Teaching Adult Students
Dorothy S. Fidler
Between 1970 and 1985, the United States saw a 115% rise in adult students entering college. Since 1985, this increase has continued until now more than 50% of the undergraduate student body on many campuses is comprised of adult students (students over 25 years old). At USC-Columbia, nearly one-third of the undergraduate student population is over 25, so chances are high that you will find several adult students in every day-time class. And, of course, adults will predominate in evening classes. Contrary to stereotypes which assume that the vast majority of adult students are women, over 40% are males between the ages of 25 and 60.
Adult students are not a homogeneous group; they are as varied in ability as traditional-age students. Yet the following characteristics identity this group so vividly that college teachers often notice a typical adult student on the first day of class!
Anxiety. Adult students come to campus terrified of competing with younger students for grades. Adults fear that younger students with their more recent schooling will succeed easily while they themselves will fail miserably. This high anxiety translates into a ferocious, all-consuming motivation to learn.
Rusty Academic Skills. Most adults enter college with rusty academic skills. They often need remedial courses that review content such as algebra and grammar which they have forgotten over the years away from formal academic settings. Most adult students, once they survive the first term, find that their high motivation equips them to succeed in college.
Higher Grades. After brushing up their academic skills for a term or two, they often become the curve-busters in class. On the whole, they attain higher grades than younger students; and in fact, traditional-age students learn to fear the competition for grades from the intensely motivated adult students in their classes.
Part-time Students. The great majority of adult students enroll part-time and work full-time. They experience intense and conflicting demands from work and family which must take priority over academic requirements. Good Consumers. Adult students by and large pay for their own education. They have learned to demand their money's worth in the marketplace, and now they bring that demand to the campus. They come to campus with great idealism, a sense of reverence for higher education. They expect instructors to be purveyors of truth and justice. And when instructors do not measure up, they complain fiercely...sometimes to the dean!
Needs of Adult Students
Adult students who share their life experiences may begin to dominate class discussions; the silent majority may be traditional-age students. The following two techniques can alleviate an imbalance between mute and highly verbal students regardless of age.
The two techniques listed above provide ways to assure that all students feel invited to enter class discussions. Effective instructors encourage students of all ages to find their voices and challenge the givens of society, thereby empowering them to change themselves, their relationships at home and work, the academy, and the political, social, and cultural structures. Such is the reward of teaching!