Academic journal article Journal of College Reading and Learning

Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students

Academic journal article Journal of College Reading and Learning

Adult Learning Theory: Applications to Non-Traditional College Students

Article excerpt


Alexis graduated from high school but lacked the financial resources to go to college. Instead, she went to work in a local machine shop working on a punch press machine. During the recent recession, her employer went out of business and she lost her job. While she quickly mastered the repetitive skills involved in managing her press machine, this employment experience did not provide her with the critical thinking skills and particular analytical ability that would be required in the collegiate environment. A few weeks into her first semester, Alexis realized the learning skills that were effective in her former job may not be as effective in the academic environment. College was going to be a challenge and she was not sure even how to start to adapt.

While Alexis is not a real student, she is a composite of many of the adult learners that enter today's higher education community. These new adult learners bring learning styles and life experiences that may either be critical foundations for future success or deeply entrenched beliefs that hinder learning in the academic environment. As adult learners enroll in their entry level courses, college instructors will need to realize that these adult learners differ from the traditional college student. Although these differences present challenges for educators, they also provide opportunities for educators to embrace the life experiences and wisdom that these adult learners bring to the collegiate community.

While adult learners can be classified in many ways, this piece will focus on how best to understand and teach entry-level adult learners who are between the ages of 25 and 50, have a high school diploma or a GED, are financially independent, and have one semester or less of college-level coursework.

Three main groups of students lead the charge in the growing number of adult learners entering college developmental education courses: (a) workers who have lost their jobs because of the recession of 2008 and who require developmental coursework to refresh their entry level collegiate skills, (b) veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq who delayed their education to serve in the armed forces (Katapos, 2009), and, (c) adults who have just completed their GED and are moving onto higher education classes ("GED classes," 2009). By understanding what makes adult learners different from traditional students, developmental educators can provide specific tools that help adult learners integrate into the college or university environment and increase their chances for success.

Horn's (1996) ranking of students on a scale from minimally nontraditional to highly nontraditional recognizes the challenges facing adult learners, such as Alexis, who move into higher education. Older students (those more than 25 years) generally have at least four non-traditional factors: financial independence, full-time employment, dependents, and part-time enrollment. Therefore, many older students fall into Horn's highly nontraditional category, placing them at significant risk for not completing their degree (Lane, 2004).

Andragogy and Adult Learning Theory

Much adult learning theory comes from the organizational development (OD) field where the focus on learning theory is seen as a way of providing employees with the tools they needed to perform better in the workplace. In the 1950s and 1960s, OD practitioners created new learning models because traditional higher education pedagogical models did not translate well into the workplace training environment. OD practitioners coined the term andragogy to recognize the needs and features of this distinct learning population and to separate adult learning theory from traditional pedagogy (Knowles, 1974). Building upon theories from organizational development, Knowles identified four principles that characterize adult learners:

a. They are self directed, take responsibility for their own actions, and resist having information arbitrarily imposed on them. …

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