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Adult Ed. Tipsheet

Adult Education in Practice
Teaching Methods and Course Structure

'(L)earning rests not upon the teaching skills of the leader, not upon scholarly knowledge of the field, not upon curricular planning, not upon use of audiovisual aids, not upon the programmed learning used, not upon lectures and presentations, not upon an abundance of books, though each of these might one time or another be utilized as an important resource. No, the facilitation of significant learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities that exist in the personal relationship between the facilitator and the learner.'
Carl Rogers

In this section, we get to the nitty-gritty of adapting a course to fit adult learners. However, the success of such strategies, as Carl Rogers implies, often depends on building a good relationship between the instructor and the learner. Thus, suggestions for creating inclusive classrooms are also included. The sections have been broken into sets of short tips which can be incorporated into a course.

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Memory and Adults


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Course Design

Adults tend to be problem-centered in their orientation. Problem solving is one of the most beneficial educational opportunities for adults. Thus, curriculum for adults should be organized around problems rather than subjects and these problems should reflect the concerns that adults have experienced. (P.54, Knowles)

Curriculum must be inclusive in order to be relevant to learners. It is important to remember that a curriculum always represents a particular world view, generally the world view of the dominant culture. The following are a collection guidelines or suggestions for creating an inclusive learning curriculum(Imel):

Active Learning

  • Active learning and cooperation among students are the best predictors of gains for both young women and men (study of 18-22 year old students)(P. 435-447, Kuh et al.) and are good strategies to use with older students. Active learning is defined as activities like the following: Students in courses which encouraged active learning versus courses which involved strictly lecture earned similar scores on knowledge tests but much higher scores on tests of ability to self-correct, consider multiple perspectives, understand the larger context of a problem, or relate theory and practice. (P.7-8, Wright) An effective curriculum will include elements of active learning.

    Learners seek formal education for a wide variety of reasons. If assumptions are made about the motivation of learners or if courses are designed as if there is but one motivation for all learners, retention may be a problem. For example, if a learner is in a course in order to make social contacts and the course is strictly lecture with little interaction among members, the student is likely to not complete the course. (P.141, Cross)

    Adults attend college for a myriad of reasons. Often, individual learners each have a myriad of reasons for attending. Tough makes an attempt at a comprehensive list. For example, a learner may be motivated by: (P.45-62, Tough)

    Houle separated the motivations of learners into three very general typologies that seem to encompass the diversity. These are (P.83, Merriam et al.) What is not included in these lists is learning as a social outlet. For an enlarged list of typologies which addresses motivations that are more commonly foundin women, see the Women, Gender, and Ethnicity section of this document.

    The reasons adults learn are very diverse. While it is not important to know all reasons for all students, it is important to realize not all students are there for the same reason. Understanding the diversity of motivation of your students is the first step toward designing effective courses.

    Course Structure
    Will you be a sage on a stage or a guide on the side? The issue is more complex than it may appear at first glance. Lectures can be dynamic, dramatic, and memorable. (P.124-130, Reinsmith)A lecture may be the best way to teach an inexperienced, fresh-behind-the-ears, recent high school graduate (P.19, Tice.) It may also be the best way to teach an older adult with limited self-directed learning experience. According to william Perry's model, adults in the first stage of intellectual and ethical development (a group which is not restricted to the young) see the world in polar terms of right vs. wrong. These students have little tolerance for gray areas. When faced with uncertainty in a course, these learners will often perceive the instructor as poorly qualified and this lack of qualification as the reason for the uncertainty.(P.180, Cross). These learners often complain that facilitators are abdicating their role by forcing learners to take responsibility and make judgements they are not equipped to make. Instead of being pleased about opportunites to form their own opinions and judgments, they may be confused and intimidated by this reversal of their expectations about education(P.13, Brookfield). It is important to be aware of this when teaching adults who do not have a long educational history.

    Despite the fact that lecturing has fallen from grace and other methods have been shown to be more effective, lecturing sometimes has a place. The implication of this is that while we want to move our students toward independence and ability to direct their learning, we must be aware that not all will embrace the opportunity. In the early stages of this process, many will struggle, complain, and be very uncomfortable. Facilitation should be balanced with structure. We should aim to be a guide on the side but we may want to avoid requiring students to blaze their own trails.

    Teachable Moments
    A developmental task is a task which is learned at a specific point and which makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible. When the timing is right, the ability to learn a particular task will be possible. This is referred to as a 'teachable moment' (P5, Havighurst). It is important to keep in mind that unless the time is right, learning will not occur. Hence, it is important to repeat important points whenever possible so that when a student's teachable moment occurs, s/he can benefit from the knowledge. (In addition, adults do not have the acuity of hearing that children have, so repeating key points is always a good idea.)

