When we discuss ‘students’ and ‘learners’ we automatically assume to be talking about the average adolescent, backpacks tightly strapped to both shoulders, lunchbox in hand, ready to start another hard day of education and awkward social interactions at the local public school. However, what about the adults who have put a hiatus on their education for a few years, and then decide to pick it back up. Who is the adult learner?
Adult learners are a diverse group,”usually 25 and older…” (pierce.edu) with a wide range of educational and cultural backgrounds, adult responsibilities and job experiences. They typically do not follow the traditional pattern of enrolling in postsecondary education immediately after high school…”They’ve delayed entering college for at least one year following high school…” (pierce.edu). They return to school for a wide range reasons, to stay competitive in the workplace, prepare for a career change, or perhaps to raise their IQ by a few points. Whatever the reasoning, they usually study on a part-time basis, taking one or two courses a term while maintaining work and family responsibilities, which is the biggest difference between adolescent and adult learners.
Our society functions through the tough burdens of being an adult, and the duties they carry out everyday. Adult learners face many challenges that do not concern young learners. Through my research I investigated the different, detailed aspects behind adult learners and the common struggles they face by trying to juggle their list of tasks apart of learning. Along with my research, three adult learners were interviewed and observed in order to answer what kind of specific hardships they independently accept and how they use their age and wisdom to their learning advantage.
Due to my status as being a traditional learner, I hold the position of an outsider, making it crucial that I ensure my full comprehension of the subjects at hand before interviewing by furthering my grasp of the general idea of adult learners, although each of my subjects are unique.
Andragogy is a learning theory that assists with identifying adult learners. Malcolm Knowles defines andragogy as “the art of helping adult learners” (elearningindustry.com). The andragogical model shows that adult learners: 1) are self-directed; 2) enter educational programs with a great diversity of experience; 3) become ready to learn when they experience a need to know or do something; 4) are life-centered, task centered or problem-centered; and 5) are motivated by internal self-esteem, recognition, better quality of life and self-actualization.
There are many common misconceptions about adult learners, one of them being that adult learners need a lot of assistance and guidance. As this may be the case for some students, most adult learners strive through means of self-directed learning. Self-directed learning allows students to take control of their own educational experiences, which pushes them to act in unique ways that help to maintain their personal motivation levels (eleducation.org).
It is also important to evaluate the site of the subculture. I conducted my research at AWC, a community college that I attend part time. Although adult learners take up the highest population of elearners (cael.org), it would make perfect sense for adult learners to take up a couple real life community college courses instead of online or at a university. In addition to misconceptions about adult learners, there are plenty of preconceived notions about community colleges as well. A great majority views community college as an easier path than a standard university, and only people who did not get accepted to universities settle for community college. Thus, it can be speculated that adult learners may face plenty of stigma and bias.
A key characteristic distinguishing reentry adults from other college students is the high likelihood that they are juggling other life roles while attending school, including those of worker, spouse or partner, parent, caregiver, and community member. These roles may be assets, both through the social supports they provide and through the rich life experiences that may help adult learners make meaning of theoretical constructs that may be purely abstract to younger learners. Yet more often, these multiple roles present challenges in students’ allocation of time for both academic study and participation in campus-based organizations and activities. A 2003 NCES report titled Work First, Study Second indicated that at least 56 percent of students over age twenty-four who were included in the 1999–2000 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study saw themselves as workers first and students second, while 26 percent identified themselves as students who work. Only 18 percent did not work while enrolled (Berker and Horn 2003, 5). This report also noted that those students who considered themselves employees first were also more likely to be married, leaving them with at least three life roles to manage while attending school; this group was also less likely to complete a degree in six years.
Reentry adults” appear to be a student population that is here to stay. Increasingly, higher education institutions have attempted to create programs and services that are responsive to adults’ life and learning preferences. This effort has challenged college faculty and administrators to think beyond traditional ways of teaching and delivering educational programs. A large number of institutions or program units have a long history of adaptation to the adult learner student population.
Research and knowledge about adult learners is important in order to create suggestions for improving adult learning now and in the future. were around more financial investment, more adult education opportunities, as well as more flexible provision (in terms of delivery and times) to suit those with in work and with complex circumstances. Others suggested that the value of learning for personal pleasure should be promoted as it can have a significant impact in terms of wellbeing.
