Susan Nix, program chair and associate professor of educational leadership at West Texas A&M University, uses Malcolm Knowles' adult learning concepts when teaching adult online learners. This article describes ways she adapts her online courses to align with these principles.
In some ways adult learners seem to be ideal learners. They're often self-motivated and goal-oriented; however, failing to teach with their specific needs in mind can make these positive characteristics irrelevant. To better understand how adults learn, consider the following four assumptions from Malcolm Knowles related to adult learning:
Â—Changes in self-concept—Adults prefer to be responsible for decisions related to their education.
Role of experience—Adults learn best by drawing on their experience.
Readiness to learn—Relevance is important to adult learners. They need to know why they should learn something, what they will gain from the experience.
Orientation to learning—Adults have a problem-centered orientation to learning rather than content-orientation, and they are internally motivated.
Although Knowles' work is not specific to adult online learners, these ideas are equally applicable regardless of the learning modality. Susan Nix, program chair and associate professor of educational leadership at West Texas A&M University, uses these adult learning concepts when teaching adult online learners. The following are some ways that she adapts her online courses to align with these principles:
Allow access to the entire course at the start. Because adult learners are self-directed, Nix makes the entire course available once students enter it at the beginning. This enables them to be somewhat self-paced to help them to fit their studies into their busy schedules. There are deadlines and requirements for interaction, but to the extent possible, she provides this flexibility.
“If I don't have deadlines throughout the semester, students, because of their busy lives, will wait until the night I'm going to close [the course or course component], and the interactions are worthless. I want to see real interaction, posting ideas after they've read, and then responding to each other,” Nix says.
Ask students to draw on their experience and express opinions. “I'm not teaching a textbook. The textbook is a tool, and I'm going to be very judicious about what I have them read. I'm more interested in what they think about what they read,” Nix says. “That makes grading very interesting because you get 20 different perspectives when you're reading an assignment.”
Rather than giving adult learners page requirements for writing assignments, Nix asks students to write about certain concepts and incorporate what they're reading in the textbook and relate it to what they do in their work. “It's assimilating that information in a very real way and reflecting on it. It's getting them to tell what they think about what they're reading, which makes it more relevant to them,” Nix says.
The discussion board is another important venue for adult learners to share their experiences and opinions. “I really believe in getting the students to participate in the online forums but not all in response to me. A lot of professors will pose a question in an online forum, and then 30 to 40 people try answer the same question. But there are only so many ways you can answer that question, and it becomes counterproductive pretty quickly. I've never done that,” Nix says.
Instead, Nix lists several concepts from the unit and has students discuss them in the forum in relation to their work environments. Once again, this increases the relevance of the content and enables students to discuss different perspectives on these concepts. Framing discussion board assignments in this manner generates high levels of thoughtful and engaging participation, Nix says.
Give students choices. Whenever possible Nix gives her adult online learners choices about which aspects of the content they focus on. In one assignment, for example, she has students select two chapters from a textbook unit to read and asks students to explain why they chose them. “That gets at their individual educational needs. … Everybody's assignment is different, and students provide their rationale in their own ways. It makes it more relevant to them,” Nix says.
Use scenario-based assessments. Nix creates scenario-based assessments that aim for higher levels of thinking—application (within Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Domains) and concept (Erickson's Levels of Complexity)—in order for the content to reach students' long-term memory.
For example, rather than giving a simple vocabulary test, Nix incorporates the vocabulary into a realistic scenario that is relevant to the learners' lives. “I don't believe assessment is a way to catch people and show how stupid they are. I believe it's about learning. It's about content going into long-term memory. I allow students to take their assessments twice, and most of them tell me that they take it cold the first time to see how they do and then go back and take it again. And their scores always improve.
“Students have said over and over again in end-of-course evaluations how much they appreciated as an adult learner and how much more meaningful it is to them because it's scenario-based. Plus they can use their materials. We know that in the online environment that students are going to talk to each other and help each other. So I just put it out in the open and say, ‘Use your materials. Gather them before you take the assessment and use them as tools.' Then they're actually going back into the textbook and their materials, and they get double exposure to the content,” Nix says.
Make the course accessible. Adult learners are often quite knowledgeable and dedicated to their studies, and yet they may still struggle. This may be the result of an undiagnosed learning disability. (Older generations have not been subjected to the same level of learning disability diagnostic testing that younger students have been.)
Online courses often require a lot reading, which can pose problems for adult learners with learning disabilities related to reading. To address this issue, Nix creates narrated PowerPoint presentations. “I want my speech on my audio recordings to be free of the normal things we do when we speak—the ums and pauses. So I script them. When I hit record, the narration comes out much cleaner and, hopefully, more professional,” Nix says.
Listen to the students. Adult learners often have good ideas that can improve an online course. “You can have a great design, and think the course is great. You put it out there, and since you've created it it's actually a part of you. You have to be willing to listen to your students,” Nix says. “It's not just me to the students; it's also from the students to me,” Nix says.
Nix has made changes to her courses based on suggestions from her adult learners. One time, for example, a student asked if there was a way to keep the online forums open after the discussion had ended to enable students to reread them. Nix hadn't considered this until she got this message. Instead, she would close the forums as she graded them. She contacted the IT department and made the change.
In an internship course, a suggestion from a student prompted Nix to change how she used the course rubrics. The student wanted to be able to use the rubrics to measure progress throughout the semester, and so Nix now requires students to send weekly emails explaining what they did in their internships, which enables her to guide the learning process by providing feedback on their experience, thus guiding the quality of the overall internship process.
Always give feedback. “I can't mark an adult learner down when grading without telling why. That's showing basic respect to the adult learner. If I'm going to take points off something, I have to be able to tell you why. My [graduate assistant] know that and gives ideas and suggestions the same way I do. Students don't get assignments back without specific comments on ways they can improve something,” Nix says.
Overall, attention to the characteristics of adult learners has impacted online course design greatly and has resulted in a more satisfying learning experience as indicated by comments in course evaluations. However, it is a dynamic, ever-changing environment impacted by the new students each semester.
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