Designing and Teaching Online Courses with Adult Students in Mind

Many of the learners in today’s online courses are adults who are returning to school to upgrade their qualifications. It’s worth considering what kinds of adult students are in your courses and what their needs are.

Some of the adults in your courses may be people who have lost jobs due to the recession and need to upgrade their skills. Others may be people who started degrees and never finished them but want or need to now. Others may want to change careers. There are as many reasons for adults seeking online degrees as there are adults seeking them. And understanding their needs puts you in a better position to tailor your strategies and help returning adults be as successful as possible.

Learner analysis
When designing training courses for organizations, one of the things instructional designers (like me) do to make sure the training fits the needs of the intended audience is an audience analysis. Some of the questions instructional designers might ask during a learner analysis for an online course include:

  • Who are the intended learners for this course?
  • What demographics should we be aware of?
  • Why are learners taking this course?
  • What do they already know about this topic?
  • What topics will be most difficult, and what extra support will they need?
  • What expectations will learners have?
  • What resources do learners need and have?
  • What experience do they have using course tools and technologies?
  • What is their level of computer literacy?
  • How fast an Internet connection do learners have?
  • What computer support will they need?

I highly recommend that higher education organizations conduct a similar analysis of returning adults (through interviews, surveys, and focus groups) to better meet returning adults’ needs.

General characteristics of adult learners
Returning adult students come with a host of life experiences and expectations that tend to be different from those of younger college students. And yet, when I look at typical online higher education courses, I often see courses that don’t seem to be designed and taught with these kinds of students in mind. Faculty and institutions that don’t take into consideration adult learners’ unique wants and needs are more likely to experience lower involvement (which means reduced learning) and reduced retention.

One of the chief characteristics that make teaching adult learners different is that adult learners come into online courses with a wide variety of life and work experiences. They expect to be able to draw from their wealth of skills and knowledge and relate to their experiences while learning.

Adults want to know why they are learning something and how it applies to their lives, experiences, and goals. If you start discussing something theoretical, they’ll want to know what it has to do with the real world. Adults are willing to understand the theory after they understand the practical application.

The following table contrasts some of the most important ways that younger and adult college students differ.

Younger Students Adult Students
Seek a degree because it’s the next step on their path Seek a degree to deal with an important life change or to complete an important life goal
Complete courses because they’re part of the curriculum Expect courses to add to life or career goals
Do what is expected to complete the course Have their own goals for education in mind and participate based on these expectations
Don’t know the application for what is being learned Expect direct application for what is being learned
Depend on others to design learning Accept responsibility for learning if it is perceived as related to their needs
See completing the degree as the desired end Have in mind a specific need for the knowledge or skill

Adults therefore approach learning far differently than younger students do. They bring more and expect more. They require learning to make more sense to them, and they expect far more direct application. They also vote faster with their dollars and their feet.

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a widely recognized information and instructional designer, writer, and author who helps others build valuable information and instruction. She can be reached through her website and on Twitter @pattishank.

Excerpted from Designing and Teaching with Returning Adults in Mind, Part 1 Online Classroom, (March 2012): 4,6.