Teaching Adult Students with Considerable Professional Expertise

adult students

Trends toward increased enrollment of non-traditional students are expected to continue (Stringer, 2015). Discussions about nontraditional college students often highlight some of the challenges our adult students face, such as balancing work, family, and school commitments, overcoming previous academic patterns that no longer serve them, and adapting to new approaches to learning (such as online classes.) The flip side, though, is that many non-traditional students bring a wealth of personal and professional experience to their pursuit of a new degree, which serves to the benefit their academic cohort (Stringer, 2015).

Many non-traditional adult students are “career enhancers” (Pelletier, 2010) By 2021, it’s expected that nearly 7 million postsecondary students will be attending part time, and enrollment of students over age 35 will increase 25%. The total number of master’s degrees awarded is projected to increase 34% and doctoral degrees are expected to increase by 24% (Hussar & Bailey, 2013).

Many universities have developed schools or colleges of professional studies to meet the needs and interests of all kinds of professionals—doctors returning to school to earn MBAs to increase the success of their practices, teachers seeking competency in educational leadership, mental healthcare aides striving to gain the knowledge and credentials needed to fully support clients, lab techs interested in pursuing their own research, and a host of other professionals eager to build their skills and deepen their knowledge. For example, Columbia University’s website highlights an attorney returning for a Master’s in Bioethics (Columbia University, 2017); Northeastern University’s website spotlights an aerospace engineer returning for a Master’s in Computer Science (Northeastern University, nd); and my own Marylhurst University has a story on its website about a nurse who enriched her professional experience with a degree that enabled her to land a leadership position in the healthcare field (Marylhurst, nd).

These students are experts in their fields. They’re often highly intrinsically-motivated; “73 percent or more reported that personal enrichment or interest in the subject [or] gaining skills to advance in their job or for a new career…were important considerations” (Choy, 2002, p. 9) in their return to school. They have a context within which they take information [they learn] and apply it. They tend to ask more questions. They challenge issues more in a classroom” (Pelletier, 2010, p. 6). They want to be actively engaged in their learning, not passive recipients of “sage on the stage” lectures.

As instructors, we must partner with them in their pursuit of their goals. We should capitalize on their expertise by encouraging them to share, showing respect for their wisdom, and allowing them some agency in determining their path to relevant learning.

Maximize the value of discussion contributions

Experienced professionals can add significant value to class discussions and make for a more enriching community, but they’ll gain little from merely pontificating about their experiences. We must ensure that there are genuine learning opportunities for all students by reinforcing the expectation that everyone must go beyond sharing opinions or stories to demonstrating new insights gained from the assigned materials or new research. That practice is the key to moving class discussions beyond “watercooler chats,” to a true learning environment in which each student is processing new information—not merely rehashing their own experiences.

Utilize student-led discussions.

Students who are experienced professionals often, informally, adopt the expert or teacher role in interactions with classmates—either by assuming leadership roles on student teams or simply by using an authoritative voice in class discussions. There’s much to gain, though, by formalizing that teaching role with the assignment of student-led discussions. Those with responsibility for guiding learning can improve their own listening and critical thinking skills. Students who have had the opportunity to lead discussions often comment how challenging it was to withhold their own opinions and actively consider and build on others’ perspectives. They’ve noted that the responsibility of redirecting conversations to focus on intended learning objectives helped them to recognize their own inclinations to neglect to support their views with new insights gained from the course materials or research. Taking ownership of an academic discussion offers seasoned professionals the opportunity to share expertise, while requiring them to critically consider real-world application of theoretical concepts in assigned materials.

Effectively use team assignments

Team assignments are dreaded by all students, perhaps even more so by busy professionals who don’t want to be required to accommodate competing schedules and novice approaches to assignments. And yet, group work assignments are rich with potential for learning, especially when comprised of a mix of experienced professionals and novices. To maximize the value of team assignments, we should explicitly voice the rationale for using a team assignment, and provide guidance to help students realize the value for themselves.

