The word “student” commonly evokes images of children or young adults learning in a familiar classroom setting. However, adults are often students as well. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, adults made up nearly 40% of higher education students in 2020. That represents a significant portion of the student population that not only requires different teaching methods but faces unique challenges in their pursuit of further education. These barriers can even permeate corporate training exercises that adults could use to advance their careers.
Sometimes these barriers exist during the learning process, but they can also prevent adults from pursuing additional education entirely. EdApp’s microlearning blog reminds us that adults have many responsibilities beyond their schooling, including their jobs, families and more. Teachers who work with adult learners need to be mindful of these challenges.
Fortunately, there are ways teachers can accommodate the unique needs of adult learners. Here’s a look at some of the common obstacles or barriers adult learners face in their education, as well as what educators can do to mitigate these challenges.
Many adults have significant time demands and must balance a variety of responsibilities along with their education. As EdApp points out, even if learners can attend an in-person class session, their energy might not be ideal for learning.
Teachers can help in this area by offering flexible lesson times. Even if a class does have a fixed time for in-person meetings, recording lectures and presenting them in an easily accessible digital platform allows adults to learn at their own pace and convenience. Trying to make oneself available during favorable windows for adult learners, such as in the evenings, can also be helpful to accommodate time constraints.
Anxiety or Fear of Failure
Everyone wants to succeed. But for adult learners who are re-entering classrooms or pursuing further training in their job, adjusting to the actual learning process can be unsettling. Learning often involves failure or struggles as students adapt to new concepts and ideas. Those aren’t results adults are used to in a typical workplace environment.
An article from iSpring Solutions suggests flexibility and empowerment to counter these reactions. Teachers should be sure to empower their students and remind them that this is part of the learning process — and that “making mistakes now in training is much better than not knowing how to act in work and real-life situations.” Remind them they can reach the proper level of knowledge and skill with practice. It can also be helpful to offer multiple chances to answer questions or assessments so adult learners feel freer to take a chance or make a mistake.
Resistance to Change
Learning new concepts usually requires stepping out of your comfort zone, but that isn’t easy to do for some people. For example, grasping a new technology can sometimes be intimidating, even if that isn’t actually the case. In classrooms or training, this can be a turn-off for many adult learners. New technology or concepts can also feel redundant or unnecessary, leading people to ignore their potential utility.
The best thing teachers can do in these situations is to recognize these concerns, validate them and attempt to work through them with adult students. Teachers should not be condescending or scolding but rather reassuring and encouraging as learners undertake new endeavors. Above all, “clear, supportive communication is a must,” as the iSpring Solutions article says.
A program like Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education (MSEd) with a Concentration in Adult Education teaches graduates the distinct challenges adult learners face and how to accommodate their needs and create a learning environment they can easily access.