Guide for Managers of Adult Education Programs


Working with Adult Learners


To help adult learners develop their skills and achieve learning standards, practitioners must acknowledge the experiences adult learners bring to the educational setting. Some have had early negative education experiences and are hesitant to participate in a formal education program. Some are very self-directed about their learning, while others need a great deal of guidance and support. Adult learners, as with all students, possess a wide array of learning styles, skills, and natural abilities (multiple intelligences).

This diverse mix of learners in the classroom presents a formidable challenge to adult education teachers. It is an issue for program administrators as well, since students will leave if the instruction doesn't connect to their needs and styles.

Learning Styles

Much has been written about learning styles and these styles have been categorized in a number of ways. (One approach to understanding learning styles is presented below.) In dealing with learning styles, it is most important to remember that different students learn best from different approaches. Teachers who are unaware of learning styles will naturally teach from their own style, making learning difficult for students who have a different style. Conversely, teachers who attend to learning styles issues and vary the style they use in their instruction will have a more motivated and more successful group of students.

People generally have a mix of learning styles, with one or two predominating. Often there is a sequence to learning, such as hearing something first and then trying it out. Others may need to read something and then talk about what they've learned for the learning to really sink in.

One structure for understanding learning styles organizes learning into five categories:1

  1. Visual learners like ideas presented in pictures and diagrams. Even their figures of speech are visual. They learn by watching and sometimes even by doodling.
  2. Auditory learners like to listen and to have things explained orally.
  3. Kinesthetic learners prefer to learn through hands-on experience. They move or use their bodies to solve problems. They are often involved in sports or other physical activities.
  4. Print-oriented learners love to read. They pick up ideas from print quickly and easily remember what they read. They prefer books to movies and would rather read than be told something.
  5. Group-interactive learners are most efficient in discussions or other activities that involve working with other people. They like to exchange ideas and understand things better after experiencing them as part of a group process.

Retention rates have been studied per style of instruction.2 Lecture, reading, audiovisual presentation, and demonstration approaches all produced a less than 30% retention. Adding in a discussion group increased retention to 50%, providing opportunities to practice the learning increased it to 75%, and having learners teach others or put the learning immediately to use in a real-world setting resulted in a 90% retention rate.

Self-Directed Learning Matrix

Learners approach education from a variety of positions. Some come with a sense of direction and a focused set of goals. These learners often want to take charge of their own learning. Others come without a clear sense of direction and with no idea of how to go about learning. They are very dependent and plan to rely completely on the teacher. Many students fall somewhere in between.

The key to promoting effective self-directed learning is understanding each learner's natural place on the continuum between self-directed and dependent. Then, strategies can be developed to help learners gradually move closer toward the more self-directed pole. Developing skills of self-direction and initiative are critical life skills for success at work, in the family, and in the community.

Many learners need the assistance of the teacher or counselor to clarify their goals and to help them design a learning plan. However, some organizations or individual teachers take this too far and tell the students what they need to learn and how they can best learn it. Besides turning off many adult students, educators run the risk of missing out on critical goals for the student or missing out on helpful learning strategies - individual strengths and interests of which the students are often aware. Also, most adult learners will be more invested in learning if they take an active role in the process.

The teacher's natural style is a complicating factor. Some teachers are natural facilitators, allowing self-directed students to chart their own course but leaving more dependent students floundering. Other teachers are more directive and authoritative, providing needed support to dependent learners but quashing the initiative of the self-directed students. Teachers need to be aware of these styles and tendencies and learn how to adjust their styles to meet the diverse and evolving needs of their students.

Multiple Intelligences3

Howard Gardner developed a classification of multiple intelligences. He defined intelligence as an ability to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in one or more cultures. The two intelligences that instructional settings traditionally focus on are mathematical/logical abilities (use and appreciation of abstract relations; facility with numbers and logical thinking) and linguistic skills (understanding and using spoken and written language; descriptive, expressive and poetic language abilities). To these, he added:

  • interpersonal - capacity to recognize and make distinctions among feelings, beliefs, and intentions
  • intrapersonal - understanding the self and drawing on this to make decisions about viable courses of action; ability to distinguish one's feelings and to anticipate one's reactions to future courses of action
  • spatial - perceiving and using visual or spatial information; transforming information into visual images
  • musical - creating, communicating, and understanding meanings made out of sound; ability to deal with patterns of sound
  • body/kinesthetic - using one's body to "create"; the ability to control or isolate parts of one's body; athletic, creative, fine and gross motor movements
  • naturalist - ability to understand the natural world; to distinguish among, classify, and use features of the environment; also applies to general classifying and patterning abilities.

Gardner shifted the conversation from "How smart are you?" (e.g., IQ test) to "How are you smart?" (What are your strongest intelligences?). Each intelligence has its own unique characteristics, tools, and processes. Each represents a different way of thinking, solving problems, and learning. As with learning styles, no one has only one intelligence, but rather a combination of intelligences with some predominating over others. People learn best when the information is presented in a way that taps into their strongest intelligence. For example, in learning about angles, students can be asked to:

  • make a list of all the angles they see in a classroom
  • use their arms and elbows to make five different angles and then sketch them out
  • form a group to talk about how angles are used in everyday speech (e.g., "I did a 360.")
  • write a poem, song, or rap using words about angles.

