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New Guide – Teaching Adult Undergraduate Students

Posted by on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 in News.

The Center for Teaching’s recently released teaching guide Teaching Adult Undergraduate Students is a tool for instructors and administrators considering the needs of adult (or non-traditional) students on Vanderbilt’s campus. Adult learners returning to college after military service, parenthood, or other life experiences may approach college in a very different way than their less experienced classmates. This guide provides research-based suggestions for supporting adult students that I hope will be useful for instructors. One adult undergraduate student in particular volunteered to review this guide prior to publication. Her response included this reiteration of the guide’s recommendations:

I LOVE when a professor notices I’m a non-traditional and actually asks me stuff during the lectures. It makes me feel like I have value, and I’m not just an old lady taking up space. I do wish some younger professors understood children, spouses and 1 hour plus commutes each direction. Some make me feel like I have to pick between [my identities of] student and mama.

This guide attempts to provide instructors with resources for supporting adult undergraduate students who are navigating Vanderbilt classrooms and their own complex lives.

One of the more difficult questions to answer about adult learning is actually contained right in the title of the guide. When we talk about “adult” students, to whom exactly are we referring? Some college faculty refer to their students as “kids”, while other instructors insist on talking to and treating college students as peers, with many variations in between. The question of who is an adult is addressed early in the teaching guide, but it is never resolved. The recommendations I give are based on studies of older, non-traditional age students, yet I suspect that many of our younger students would also benefit from more collaboration, autonomy, and personal connection. So, in a sense, I have left it to the reader to determine whether her students are adults and, if so, how to best apply adult learning principles in the classroom.

So, what does adult education research have to offer instructors at Vanderbilt? Educating adult students is not about simply transferring knowledge from instructor to students. Rather, the core of adult learning is experience, reflection, and experimentation. Almost 100 years ago when adult learning first emerged as a discipline in the field of education, the major debates were about whether adults were capable of learning at all, and if so, in what ways. Learning was considered the domain of the young, separate from the growth and change that adults experienced over their lifetimes. Over time, the field of adult education has been at the forefront of important questions such as:

  • How do people learn through experience?
  • What is the role of reflection in learning?
  • How do individuals develop greater appreciation of difference?

These are the kinds of essential questions about life and learning that drive many of us who work in higher education.

Whether you encounter non-traditional adult students in your classroom or not, my hope is that you will read this guide and come to believe, as I have, that the fields of adult learning and adult education provide important insights that can benefit you and your students.




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