Back to School: Training Older Learners

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As the Dean of Engineering and Emerging Technology at Collin County Community College District, Ann Beheler has had a fair share of adult learners. About half of the college’s students already have jobs, and a large percentage of students are married with children, Beheler said.


So, when one of her students, who was married, had a job and was taking networking courses, said he and his wife were expecting a baby the same day as the final exam, Beheler knew what she had to do.


“I agreed to give him the final early,” she said. “But when he came in early for the final, I found out his wife was in labor while he was taking the exam. I went and found him and took the exam out of his hands. I said, ‘Get out of here. We can deal with this later.’”


Beheler said in situations like this, trainers must realize that adult learners have different needs than younger students.


“(Adult learners) have lives. They have kids,” she said. “They have spouses, and they usually have jobs.”


As a result, trainers have to be flexible with adult learners. Unlike typical 18-to-22-year-old college students whose biggest worry is making it to those early 10 a.m. classes, many adult learners have bigger concerns, such as mortgage payments and full-time jobs.


“You can’t be unrealistic and not flexible with assignments and the ability to attend class,” she said. “You have to allow absences.”


In addition, Beheler said trainers need to understand that adult learners might have different reasons for taking courses than younger students. They have different expectations.


“Adult students are going to get what they want to get out of the class,” she said. “An adult student needs certain things out of the class. So the class can’t be one size fits all. A really good teacher needs to be sensitive to everyone in their class—adults, disabled people, the person who’s going through a divorce. You need to be sensitive to the person and not teach the class as one size fits all.”


According to Mike Renzi, director of training and development for the Training Associates, trainers should begin a course by getting to know their students individually.


“I always ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ ‘What are your objectives?’” Renzi said. “I encourage as much discussion as possible.”


Renzi said taking the time to get to know students can help trainers understand their students’ backgrounds. That way, trainers will know if some of the adult learners are just beginning a career in technology or if they’re seasoned IT veterans.


“Do a little research if it’s possible beforehand,” he said. “Find out what the makeup of the group is. You want to get your students involved and get them talkative. Make them feel comfortable with the environment and the classroom.”


Beheler said once trainers know their students better, they should tailor the class to their needs. This means understanding their backgrounds and insecurities. Beheler said younger, “millennial” students grew up using technology. Many adult learners, on the other hand, didn’t begin using computers and technology until they were much older. Some of them approach IT training believing that they won’t be able to understand.


“One of the groups that has the most difficulty is women who have reared their children and come back to get a skill,” Beheler said. “You have to help them believe in themselves. That means explaining things 16 different ways if it takes it.”


In addition, Beheler said trainers need to understand that many students might be entering a classroom for the first time in more than a decade.


“We don’t teach them how to study. They’ve got to learn how to do that,” she said. “I think the biggest thing is believing in them and encouraging them and helping them to see they can do it.”


Renzi said trainers should also make sure their students’ backgrounds match the course.


“There are plenty of adults who are not computer literate who have a broad view of their ability to learn,” Renzi said. “Their understanding of what’s involved in getting trained in an area is a little bit unrealistic. They think they’re gong to be able to create and manage databases, but if they’re even able to use Photoshop effectively, that would be great. The trainer has to understand and spend some time with each individual and assess what their expectations are.”


On the other hand, some adult learners are well versed in IT training. Then the challenge becomes keeping them engaged, Renzi said.


“A lot of adults have never stopped being in a classroom,” he said. “Then it’s the same challenges you run into any classroom environment. They feel they know what it is that you’re trying to teach them. It’s a matter of trying to engage them.”


Beheler said after trainers assess their students’ backgrounds, they need to remember not only to be sensitive to individual student’s needs but also to treat all students the same. Trainers can’t have preconceived notions about their students, she said.


Beheler said she’s experienced being an adult learner and understands how adults are sometimes treated differently.


“I was in a teacher-training class with one other woman my age, and the person teaching it was about 25 to 28,” she said. “He treated us as though we couldn’t do it. Every time we asked a question, he belittled us. After the class, I wrote him a letter saying, ‘You know, you might want to reconsider doing this.’ When you’re a teacher, yes, you notice gender, you notice age and ethnicity, but to treat people differently is wrong.”


–Sarah Stone,

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