Facilitating Responsibility for Learning in Adult Community College Students

By Howell, Cynthia Lake | The Catalyst, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Facilitating Responsibility for Learning in Adult Community College Students


Howell, Cynthia Lake, The Catalyst


ERIC Clearinghouse for Community Colleges

Community colleges enroll over 2.5 million adult students, defined as those age 25 and older. In 1997, nearly a third of community college students were age 30 or older; 46 percent were age 25 or older (Philippe, 2000). Attracting the enrollment of adult students, however, is only the first step in helping them achieve their educational goals. Adult students, particularly if they are the first in their families to pursue postsecondary education, are often unfamiliar with how to succeed in the community college (Valadez, 1993). This digest will review adult students' learning expectations and needs, followed by recommendations for community colleges to facilitate responsibility for learning in adult students.

Expectations of Adult Students

Adult students come to community colleges with a variant set of characteristics. They are more likely to attend part-time, to take courses for self-improvement initially rather than for degree completion, and to enroll intermittently. They often work full-- time and support dependents, frequently as single parents (Horn & Carroll; 1996). They are likely to take longer to complete their programs, but because they take their education seriously, they generally earn better grades than younger students do (Horn &Carroll, 1996). Adults bring realistic, practical goals for their education and valuable life experience to the community college classroom (Brookfield, 1986; Knowles, 1984; Lawler, 1991).

However, adult students attending community colleges for the first time are sometimes inadequately prepared, both academically and psychologically, for what will be expected for college-level learning. In particular, first-- generation students may have given little thought to postsecondary education while still in high school - or may never have completed high school at all - and therefore lack realistic expectations (Valadez, 1993). They tend to feel what Brookfield (1999) labels impostership, a sense that they have neither the ability nor even the right to become college students. They are likely to hold stereotypical impressions of college teachers, envisioning them as the all-knowing experts who pour wisdom into the heads of their students. When adult students taking classes for the first time hear instead that they must think for themselves, that there are no clear right or wrong answers, and that the purpose of a college education is to ask the right questions rather than find the right answers, they may feel confused, frustrated, and perhaps even cheated (Brookfield, 1999).

To elicit interest that leads to involvement, which in turn encourages responsibility, the curriculum must take into account what questions are most intriguing and significant to students. Course content must also bring about a sufficient grasp of concepts, principles, or skills that adult students can apply to new problems and situations (Barr &Tagg, 1995).

Learning to Learn

Adult students enroll in community colleges with already established lives, bringing far more experience and practical information than younger students. They are interested in knowing how new knowledge relates to what they already know so that they can create a framework within which they can make sense of the new information (Brookfield, 1986; Knox, 1977). Adult students benefit from being able to associate new learning with their previous experiences and accomplishments, what Brookfield (1986) terms a "connectedness" to learning. Thus, effective approaches to helping adults learn include contributions from the students and their involvement in what is being taught and how it is being taught. In keeping with the mission of community colleges to encourage life-long learning, one goal of the faculty should be to lead students to becoming self-- directed learners, and to do so means encouraging and supporting adult students' involvement in their own learning.

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