Engaging the Adult Learner

Many of us who work with adult learners have experienced both the rewards and the challenges in dealing with this population. University of Phoenix (UoP), where I serve as adjunct faculty and under full disclosure, also received my doctorate, instituted a program earlier this year to provide a more stable foundation for students returning to school with 23 or fewer credits. Many of these students possess lower skill levels than the typical college freshman. The thought around designing what UoP calls the ‘First Year Sequence’ (FYS) stemmed from the concept of laddering material taught over multiple courses to more effectively develop these skills. Essentially, FYS comprises a mix of general education, academic preparation, and life skills that provide a platform enabling this student population to succeed in college.
The three assumptions of the model are active involvement, cooperation and collaboration, and relevance and application. Academic skills are reinforced by building upon concepts introduced in previous courses, better enabling the student to learn and retain information. The other key piece of this program focuses on creating a sense of community. Previous entry-level courses were assignment-driven supplemented by topical forum discussions. FYS has been designed as more discussion-driven, supplemented by weekly assignments as well as a mid-term and final exam. Greater engagement and participation among students is encouraged, as they are provided daily opportunities to share experiences relating to the curriculum.
UoP students are typically working adults which add another layer of complexity when returning to school.  These challenges include balancing commitments to work, family, and community while attending school. Many students are the primary providers for their families and may work several jobs to not only support their family but also cover the cost of their education, Returning to school full or part-time after many years can pose unique challenges to an older student, including but not limited to re-learning and re-developing study, note-taking, and research skills; and for many, conquering the feeling of being perceived as "old". Then there are the younger students, who slid through their high school years, or never finished and instead went on to secure a GED. This population faces unique challenges that are not necessarily addressed in a more traditional classroom environment.
I am in the final week of teaching one of the first courses introduced in Block 1 of the FYS for Axia College, University of Phoenix. (FYS at Axia College consists of eight courses, taught in two-course blocks. A ‘content’ course is paired with a ‘skill-building course’). This is the first time I have facilitated in the FYS and have found the experience far richer for both myself and the students than previous entry-level courses I facilitated under the ‘old model’.
I will admit, I was skeptical this particular population would be able to hold its own with the increased amount of discussion opportunities as well as the weekly assignments. In previous entry-level courses, it was a constant challenge when the discussions were more evenly spaced; to coach students to not only create substantive discussion responses but to meet weekly participation requirements as well as meet assignment deadlines. Not only have the students’ surpassed discussion and participation requirements, they consistently meet assignment deadlines. (There only one or two who have not managed to stay fully engaged).
One course does not a trend ‘make’; however, I am of the belief that the increased discussion and participation more ably engages this particular student demographic with the material and their classmates. There is constant reinforcement to the student that s/he is not alone, as something is happening in the online classroom five out of seven days of the week. If the student is engaged, s/he is more likely to continue his/her academic pursuits. The university will retain the learner; the student will complete a degree.
Why is looking at post-secondary models for adult learners, such as the one put into practice at UoP important? According to Carnevale (2008) by the year 2018, 47 million job openings or jobs will be created, with two-thirds of those jobs requiring some postsecondary education or training. According to the 2000 census, 60% of the U.S. population (ages 24-64) has no postsecondary degree. Granted, 2010 numbers are not yet in and the picture may be different; but I would surmise, not radically different. Focusing on college degree completion for today’s youth will not suffice if we want to prepare for this expanding labor market. As educators, we must innovate and trial models that will attract adult learners so our country can meet the anticipated growing need for college-educated workers.
What are other institutions doing to help these students become successful?
Carnevale, A. (2010). Ready or not: The jobs recovery and educational requirements through 2018. Georgetown, WA, DC: Georgetown University.