For the experienced team members, mentoring the more novice members of the team allows them to discover that teaching is the highest path to learning. They can enrich their leadership experiences by interacting on an equal level with those who they’d likely be supervising at work. Fully considering the input of classmates with little professional experiences can help those experts remember their younger selves’ understanding of course concepts. It can increase empathy for those who are near the beginning of their professional journeys, and can foster appreciation by those experts of their own knowledge and skills, which they’ve likely been using for so long that they’ve begun to take them for granted.

Incorporate knowledge-level assignments.

Though higher-level learning is the goal, especially in graduate level courses, the use of knowledge-level assignments can facilitate new learning for students who have become rather complacent in their assumptions about the “right” way to do things, and for those who are successful at work, but can’t really explain why. For example, quite a few students in my MBA classes are supervisors in their organizations, yet know little about motivation theories or leadership principles. Understanding the research behind the tasks and roles that dominate their work lives can facilitate true growth and improve their performance at work. Lightbulb moments (“I never realized some of the reasons my behavior might have contributed to my team’s morale issues!”) are incredibly rewarding—for students and for teachers!

Offer choices

Are there multiple ways of assessing some learning outcomes? Prior Learning Assessments (PLAs) are used by many institutions who recognize that adult students do bring specific, relevant knowledge and skills to their programs, and requiring them to re-cover known concepts can be a waste of valuable time and money. Perhaps you could offer a brief pre-test at the beginning of the term, with an achieved minimum score resulting in the opportunity to choose from a menu of assignments. If they demonstrated knowledge-level understanding of essential concepts, a reflection essay or case analysis might be a more rewarding and meaningful task than completion of an exam.

Reinforce paths to learning

Rubrics, grades, and feedback can (and should) emphasize higher level learning, enabling experienced professionals to modify their approaches to learning to realize maximum value. It can be tempting for busy working adults to do the minimum necessary to earn points—and, ultimately, their degrees. However, receiving A’s for meeting minimum expectations is demotivating; and, how much pride would a student really feel in an earned degree that required very little from them? Only submissions that fully demonstrate learning should receive full points; less-than-perfect grades help students to recognize opportunities to apply themselves. Rubric criteria clarify and differentiate excellent, acceptable, and mediocre quality work. Setting and clarifying rigorous expectations – and holding students accountable to those – increases the value of the learning experience for these student-professionals.

Students who have expertise in their fields enrich out classrooms. Finding ways to partner with them and to facilitate their continued learning benefits everyone – and is the right thing to do.

Choy, S. (2002). Nontraditional undergraduates: Findings from the condition of education, 2002. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf

Columbia University, School of Professional Studies (2017). Online option now available for Bioethics Master’s Program. Retrieved from: http://sps.columbia.edu/bioethics/news/online-option-now-available-bioethics-masters-program

Hussar, W.J. & Bailey, T.M. (January, 2013). Projections of education statistics to 2021: Fortieth edition.  Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, NCES 2013-008. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2013/2013008.pdf

Marylhurst University (nd). Katie Brooks talks about how her liberal arts degree led to a leadership position in healthcare. Retrieved from: https://www.marylhurst.edu/news/marylhurst-feature-stories/katie-brooks-ba-english-literature-writing/

Northeastern University (nd). Online and Graduate Professional Degree Programs: Our Students. Retrieved from: http://www.northeastern.edu/online/#_ga=2.103058048.1626829117.1508960847-1003333667.1508960847

Pelletier, S. G. (Fall, 2010). Success for adult students. Public Purpose. American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from: http://www.aascu.org/uploadedFiles/AASCU/Content/Root/MediaAndPublications/PublicPurposeMagazines/Issue/10fall_adultstudents.pdf

Stringer, H. (April, 2015). The nontraditional student. gradPSYCH Magazine, American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2015/04/nontraditional-student.aspx

Eileen F. Schiffer is an assistant professor in the School of Business at Marylhurst University. Email her at eschiffer@marylhurst.edu