Adult educators are as diverse a group as their students. Educators include those trained specifically for adult education, elementary and secondary teachers, tradespeople, craftspeople, health care professionals, politicians, and government workers. In addition to building in strategies for working with the diverse mix of learners each program services, adult education programs need to build in ways for teachers with such varied backgrounds to learn from each other and work together to provide the best education for their students.

Bringing It All Together

There are a number of principles that guide the development of effective adult education programs:4

  1. Involve learners in program planning and implementation
  2. Draw upon learners' experiences as a resource
  3. Create a climate that encourages and supports learning
  4. Foster a spirit of collaboration
  5. Encourage self-directed learning
  6. Use small group activities to enhance learning
  7. Provide adequate support services
  1. Involve learners in program planning and implementation

    In operating an adult education program, maintaining a clear focus on individual learners - their needs, current skills, and goals - is vital to success. Involving learners in program planning and design ensures an attentive focus on customer needs and expectations. The overall program design is based on an aggregate of these needs and goals. Learners should also be involved in on-going program assessment to see how well the actual program meets the intended goals.

    Instruction needs to be individually tailored to the learning styles, goals, and life situation of individual learners. In addition, support services have to be provided to assist learners in managing their specific life challenges so they can find the time to further their education. Adult education is not a "one-size-fits-all" proposition.

    Involving learners in program design and implementation is a way to demonstrate the program's respect for the adult learners. To buy into an adult education program, adult learners must feel a sense of both partnership and choice. Adult learners need to be active partners in the design and implementation of their educational program. They need to choose the standards or goals they will be working on, the pace at which they will work, and the schedule they can develop for their education. They need opportunities to be as self-directed as possible. While adult educators and counselors can offer guidance and advice, it is only the individual learner who can decide what s/he is willing to commit to.

    Many adult educators support this concept, but are unable to put it into practice. The diverse needs of learners, part-time nature of the job, and rapid turnover of students all make actively involving students in planning and implementing programs more difficult. To begin the process, consider inviting adult learners to sit on an advisory council or assist with orientation of new students.

  2. Draw upon learners' experiences as a resource

    Another key to successful adult education programs is providing the learning in a context that makes sense to the learner. The skills and information they are learning should clearly relate to their individual needs, goals, and life experiences. Learners' life experiences can be used as examples in presenting academic instruction. Abstract concepts are better understood when placed in a familiar context.

    In addition, valuing learners' experiences and referring to them during class helps reinforce the underlying respect adult learners expect from the people with whom they interact. This furthers the sense of partnership presented earlier.

    Support this approach by using instructional materials and learning experiences that are based on students' lives/living environment. This helps make the learning more authentic. Materials that are adapted to different student populations are commercially available. Teachers can build the actual life situations of students into lessons and learning activities.

    One example of sharing a life situation5 is to build a reading and writing activity around the topic of child health and safety for learners who are parents. Learners choose articles/booklets to read about child health and safety. They then summarize in writing what they have learned and present it to the class and/or have a small group discussion about how they can take this information back to their family life.

  3. Create a climate that encourages and supports learning

    The classroom and program environment should reflect mutual respect and trust as the foundation for all interactions. This needs to begin with recruitment and intake and continue through the instructional program and follow-up. Learners should feel better about themselves from participating in the program. They do not need to experience more letdowns and failure. This is not to say that learners should not be challenged academically or confronted when they exhibit disruptive behavior. A supportive climate means that all interactions are based on respect for the learner as an adult and trust in their capacity for learning and growth.

    To help develop an effective and supportive learning environment, take into account individual learning styles and multiple intelligences when designing the instructional program, creating lesson plans and learning experiences, and counseling and advising students.

    There are many other techniques to positively engage adult learners.6 The general atmosphere of the program or classroom must be inviting. Adult learners must know that this learning experience will be different from their previous educational experiences as children or teenagers. The arrangement of the classroom can symbolically help change their perceptions about education. Setting up desks in a circle or in small groups, rather than traditional rows, can create a more relaxed and adult environment.

    Other ways to make students feel at ease and motivated are to:

    • post welcome signs
    • implement a peer support system
    • encourage the pursuit of small, attainable goals
    • incorporate alternative, enjoyable ways of learning, such as field trips or computer-aided instruction
    • pass out welcome packets
    • arrange occasional social gatherings
    • use a balance of instructional strategies, both group and individual
    • regularly express genuine praise and encouragement.

    Creating an atmosphere of openness and trust helps students talk about their problems. Occasionally, they may need one-on-one time with the teacher. To be ready for times of personal crisis, the teacher should build in extra time or arrange to have another teacher serve as a backup in the classroom. Adult educators can show their support by being willing to discuss learners' problems and ready to refer learners to appropriate resources and/or agencies.

