Understanding Adult Learners’ Needs

Understanding learner needs is essential for providing quality education. One approach for accomplishing this is through the use of student evaluations. A common argument against the use of student evaluations is that students do not know their own needs. However, many studies have shown student feedback/suggestions to be reliable and valid. If we do not even attempt to understand their needs, we may fail to recognize the support they require to be successful.

To understand what adult learners need from their instructors, 2,719 students at a Singapore university were asked what their instructors could improve on as part of the end-of-course evaluation. The students’ suggestions were then filtered, analyzed and organized across seven categorizes, loosely reflecting the seven principles of good teaching outlined by Chickering and Gamson (1987). In this article, I’ve summarized the students’ key suggestions.

Engaging Students in Active Learning
A commonly held assumption is that students like to take the easiest routes/short-cuts and prefer to be passive learners. Despite the fact that adult learners are busy individuals, the student feedback suggested that they do want to be engaged in active learning. They wanted their lessons to be interesting, practical and applicable.

Here are some of their suggestions for facilitating engaging lessons:

  • use meaningful and purposeful learning activities
  • ask stimulating questions
  • use appropriate and relevant multimedia tools/technology to engage students
  • incorporate real-life and application-based examples
  • interact with students and effectively manage group discussions

Presenting Effectively
Adult learners seemed to appreciate well-prepared, clear presentations. This is possibly because of two reasons: (1) they have limited time in class and they want to get the most out of the class time, (2) adult learners are more experienced and expect quality presentations. Some suggestions are:

  • be well-prepared and organized
  • use a microphone and write legibly
  • be non-monotonous and lively
  • use effective pauses to give students time to think and take notes

Managing Time
As working adults are pressed for time, they are time conscious and therefore value punctuality and well-paced classes. Some suggestions to manage time effectively are:

  • be punctual in starting and ending lessons
  • structure and pace lessons effectively
  • minimize unnecessary deviations or repetitions
  • avail sufficient time for consultation before or after class time

Communicating Expectations
Adult learners want their instructors to communicate clearly their expectations for the course and specific assignments. They asked that instructors:

  • be well-informed on policy matters/practices at institution
  • be familiar with the course structure and exam matters
  • provide clear instruction pertaining to the course such as assessment requirements, and rubrics
  • set the expectations right from the very first lesson
  • guide students on handling exam questions/assessment questions (answering techniques rather than the answer itself)

Sharing Timely and Relevant Resources
Contrary to the general assumption that adult learners have little free time and therefore may not read ahead of class, our students requested for the uploading of materials well-ahead of the class meeting. They asked that instructors:

  • upload lecture materials at least three days before class
  • summarize what was discussed during learning activities/online discussions so that there is a closure
  • make available recorded lectures, if possible
  • provide additional resources such as references, video links and case studies for self-study
  • let the materials be available throughout the entire period of the course

Providing Constructive Feedback
Another commonly held assumption is that students are only interested in grades. But student feedback indicates that they are keen to receive constructive feedback. Here are their suggestions on what encompasses constructive feedback:

  • provide relevant feedback
  • be clear, and specific in the feedback
  • ensure timely feedback
  • provide detailed feedback
  • summarize comments to give an overview of what to improve on

Being Approachable and Encouraging
Adult learners want their instructors to understand their challenges and appreciated instructors who were approachable and patient. Here are some of their expectations:

  • be empathetic and understanding of the challenges faced by adult students
  • treat adult learners as mature students
  • be friendly
  • build a good rapport with students
  • be motivating and encouraging

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven Principles For Good Practice In Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, 3-7.

Dr. Nachamma Sockalingam, lecturer, Teaching and Learning Centre, SIM University, Singapore.