returning to school later in life, they may have other commitments. Family, work, and community engagements may come first for these students, and it’s important for educators to recognize and prepare for this.

Solution: Be prepared to be flexible.

Don’t be afraid to be candid with your non-traditional students. Telling them you understand that they have other priorities might relieve some stress. “As educators, our task is to provide adult learners with an environment in which they feel supported and comfortable making mistakes,” Lord explains. “Assure them that we are here to assist in their growth and development.” He also encourages flexible office hours and offering weekend meeting times to allow students with other responsibilities during the week a chance to talk with their instructor.

Learn more about Capella’s online master’s in higher education, adult education program, which emphasizes reflective practice, current theory, and best practices for teaching students of various needs and backgrounds.

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