    Research says when they control the pace, adults in their 40's and 50's have the same ability to learn that they had in their 20's and 30's (P.154-155, Cross). Thus, the ideal course will build in flexibility of deadlines and due dates.

    In grade school, the learner is rarely in charge of the process. However, adults need to have some control over the process. The following are a collection of strategies for allowing learner control.

    There is a growing skepticism about the universality of knowledge. The affect of this 'postmodern' view of the world has been the erosion of the liberal curriculum and a valuing of different sources and forms of knowledge. (P.162, Edwards, et al) Young adults seem to be more skeptical of universal knowledge than older adults. The affect of this schism should be considered when designing curriculum.


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    Teaching Methods

    Many people have attempted to describe the attributes of a successful adult education facilitator. Here are some attributes on which most seem to agree.
    Successful adult education facilitators:(P.183, Tough) and (P. 176, Tennant et al.)

    It goes without saying (hopefully) that the first step to being a successful facilitator should be to learn everyone's name. (P.146-147, Apps) Even if the class is large, (especially if the class is large!) this is important. Many universities are beginning to recognize this. For example, at Florida State University, a class roll which includes student ID photos can be generated to aid in tying names to faces.

    Scaffolding, a term taken from Applebee and Langer, involves empowering students with their own authority. A task which they need to accomplish is identified. They are then given a facilitator-determined scaffold or structure to follow in order to achieve the task. Once that task is achieved, the next task is set and scaffolded again. A new task is set. Using the previous scaffolds, students can begin to learn on their own. As they become increasingly in control of their own learning, they can adapt the scaffolds to various situations.

    Praxis is Greek for action with reflection. The idea of doing while learning is a widely recommended approach to teaching adults (P.87, Vella) (and children too, although the existence of some kind of participatory and collaborative element may be one of the most frequently cited differences between the education of chidren and the education of adults.(P.14, Brookfield(1))

  • ) Returning students want to see how the theory relates to the practical application. (P.149-153, Apps) One way to 'do' while learning is to set skills in the context of problem solving. Another is to provide experiences for the learners and allow them to construct their own knowledge.

    Constructivism is a contextualized approach to learning. The presentation of context is an important aspect of teaching adults. (ref.)(P.54, Knowles) According to the constructivists, learners gain deep understanding when they act on new information with their present knowledge and resolve any discrepencies which arise. (P.58, Cruikshank, et al. When we notice information that conflicts with our present knowledge, we experience an internal sense of discomfort. Adults appear to be strongly motivated to reduce this discomfort by modifying knowledge structures and, thus, engaging in learning. (P.23, Dixon). Discovery learning can create situations which give rise to a constructivist approach. The major beliefs about discovery learning are (P.59, Cruikshank, et al.)

    Spaced Lecture
    A spaced lecture is a good way to incorporate active learning into a traditional lecture course. This method involves pausing during a lecture and giving the students two to three minutes to review the material related thus far and then to summarize it in the students' own words.(Sitler) This method takes some class time but offers two, not insignificant, advantages. It allows the learner to engage actively with the lecture while it also allows the instructor to find out what was heard by the students and how they are interpreting the information.


  • When designing websites for your courses, there are several factors to keep in mind. Research shows that website users do not form mental models of a site. Therefore, the integration of numerous navigational links is very important.(P18-20, Spool, et al.) In addition, readability of a website is very different from readability of a text. In a text, the use of white-space and short words increases readability. On a website, the reverse increases the "scanability" or ability of readers to gain the most information from the site. Extra words and white-space simply get in the way. (P67-79, Spool, et al.)

    One of the benefits of groupwork is increased social integration. Social integration has been show to have a significant positive effect on retention. Small groups of peers at the same level of career maturity create a social environment that motivates adult learners to persist. P.2, Kerka The importance of drawing on the experiences, skills, and values of the learners themselves is an internationally supported tenet of adult education(P.812, Ducci). Groups allow students to draw on these experiences.

    Groups and groupwork is an especially important experience for minority students since they often must work with people from the dominant culture when they begin their careers. Groups can give them valuable experiences and insights into this 'other' culture.

    The constructivist view stresses communication among students and between students and the facilitator. Four kinds of communication environments can be distinguished (P390, Collins et al.):

    Ideally, an instructor uses different types of communication within a classroom.

