November 7th, 2013

Course Satisfaction for Adult Students

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What course characteristics “satisfy” adult students? What expectations do they have for their courses? These questions are important because more and more adults now attend higher education, and many are participating in programs designed especially for them.

To explore this topic, researchers Howell and Buck (both business faculty members), surveyed faculty and students. They targeted schools affiliated with the Consortium for the Advancement of Adult Higher Education (CAAHE), collecting data from a sample of 214 faculty and 1,725 students at five CAAHE institutions. Their survey instruments queried faculty and students about 11 course characteristics generated from a service-oriented conceptual framework. A variety of statistical analyses presented four characteristics as strongly predictive of how satisfied adult students were with a course. Each is discussed here briefly.

Relevancy of the subject matter – These adult students were satisfied with courses that contained content they perceived to be useful to their personal career development, that could be applied, that helped them prepare for a job, and that they found personally relevant and useful. That makes sense, given that so many adults return to higher education to advance their professional standing.

Faculty subject-matter competency – Adult learners want to take courses from faculty who have a depth of knowledge about the content, are keeping up with developments in the field, can explain and clarify difficult concepts, can organize course content, and come to class prepared. They expect to be taught by teachers who know their material.

General classroom management – Adults want to learn in environments that are structured. They expect teachers to provide leadership in this area.

Student workload – Adult students want courses that contain reasonable amounts of content and assignments. They are concerned about the number of assignments, the pacing of the workload, and the amount of time they will need to spend studying. This does not mean they want the courses to be easy, but with complicated lives and multiple responsibilities, they cannot handle courses that demand excessive amounts of time and energy. Instructors should not compromise the academic rigor of courses, but they need to let adult students know up front what is expected of them and how much time they should plan to invest in the course.

As interesting as these characteristics are, equally interesting were those characteristics not predictive of adults’ satisfaction with courses. For example, in this study neither the location of the class (on or off campus) nor its size was related to student satisfaction. Interaction with faculty, whether one-on-one, in small groups, or in class discussions, was less important to adults than it is to 18-to-23-year-old undergraduates. And perhaps most surprising of all, the grades students thought they were receiving in the course did not predict their satisfaction (they were surveyed near the end of the course).

It is important to bear in mind that what students reported they need to be satisfied with a course may not be the same as what students need to learn in a course. However, students’ unhappiness and discontentment in courses can negatively affect their motivation to learn. Feelings about educational experiences are not unrelated to educational outcomes, so it behooves teachers to be aware of student expectations. They may not always be able to provide what students say they want in courses, but they can explain why, and as these results show, teachers can supply much of what students report they do want.

Reference: Howell, G.F. and Buck, J.M. (2012). The adult student and course satisfaction: What matters most? Innovative Higher Education, 37, 215–226.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 26.8 (2012): 6.


  • Gabe

    "Faculty subject-matter competency – Adult learners want to take courses from faculty who have a depth of knowledge about the content, are keeping up with developments in the field, can explain and clarify difficult concepts, can organize course content, and come to class prepared. They expect to be taught by teachers who know their material."

    Just curious… how does an adult learners know if his/her teachers know their material if they, themselves, are not subject matter experts?

  • Gabe

    Ha… too quick to send… apologies for the typos!