More on Designing and Teaching Online Courses with Adult Students in Mind

It’s always important to help students be successful, but with returning adults, success often seems more elusive for a variety of reasons. They often have a hard time fitting schooling in with other life demands (including family obligations and work). In addition, many adult students are worried about their abilities as students and about learning in an online environment.

Some faculty take a hard line and insist that adults should be able to figure things out for themselves. But this really is short-sighted. Returning adults are making up a growing population of online students, and they definitely have unique needs that go beyond being a nuisance to support—they form a real need. Most research on adult students in higher education settings show that adult students in these settings are at a transition stage in their lives, so our ability to support them directly impacts their ability to make a successful transition.

Learning strategies
In a previous article, I contrasted ways that younger and adult students differ. The column on the left in the table below shows some adult student characteristics to which I have added teaching strategies that take advantage of these characteristics.

Adult Students Teaching Strategies
Expect courses to add to life or career goals
  • Design courses so that students can apply them toward their career goals.
  • Provide options that allow students to tailor assignments toward portfolio products or career-related goals.
Have their own results in mind for education and participation is based upon these results
  • Orient courses around real-world problems.
  • Allow students to discuss and introduce their own real-world problems.
  • Use participatory strategies, including case studies and situations from real-world practice.
Expect direct application for what is being learned
  • Present theories and concepts within the context of application to real-world issues.
Have a wealth of experience and knowledge
  • Use adult students as resources and experts where they have direct knowledge.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share knowledge and experience.


We need to take advantage of adult students’ life experience and goals. Not only does that help them feel accepted for who they are, it also helps them learn, keeps them engaged, and helps them relate what they are learning to what they already know. In addition, if we don’t consider adult students’ life experience, they often feel as if they’re being treated “like children,” a situation that isn’t conducive to learning, retention, or the transition they are going through.

I found two especially relevant articles, one of which directly discusses online learning, that do an excellent job of distilling the instructional support that adult students need. I’ve listed the two articles in the References section at the end of this article and recommend that you read them.

Individualize learning
Students often have a great deal of individualization needs, but instructors often don’t feel like it’s their problem to deal with them. But if you stop to consider their needs, you begin to see that if we don’t consider them, the students’ likelihood for success is greatly reduced. Some adults have reduced reading abilities or limited computer capabilities. Many may need to study in multiple, reduced chunks of time and at only certain times of the week because of their commitments and responsibilities. So consider how you can accommodate different needs without having to figure out what each and every person needs (that would be a nightmare!).

Here are some suggestions:

  • Use advanced organizers so students know what’s expected and when (this helps students plan how to fit readings and assignments into their busy lives).
  • Provide varied assignment options.
  • Chunk content so it’s easy to study in smaller sessions.
  • Provide practice exercises so students can be sure that they are on track.
  • Make sure that the content is available in advance (so students can work ahead if they need to) and stays available for repeat study.

You may be thinking that individualizing learning takes more time, and you are right. But it doesn’t take a lot of extra effort, and most of the effort meets the individualization needs of all students.

Build in support
Adult students may need additional support. In an online environment, though, many adult students don’t know how to get it. Be aware of that and the fact that they don’t want to look stupid. Be sure to communicate with your students early and often about how they can get help … and have ways for them to get the help they need! For example, I always have a “Course Questions” folder at the top of my online course discussion area where students can ask questions, and I communicate to students that this is the best way to get questions answered.

One major caveat, though: if you want students to count on you answering their questions through this folder, you must answer them very, very quickly, especially at the beginning of the semester.

Use this Strategies for Supporting Adult Learners [opens as a PDF] chart to help you consider adult learners’ needs when designing your online courses.

Polson, Cheryl J. “Teaching Adult Students,” Idea Paper No. 29 (September 1993), Center for Faculty Evaluation & Development, Division of Continuing Education, Kansas State University:

Cercone, Kathleen. “Characteristics of adult students with implications for online learning design,” AACE Journal 16(2) (2008): 137-159:

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 2 Online Classroom, (April 2012): 4,7.