The aim of the study was to scope the need, reach and areas for policy and practice development for adult education concerning disadvantaged adults. Four key research questions emerged: Why did you decide to go back to school/what was your goal? What are the difficulties about being an adult learner? How do you use your age and wisdom to your advantage when going to school? How does going back to school affect your current job?
Aside from researching information, I collected evidence by interviewing two adult learners to get first hand accounts about the life and hardships of an adult learner. By drawing on these two varied primary sources, the aim has been to develop a full picture of the struggles related to adult education for individuals. Research on adult learners help employers and communities focus on what works well and what needs to be improved to make best use of the resources available for adult education, particularly in addressing the needs of those most disadvantaged in our society.
Based on the conducted research and observations, the idea that adult learners deal with issues that do not concern the traditional student is supported. In one of my college classes I was able to conduct an interview with Matilda Espinoza, a single mother of two. My other subject is Jamie Dungeon, a 21-year old man. Both subjects have taken a break from school for several years, but ultimately decided to return. I was able to compare their accounts with the information gathered from online sources to determine the truth about adult learners.
One quick observation I noticed with the two was that they were much more organized and prepared for class than anyone else, including myself. Each of them had their computers handy, as well as any additional materials needed. They also did not constantly check their phones or focused on anything besides the task at hand. It was interesting to notice the juxtaposition between the clearly bored, juvenile students and the adults, who appeared almost starving for new knowledge.
Matilda shared that her reasoning behind furthering her education career was motivated by her desire to give her children a more comfortable life. She states, “I’m hoping to build up my resume, develop new skills, apply for higher paying jobs, and hopefully by the end I’ll be able to provide my family with a more stable income.” This confirms the idea that many adult learners go back to school to enhance their quality of life. However, Jaime’s motives are quite different. He explained that he took a couple “block” years to do some self discover and soul searching before jumping right back into school again. He asserted that he would not consider himself trying to elevate his current situation by going to school again because continuing his education was always apart of his plan- just not on everyone else’s timeline.
Both of them share similar difficulties by being an adult learner. One challenge they share is struggling to make ends meet and pass their classes at the same time. Jaime shares, “I have to support myself and drive up here for two hour long classes at the same time. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough time in the day, and rent isn’t cheap.” Both subjects have to find time to take care of their responsibilities. By speaking to Matilda about her struggles with being a mom and a student, it was made clear that her top priority does not lie in being returned student, but in being mom. The same is true about many adult learners. As seriously as they take their education, it’s difficult to put it ahead of the rest of their livelihood.
Jaime and Matilda both found having a job and going to school a challenge, but they have adapted and gotten more comfortable with their busy schedules. “…it’s..it’s tough, but managing multiple aspects of my life has taught me to keep organized, focus on the task at hand, and work as efficiently as possible.” Just as my research suggests, adult learners are proven to be very driven and task-oriented.
Both subjects agreed that attending university was not an option for them given their financial status. Matilda’s view on community college is that the education is just as good as any, if not better because of the smaller class sizes. She proudly took out the new computer she bought herself with the money she wasn’t “shoveling over to those fancy colleges.”
Adult learners show advanced time managed skills. Diligence and self-discipline when it comes to schooling. One major difference between adult learners. And traditional learners, especially children, is that one is motivated by self-determination and future goals. While the other is most likely required to attend by the government. “As I’ve grown older, I stopped focusing on the distractions. The time I spent away from school really matured me. My time invested at school is strictly goal oriented,” Jaime shared. Matilda wholeheartedly agreed. She described how she spent her time at school back when it was free. And how much more of a developed and effective learner she is now that she’s older, “I did not understand the importance of school. Now that I do, I don’t look at classes as a chore anymore.” With age comes with more realistic world views along with distinguishing what’s important and what is not.
Several conclusions can be made based on the research and interviews conducted. It is no doubt that adult learners are plagued with two major hardships; school and life responsibilities and cost, among many others. Except unlike children, adult learners are much better at weighing the importance of school. Unlike children, adult learners already have a set of values and preconceptions about the world they live in. Adult learners are actively involved in the learning process such that they make choices relevant to their learning objectives.
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