The Adult Learner

Photo of Karen Galardi, EdD, Dean of Graduate and Professional Studies

By Karen Galardi, EdD
Dean, Graduate and Professional Studies

Have you ever wondered why adults look for opportunities to learn? Some may be seeking new knowledge and skills while others may be looking for opportunities for career advancement. There are even those looking for a new skill set that will prepare them for a complete career change. Whatever the motivation, adult students may face unanticipated barriers and challenges when looking to return to college. Oftentimes, these students are working full-time, may have personal responsibilities such as a spouse, children, or caring for elderly parents, or have financial obligations.

They may be unfamiliar with the new higher education landscape. Who do I contact? What is the right program for me? What financial aid paperwork is required? Higher education has changed over the past two decades and these are a few of the questions returning students may have when they embark on this new journey. The ability of an institution to assist a prospective student in lowering these barriers is to give them the information they need to make an informed decision.      

One of the most important features to adult learners is program choice. Does an institution offer the program they are interested in pursuing? If so, is the program convenient for them and their lifestyle. Is there flexibility of the program offerings? Are they looking for face-to-face, blended or online options and what best fits their personal situation? Also, does the institution have support services and staff available to meet at the times when the students are available, such as in the evening and on weekends. Finding an institution that has a department or division dedicated to the needs of the adult learner is critical to helping them make an informed decision about their educational future.  

The classroom experience, whether face-to-face, blended, or in the online environment, is also key to adult student success. Pedagogy is the traditional model of teaching and includes methodologies and strategies that are used to impart education to younger students. Adult learners are different. Adults come to the classroom with a variety of knowledge and experiences which need to be taken into consideration. Andragogy is the method and practice of teaching adult learners where the instructors are facilitators of the learning process and students are active and participative in their learning environment (Smith, 2002). They bring their unique experiences to the classroom and are also looking for information they can apply to real-life problems.  Finding a program that offers an engaging, participatory environment that builds upon the strengths of the student’s experiences is key to a successful adult learning environment. 

It is never too late to return to school. You may get that promotion, increase your salary, and enhance your skill set, contributing to a self-validating experience. 

Smith, M. K. (2002). Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction, and andragogy. Retrieved from