Adult Learners Need More Instructional Support

Teacher leans over student's computer to help two students with assignment

Expectations of adult learners are generally high. They are assumed to be naturally focused, motivated, and self-directed. While this may be true, some adult students still need significant encouragement and scaffolding and should not be told to simply read for their degrees.

There are adults who are just returning to the classroom after a five or ten-year hiatus. Some are nervous, doubtful, and worried.  Some are not verse with the technology and are quite new to advanced studies.  Telling them to read and complete an assignment, while offering little support, only compounds their anxiety.

I quickly realized the level of support needed when I started studying at the tertiary level. As a student, I wanted to be explicitly taught and not just told to discover. I wanted my lecturers to closely guide me with my assignments, clarify my misconceptions, further my understanding of concepts under study, and demonstrate the skills I was expected to master. 

It is not that I wanted to be spoon-fed. I, certainly, did not expect the work to be done for me.  However, I appreciated it when my lecturers were the sage on the stage, reifying some of the complex concepts I was exploring in the courses. Thankfully, I had many lecturers who were quite like this, and I am forever grateful for their tutelage.

Since I have started facilitating students at the college level, I have made sure to render equal support to them. I have endeavored to keep my students interested, rejecting the popular notion that adults are all intrinsically motivated and will be naturally engaged.

Here are some of the things I have done and have continued to do face-to-face and virtually.

Live consultations

I make time for live online or in-office consultations, thereby saving time responding to an avalanche of emails and making tracked changes and comments. Sometimes students do not fully understand written feedback and so a one-on-one meeting gives them an opportunity to seek more comprehensible guidance. 

During these meetings, I orally rephrase comments in students’ native tongue or in the target language, thus clarifying taught concepts or course tasks. Moreover, this kind of direct human contact can be comforting, especially for individuals who are virtually cut off from the usual in-person peer support.

Language scaffolding

I provide sentence starters and prompts to help my students write. I do not assume that all my adult learners are proficient writers. Even knowledgeable students sometimes need more than the usual support.

I break down abstractly worded assignments for students as well. I may provide sub-questions, which when answered, would mean students have satisfied the specific requirements of the larger project.

I have also supplied students with word banks to stimulate deeper thinking and facilitate high-quality articulation of complex ideas. For instance, when I teach students how to describe a writer’s tone, I display a list of tone-related words. Students who can successfully infer the tone but lack the vocabulary to  aptly frame their thoughts can refer to the list. Once they have selected a word, I ask them to justify their choice, citing textual evidence and prior knowledge where necessary.


I try to consistently model the things I want my adult learners to do. I provide examples of critical analyses, reflections, and audio-visual productions to make sure they are clear about how to complete similar assignments. I think aloud when needed, thus making my internal thought process visible and reproducible. Many times, a student may exclaim, “Clear like crystal!” to my “Do you understand?” Those who are, indeed, clear and follow my instructions, usually do very well, even after an external assessor vets their work.


At heart, many of our adult learners want to have fun while learning. They are not too old for this. Hence, I play modified versions of jeopardy, scavenger hunts, Nearpod’s time to climb, Quizizz, Kahoot, word-wall match up, and other high-energy games with them. During the process, students respond to questions or prompts related to the course content, and I get to formatively assess their understanding. The sessions are always lively during these activities, and students regularly thank me for the active engagement. 


I explain to my students how the marks for their assignments will be apportioned, and I outline exactly what I am looking for when I am grading. Waiting until after the assignment has been submitted and graded to explain the criteria is counterproductive and inhibitive of on-par performance.

All rubrics or mark schemes must be presented before the assignment is even attempted. Explaining the descriptors on these evaluation instruments is also important in ensuring students are clear on all expectations.

Feedback during the process

Adult learners need clear feedback. Telling students that their work is “vague,” “underdeveloped,” and “lacking in sentence variety,” among other things, does not help them to make meaningful revisions.

You see, for complex assignments, I allow students to seek my counsel on their drafts. Often, instead of vaguely or broadly commenting, I pose questions to kindle a thoughtful review. This is all part of coaching—supporting independent thinking, learner agency, and ownership.

I may also provide students with links to resources that can aid them in improving their work. Sometimes, depending on the nature of the task, I give students a checklist to guide their self-revision and editing. This is much more supportive than telling learners to review their work without a clear outline of the areas to be reviewed and how the improvements can be made. 

Adult learners need all the support they can get. Do not leave them to ‘discover’ or ‘construct’ knowledge on their own. You may frustrate them, or worse, damage their esteem and sense of self-efficacy.

Shawna Kay Williams-Pinnock is an educator at The Mico University College in Jamaica. She specializes in second language instruction and literacy and has over seven years of classroom experience. She has worked primarily with Creole-influenced adult learners from a cross-section of socio-cultural backgrounds. Williams-Pinnock spends much of her time hosting free workshops for teachers seeking personal and professional upskilling. Her blog, Musing, allows her to dispense advice to pre-service and in-service teachers and to comment on issues of national importance in her homeland.