March 2nd, 2012

Six Ways to Support Adult Online Learners


Adult learners typically have very specific reasons for taking online courses and are usually highly motivated. They also bring a wealth of experience. However, being away from formal learning and having to adapt to the online learning environment can be quite challenging even for the most motivated and intelligent students.

To address this issue, adult learners need to become more aware of how they learn, says Natalie Peeterse, an adjunct English instructor at the University of Montana. She says that instructors can help adult learners become more self-aware by using the following metacognitive scaffolding techniques:

  • Build on previous learning — “I think the best way to start off an online course with this type of students is to get them thinking about prior experience,” Peeterse says. “One of the things to do in the course is to move past introductions and get students to recall past learning experiences. For example, you could ask, ‘Can you think of a learning situation in which you excelled? What was that like? Can you give us a specific example of learning something? How did you go about learning it?’”
  • Require critical reflection — After students complete their first major assignment, have them discuss what worked for them, what they struggled with, and what help they needed. “I think it’s great to share that with peers because it’s an easy topic to interact about, so they’re more likely to do it. I also think the interaction should be required and graded so students are sure to do it. Critical reflection is a great online discussion activity. Students get a sense of connection and are also able to articulate what they need help with, which is something that I think is a little challenging for the adult learner, but it’s really important that they express that and have that be addressed and also see that other students are struggling with similar problems,” Peeterse says.
  • Provide structured feedback — Peeterse recommends posting feedback on the same day every week within 72 hours of the end of each unit. “[Without timely feedback], students are just stuck out there flying blindly until they get something to grab onto. One of the ways to help students build that metacognitive awareness is to give them solid, timely feedback. Adult learners sometimes are not able to self-assess their performance. Gauging the difference between how you feel you performed and how you actually performed is really important. A lot of students are terrified of failing but find that they did really well. Then they have to recalibrate their self-assessment, which is part of the idea behind metacognitive scaffolding. If you can build that self-awareness into the course, if you can build those structures so students can compare and contrast how they feel and think and how they did, they can start to self-regulate and self-correct. That is what you really want students to be doing.”
  • Use check-in quizzes — Peeterse recommends creating a predictable structure for an online course, and part of that can be a series of check-in quizzes, yes-no or Likert-scale quizzes that ask students to stop and self-assess once every two weeks. These quizzes can have students rate themselves in terms of how they think they are doing and indicate which concepts they understand and which concepts they are struggling with.
  • Monitor students’ participation — Peeterse recommends using a course management system’s early-warning system to monitor student participation in the course. Blackboard, for example, enables instructors to send automated emails to students who do not log in during a specific time. Peeterse uses the early-warning system during the first two weeks of a course. She has the system set up so that if a student has not logged on for five days, he or she receives an automated email. She also has the system set up to notify students who fail to submit the first major assignment.
  • Pick up the phone — Automated emails can help, but sometimes there is no substitute for a live conversation, Peeterse says.

Reprinted from Online Classroom, (Feb. 2011): 2, 5.

  • Marcia

    Good ideas.

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  • Hello Rob:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article.

    The scaffolding techniques listed are spot-on. Good work.

    One method of prompting critical reflection that I find very helpful is to utilize Socratic questioning. I start by acknowledging something the student has written in their discussion question response, build on it by adding my insight and/or providing supplemental sources, and then conclude by asking a question. Do you utilize this approach?

    For the check-in quizzes, have you read the book, Classroom Assessment Techniques? Students often panic when they see the word “quiz” so a non-graded formative assessment seems to serve the same purpose.

    Dr. J

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  • Joseph Coyne

    These are all valuable techniques that can help in the on-line environment. I am the biggest fan of three of these scafolding techniques: the critical reflection, the structured feedback loop, and the monitoring of student participation. All three to me are equally important but as an on-line instructor, I think the structured feedback loop is of greatest importance to maintain a high quality of on-line education.


  • Gilbert Ridgely

    Very interesting information.