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


Adults need reassurance. They feel out of sync, as if they do not belong in this milieu. Their fear of failure is high. They need reassurance that they are welcome in the classroom and that the old brain cells are still alive and can learn.

Access to Alternative Procedures.

In the middle of a term, adult students may find that emergencies from home and work conflict with class responsibilities. Effective teaching of adult students requires a flexible style of classroom management, for the very life experiences that enhance learning and teaching also compete with class work. Instructors can offer alternative procedures to accommodate circumstances that are out of students hands.

Such procedures do not require a lowering of academic standards, but do require flexible and creative solutions, such as: taking an Incomplete grade in the course and completing it by an agreed upon date next term; withdrawing from the course with extenuating circumstances; or substituting take-home exams for in-class exams. Because adults have competing demands on their time from work and family, they rarely know that these alternative procedures are available. You will want to take the initiative in creating and suggesting alternative procedures for coping with emergencies. To do so requires familiarity with university-wide policies and procedures. For assistance with such procedures at USC-Columbia, call the Registrars office at 777-3549 or 777-3548.

Referral to Student Services.

Adult students have a host of needs that often are met by existing offices of student services. These needs include meeting other adult students, reducing test anxiety, managing stress, feeling at home on campus, finding child care and a quiet place to study. Instructors need to know what support systems already exist on campus and how to refer students to them. For this information, call the Division of Student Affairs at 777-4172. Teaching Techniques

When adults bring their life experiences into class discussions, they assist instructors make practical applications of theoretical concepts. Effective teachers will use the experiences of adult students to enhance the learning of everyone in the class. Because adult students connect theory with practice, they raise the tenor of the classroom to a more exciting learning experience. Some instructors may feel threatened; but excellent teachers relish the interplay of theory and application that adult students bring to their classrooms.

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.

  1. Allow each student only three chances to speak during each class, so the quieter ones may find an opening. If this restriction is announced early in the term, then its enforcement will be accepted.

  2. For a divisive issue when traditional-age students may retreat into silence, ask each student to write a personal opinion on a 3" by 5" index card. Collect the cards and redistribute them to preserve anonymity. Then ask each student to read a card aloud and agree or disagree with what it says. This exposes all the controversial viewpoints and provides a foundation for real conversation.

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!