    Questions that allow students to interpret and incorporate facts into their experiences are especially helpful to adult learners (P.22, Turoczy). However, dialogue can get out of hand unless ground rules are set. These ground rules might include topics such as, must learners raise their hand and wait or can they jump in, are there times when dialogue will not be appropriate, etc. It is also important to solicite opposing viewpoints and encourage participation.

    Dialogue doesn't have to be confined to the classroom. The internet offers wonderful opportunities for additional dialogue. The internet allows us to extend cooperative problem solving outside of the immediate community of learners R. Martin and into a multicultural community.

    For additional information on dialogue and learning, see the Women, Gender, and Ethnicity section of this site.


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    Last edited: April 1999.
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    Apps, Jerold W. (1981) The Adult Learner on Campus. Chicago: Follet Publishing Co.
    Though some of the material may be dated, this book contains many useful examples of exemplary practices.

    (1)Brookfield, Stephen D. (1986). Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1986.

    (2)Brookfield, Stephen (1992 April). Why Can't I Get this Right? Myths and Realities in Facilitating Adult Learning. Adult Learning, P12-15.
    As the title suggests, this article looks at some myths about adult education.

    Collins, A., J. G. Greeno, and L. B. Resnick, Environments for Learning

    Cranton, Patricia. (1996). Professional Development as Transformative Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Cruikshank, Donald R., Deborah L. Bainer, Kim K. Metcalf. (1995). The Act of Teaching. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

    Dixon, Nancy M., The Organizational Learning Cycle: How We Can Learn Collectively.McGraw-Hill Book Co., London, 1994.

    Edwards, Richard and Robin Usher. (1996). University Adult Education in the Postmodern Moment: Trends and Challenges. Adult Education Quarterly, Vol.47, No.1.
    The authors discuss the postmodern viewpoint and its affect on education.

    Grossi, F. Vio and D. Palma, Latin America: Adult Education. Unesco.
    This article from UNESCO is a short one about the history of adult education in Latin America.

    Havighurst, Robert. (1953) Human Development and Education New York: David McKay Company.
    The "teachable moment"!

    Imel, Susan. (1995). Inclusive Adult Learning Environments.ERIC Clearinghouse, Digest No. 162 [].
    This short article is well worth the read.

    Kerka, Sandra, Adult Learner Retention Revisited. ERIC:, 1995.
    This short but helpful article looks at both ABE and adult higher education.

    Knowles, Malcolm. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New Jersey: Cambridge/Prentice Hall Regents.
    The Draves book (above) draws heavily from this classic work.

    Kuh, George D., C. Robert Pace, and Nick Vesper,The Development of Process Indicators to Extimate Student Gains Associated with Good Practices in Undergraduate Education. Research in Higher Education: Vol. 38, No. 4, 1997. This wonderful paper looks at process indicators for both male and female students.

    Merriam, Sharan B. and Rosemary S. Caffarella,Learning in Adulthood. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1991.
    This adult education handbook has a social conscience and is an excellent addition to an educator's library.

    Reinsmith, William A., Two Great Professors: Formidable Intellects with Affection for Students. College Teaching: Vol. 42, No. 4, Fall 1994.
    A former students fondly remembers two gifted lecturers.

    Sitler, Helen Collins, The Spaced Lecture, College Teaching, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer 1997.
    This article describes a method for incorporating active learning into lectures.

    Spool, Jared M., Tara Scanlon, Will Schroeder, Carolyn Snyder, Terri DeAngelo. (1997). Web Site Usability. North Andover, MA: User Interface Engineering.
    If you are designing web pages and are concerned about readability, this book is a must-have.

    Tennant, Mark and Philip Pogson, Learning and Change in the Adult Years: A Developmental Perspective (Chapters 1-3). Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco,

    Tice, Elizabeth T., Educating Adults: A Matter of Balance.Adult Learning, Vol.9, No. 1, Fall 1997.
    This is a thoughtful article on acheiving balance between 'old' and 'new' ways of teaching adults.

    Tough, A. M., The Adult's Learning Projects: A Fresh Approach to Theory and Practice in Adult Learning.Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, 1979.

    Turoczy, Cheryl, Question Well to Teach Well. Adult Learning, Vol.8, #5 & 6, p.22.

    Vella, Jane. (1994)Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
    This easy-to-read book on instructional design has a true international flavor and offers many excellent strategies for teaching non-traditional students.

    Wright, John C., Susan Millar, Steve Kosciuk, Debra Penberthy, Does Active Learning Cause Credible Differences in Student Competence? Focus on Calculus: Issue No. 13, Fall 1997.
    The authors look at the results of active Learning vs. lecture method in the hard sciences.

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