April 5, 2011
Understanding the Unique Needs of Adult Learners
Returning adults, particularly those looking to complete degree work, demand online options, distance education programming, and a campus culture fitting their learning style.
Bruce N. Chaloux, Ph.D., past president of the Sloan Consortium and a highly-respected authority in adult degree completion, discussed some of the unique needs of adult learners with Distance Education Report. What follows is an excerpt of that interview.
What are some important ways that these learners differ from traditional undergraduate students?
Chaloux: Adult learners vary significantly from traditional undergraduate students in several ways. Beyond the obvious age differential (traditional students typically ranging in age from 18-22 while adult learners span a much wider range from 25-60, or more), I would note four major differences for those adults who are the current focus–those returning to college when an earlier attempt was disrupted. Returning adults typically:
- take fewer hours, three or maybe six (at most) per term as they seek to balance work, family and other obligations;
- are more serious and dedicated to completing their educational objective;
- bring experiences to the classroom that most faculty find both enhances the learning experience for all students; and
- do not need or utilize most traditional services institutions provide to students (but still need other kinds of support services to be successful).
What are some of the most important forms of support we can offer these learners?
Chaloux: How and when the services are provided for adults is often critical. With many adults returning to the classroom after years away, some bring the need to “polish” off some academic “rust.” They may need assistance in writing, math and in developing strong study skills. While many institutions provide these kinds of services, most are provided for traditional students during “regular” 8-5 hours in on-campus settings. Returning adults can’t access these services at those times when they are miles away from the campus and need the services delivered evenings, weekends and even online. Many institutions have found that moving these services online not only benefits the adult learner but also the traditional learner who would like the same freedom of access. This would include advising, as well as a variety of administrative services such as paying a bill, purchasing books or completing a drop and add transaction.
What are some of the most effective media for reaching these learners?
Chaloux: Beyond structuring programs and services designed to meet the needs of returning adults, the single biggest challenge for institutions is how to reach these prospective students. We don’t have the luxury of direct and continual access we have through our high schools and community colleges for traditional-aged students. So many institutions continue to experiment with the most effective approaches to reaching adults. Not too surprisingly, the Internet has become the most popular, and one of the most effective and efficient ways to reach adults. Television has been effective, radio less so, and newspaper advertising has generally not been effective–as fewer individuals read traditional print forms (as online readership of newspapers continues to grow). Employers can be a critical component, including using internal websites (intranet), email campaigns and electronic newsletters.
For more information on this topic, check out the seminar Dr. Chaloux presented on “Effective Strategies for the Adult Degree Completion Market.” Learn More »