    Some type of reinforcement may be helpful, especially during the period when learners struggle to recognize, "What's in it for me?". Rewards should be for very specific accomplishments, such as meeting attendance requirements. Due to their tangibility, certificates are an example of a reward particularly meaningful to students.

    It is important for all agencies involved with the adult learner - e.g., adult education program, local Job Service, Department of Social Services (DSS), probation office - to communicate with one another. Inter-agency coordination and collaboration are essential for ensuring the most efficient provision of services. If, for example, a learner is mandated to attend an adult education class as a condition of probation, both the adult educator and the probation officer must be aware of the learner's expectations and goals.

    While all of these elements are important in engaging the adult learners, the most important way to increase motivation is to respond to the learners' needs. This begins with a supportive intake process, which helps identify the individual adult learner's goals for starting or returning to an adult education program. Periodic interviews - couched in an informal, non-threatening way - can serve as an ongoing needs assessment to fine-tune the individual learning program.

    The outcome or payoff of education must be worth the effort and cost to the "consumer." While adults undertake education for a variety of reasons and with a variety of goals in mind, they are most often focused on getting, retaining, and/or upgrading employment. For nearly all adult learners, the main motivators for learning are to increase their employability and/or to interact more fully with their children (especially around schoolwork) and their community.

    Because of the unique characteristics of adult learners, their expectations and goals may not always fit neatly into the academic learning standards. (For more information about the learning standards, see the Adult Education Resource Guide and Learning Standards.) Educators and counselors need to help learners see how their goals and needs relate to learning standards. As part of balancing competing demands, adult learners may not choose to master all of the learning standards when they enter an education program. Instead, they may tackle one standard at this time, and then, later, enter another adult education program to tackle another standard.

    The New York State Learning Standards clearly define the performance required of students at the elementary, intermediate, and commencement levels to fulfill adult roles as workers, parents, and community participants. The National Reporting System for Adult Education provides twelve literacy levels and indicators in English Language Arts, numeracy, and work skills.7 Taken together, these performance indicators provide clear direction for what is required to function effectively in the 21st century. While these indicators provide clear, long-range goals for adult learners, they can be overwhelming and discouraging if taken all at once. Educators need to support adult learners in prioritizing and focusing on selected issues.

    Integrated, contextualized learning recognizes that the learning standards do not need to be addressed in isolation. For example, as an ELA/vocabulary-building activity, a teacher in an ESOL class may ask class members to reflect on their personal interests. ESOL learners at the beginning level may be able to capture their thoughts by completing the sentence, "I like to . . .". More advanced students can be asked to write an essay about their interests. This combines the ELA and CDOS learning standards into one lesson.

  4. Foster a spirit of collaboration

    Each learner has important skills, experiences, and knowledge to share with the other learners and teachers. Often a well-informed peer can get a concept across to a learner who is not understanding the teacher's instruction. Teachers can pick up examples and contexts from engaged learners that help teach these skills to other students.

    Learning to work together in the classroom is an important skill to bring to the workplace. More and more organizations are moving to a team-based environment, and the old model of students working independently in isolation from each other will not give them the skills they need to success in the work world.

    Finally, collaboration emphasizes the mutual respect, trust, and partnership discussed earlier.

  5. Encourage self-directed learning

    While collaboration and partnership are important, it is equally important for learners to develop initiative, independence, and a sense of empowerment. Adult learners often know what they want to learn and are hesitant to join a program with a pre-set curriculum. Encouraging them to become more self-directed in achieving their individual goals helps motivate them and encourages them to continue attending the program. Instructional activities need to have a balance between small group, collaborative learning, teacher-led instruction, and self-directed learning.

    Once students have begun the program, teachers can advise them on methods they can use to take active charge of their learning: from accessing the library and the Internet, to meeting in small study groups, to developing complex projects they can complete on their own.

  6. Use small group activities to enhance learning

    Small groups allow learners to take a more active role in their learning. It also promotes the collaboration noted earlier, providing increased opportunities for students to learn from and teach their peers. Most people learn best by applying abstract concepts in a concrete situation. Small group activities can provide a concrete context in which to apply (even if it is a simulation) new skills/knowledge.

    Small groups can promote a more "learner-centered" environment than a large group setting. These activities provide peer support to the students and help soften the line between student and teacher. Small group learning also takes some of the strain off the teacher who is working with a very diverse class. While the small groups are interacting, the teacher can provide individual attention to those students most in need of support. Finally, small groups are closer to the team environment found in many companies, which helps prepare students for the workworld.

  7. Provide adequate support services

    Given the many challenges most adult learners face, they are generally not able to devote a large amount of time to their education program. These challenges could include the need for transportation, childcare, employment, health services, mental health services, housing/shelter, nutrition, education, etc. By providing support services (directly or through referrals), an education program can help the students resolve or ameliorate some of these challenges, allowing more time for education.

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Hudson River Center for Program Development, Inc.