As an instructor, you realize the importance of making the classroom experience meaningful for all students, and you strive to ensure that each one has the opportunity to feel and be successful as a result of taking your course. Therefore, as the term begins, you’re likely considering how you can create a learning environment that proves relevant to all who enter.

As one example: many of the students you teach probably fall under the umbrella of the “traditional” student, who matriculated in college directly after high school. However, you’re also likely to find many adult learners, who have entered (or re-entered) college after a period of time away from school.

If you have adult learners in your class, it does help to keep several points about their motivations, interests, and perspectives in mind as you teach and lead. In the Instructor’s Manual for The Adult Learner’s Companion: A Guide for the Adult College Student, Second Edition, Deborah Davis offers the following suggestions for teaching and motivating adult learners effectively. Review her suggestions and consider which might help you in your quest to support them:

  • Use the adult learner’s experience and knowledge as a basis from which to teach. …. [Textual] information becomes more relevant to the adult learner if it is related to life experience. Furthermore, the older student’s accumulated knowledge can be tapped to lend credence to their career goals. Incorporate the adult learner’s valuable practical experience and knowledge into each lesson to illustrate the relevance of the topic under discussion.
  • Show adult learners how this class will help them attain their goals. Adult learners appreciate a class that is specifically directed toward helping them achieve their goals—in this case, the college degree. By illustrating how the information in this class leads them in that direction, adult students can recognize how this course will benefit them in accomplishing their goals.
  • Make all course and text material practical and relevant to the adult learner. Older students need to relate the course information directly to their careers; therefore, all course material needs to be directly related to the adult learner’s career. For adult learners, information must carry some very practical and applicable purpose. Tell students exactly how the material and information will be useful to them on the job. Examples, exercises, metaphors, and analogies need to be career relevant, familiar, and timely.
  • Show adult learners the respect they deserve. Adult learners possess a wealth of experiences; such knowledge should be honored and respected. Be courteous toward adult learners; treat them as equals, and allow them to voice their opinions freely and without judgment.
  • Adjust your teaching speed to meet the needs of the older learner. Because adult learners learn differently than younger students, be conscious of the rate at which material is presented. Be aware of offering too much information too fast; regulate the flow of information accordingly.
  • Motivate adult learners to learn new information. Through such techniques as positive reinforcement, motivate adult learners to learn and retain new information as a means to recognize the relevance of information to their careers and achieve their goals. (Davis, v-vi)

Reference: Davis, Deborah. 2012. Instructor’s Manual for The Adult Learner’s Companion: A Guide for the Adult College Student, 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
© 2012 Cengage Learning.

What strategies have you used to engage and motivate adult learners? Do Davis’ ideas and examples resonate with your own experience? Would you add anything to the above list? Discuss your suggestions in the comments.