In the article, “Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students,” by Cari Kenner and Jason Weinerman, the authors discuss adult learning theories and the non-traditional college student. As a college professor for entry-level students, this article truly hits home as it identifies and focuses on the student body I work with every day. Today’s college students differ in many ways from “traditional” college students, and the article accurately describes this growing student population. The authors identify these learners as being financially independent adults between the ages of 25 and 50 with a high school diploma or GED and 1 semester or less of college-level coursework. According to Kenner and Weinerman, “Adult learners bring learning styles and life experiences that may be either critical foundations for future success or deeply entrenched beliefs that hinder learning in the academic environment” (2011, p. 87). When an instructor works with these non-traditional college students, they need to be aware of the students’ learning styles, frame their teaching strategies around those learning styles, and integrate the adult learners into the collegiate environment.
Kenner and Weinerman start with a hypothetical student, Alexis, who embodies this new student population – an adult student who couldn’t go to college when she was younger, but is now returning to college after her employer went out of business. However, Alexis faces serious challenges when she starts going to school – “Alexis realized the learning skills that were effective in her former job may not be as effective in the academic environment…she was not sure even how to start to adapt” (p. 87). While this student is hypothetical, I have met many students who face her challenges and are now struggling to adapt to the classroom environment after years in the job force. She is representative of a real student population.
The authors progress from here to a discussion of andragogy and adult learning theory, drawing heavily on the work of Malcolm Knowles who identified the four principles of adult learners. These four principles define this new college-going population as ready to learn, task motivated, and self-directed individuals with a depth of experience (2011). This research is highly supportive of the adult student described by Kenner and Weinerman, and helps to further define a nontraditional student.
Next, the authors explain adult learning strategy and theory. Specifically, they discuss Schraw and Moshman’s three metacognitive frameworks: tacit theory, informal theory, and formal theory. Kenner and Weinerman focuses specifically on tacit theory and informal theory, which they feel connects clearly with adult learners. For example, tacit theory is demonstrated in their hypothetical student Alexis whose previous educational experiences may not translate appropriately to a critical thinking driven classroom. The authors also show how informal theory is seen in rewards systems within the workplace that drive career advancements, a major reason for adults to return to school.
Now that Kenner and Weinerman have established their theoretical backgrounds and research, they focus on the major challenge of working with nontraditional students – how does one take these theories and put them into practice? They state, “By having an awareness of the different learning styles of adult learners, framing learning strategies in immediately useful ways, and using competition and repetition, the developmental educator can enhance the integration of the adult learner into the collegiate environment” (p. 90). Adult learners bring with them a varied level of knowledge, education, and experience that instructors need to be aware of in order to provide nontraditional students with successful tools.
Not only do instructors need to be aware of adult students’ backgrounds, they need to frame classroom activities around these backgrounds. Knowles had established that adult learners are task and goal oriented, while Kenner and Weinerman explain that instructors must connect theories directly to relevant real-world applications. The authors connect these two concepts by suggesting that assignments should translate beyond just the classroom to future courses and careers. They also share that breaking assignments into specific, smaller tasks will also help because this gives the adult learner small steps that will translate into larger steps in the future. Together, these two strategies will provide the necessary framing that translates learning strategies into something immediate and useful.
The final concept shared by Kenner and Weinerman is that of competition and repetition. Adult learners have often been out of the academic environment for a long time, and their established metacognitive strategies may be difficult to change. They use the example that adult learners may be reading non-academic material, such as newspapers, books, or manuals, and may not be properly equipped to read and study textbooks. Unfortunately, the authors state, most adult learners are not aware of their pre-existing learning strategies. Here is where the competition comes into play – the new strategies used in academia are competing with these pre-existing strategies. This is why creating a Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI) can help them realize these established strategies and then adapt or change them to a collegiate environment.
However, simply teaching adult learners these strategies or showing them these strategies isn’t enough, Kenner and Weinerman argue. Repetition is necessary; the student needs to see the information repetitively, but not identically. The authors explain that adult learners need to practice these skills in new and varying scenarios so that they can learn and retain that information. When facing an adult learner with ingrained theories and metacognitive strategies, repetition will allow them to retrain their brains so that they can be successful in the future.
Overall, Kenner and Weinerman provide a compelling and well-researched discussion of the challenges that adult learners face when joining the academic environment. Adult learners are often ill-equipped for academic work simply due to pre-existing metacognitive strategies, theories, and habits that need to be re-trained. They may feel overwhelmed at times and may not know who to turn to, as they are often self-directed and internally focused. However, “Adult learners want to be in the classroom” and are motivated, so with proper instruction, they can be transitioned properly into academia (p. 95).
Kenner, C. and Weinerman, J. (2011). Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 41(2). Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ926365.pdf
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