A Guide to Engaging the Working Learner
As educators, we are familiar with the challenges of presenting meaningful subject matter that engages students. Beyond a relevant curriculum, teaching faculty are also responsible for creating an environment that encourages students to meet their educational objectives.
Frequent communication is key, particularly in online learning when students may feel disconnected from the class, peers and their instructor. This disconnect may lead to the learner feeling isolated from his or her educational goals as well. Faculty must be diligent in keeping their students attached to their goals.
Adult learners provide another level of challenges because life demands—namely jobs and family—may interrupt their educational commitments. Coaching on success strategies, such as time management, and helping them understand course or program expectations are invaluable to keeping working learners committed to their educational track.
Adult learner characteristics
Demographically, adult learners are a diverse group—their ages vary widely, they come from many backgrounds and work in many fields. Their common threads are that they tend to be goal- and family-oriented and are motivated to excel in their work.
I have observed that the motivation to succeed increases exponentially between programs. For instance, doctoral learners tend to be much more committed than undergraduate students, but their educational path requires more focus due to the rigors of the doctoral program, which may require instructors to provide higher levels of communication and coaching.
Teaching the adult learner
Over-communicating is preferable to too little communication. Many of my recommendations may sound rudimentary, but they are important enough to the success of your students that they should become a regular part of teaching.
Start by communicating course and/or program requirements. This tells students what they need to focus on during the course and allows them to formulate their plan for success up front.
Throughout the class make announcements with relevant information to guide students in the right direction. Keep in mind that working learners have competing priorities, so consistently communicating course requirements is important.
If a student brings up an issue in a one-on-one conversation that would benefit the class, make it a point to communicate it to the entire class.
Coach time management
After establishing expectations, providing assistance to students to help them reach those expectations is critical. This is particularly important to students who have just started a degree program, or who are continuing their education in a higher-level degree program.
Share specific strategies for time management, including some of the strategies that you used to complete your education. I often share that I was a mother with a full time job during my doctoral program. While I was completing my dissertation, I spent the first weekend of the month with family and friends; the remaining three weekends of the month I focused on studying. It allowed me to add balance to my life, manage loved ones’ expectations and successfully complete my studies.
Establish a mindset for success
Solidify student commitment by having a one-on-one conversation about what it will take to complete a course, degree or program.
I make it a point to discuss commitment with my ‘young’ doctoral students to reinforce the mindset that is necessary for them to complete the three to five-year program and earn their degree. A good portion of our discussion is that they will have 100 legitimate reasons to quit and they have to decide now, at the start of their program, that they will earn their degree and nothing will stop them from completing their goal. As issues arise during their program, this conversation will be replayed in their minds and will hopefully keep them inspired to complete their program.
Students often feel guilty about the time they are away from family. Remind them that they are modeling life-long learning and you’ll see the transformation in them.
The diversity of working students adds richness to course discussions and provides valuable learning for the entire class. Consider that a financial manager and human resources administrator can share insights that they would not receive in a traditional textbook-centric course, or in their working experience.
Facilitate discussions that encourage students to share their experiences to create a broader base of information that they can use in the real world. Include your own experience for additional insight. This keeps students engaged in the coursework.
The responsibility that we have as educators is balanced by the rewards we receive when a student shares about successfully using a strategy at work that was discussed in class, or overcoming obstacles to reach their goals.
I had a student who was in the first course of his degree program and he was having problems with the written assignments because English was not his first language. I spoke to him about the importance of the written coursework, and that he was required to complete it before he could progress in his program. On his own, this student found someone at a local university to tutor him in English, and he passed the course with flying colors.
This is the type of student who will complete the degree, because he will take ownership of situations and find ways to fulfill the requirements of the program.
As teaching faculty members, we have the responsibility for creating a culture that will allow all students to succeed. By communicating expectations, helping students create a success mindset, not allowing excuses to derail them and keeping them engaged, we will be the type of faculty members that students appreciate.
This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, UOPX Campus Viewpoints section. To review our current faculty articles, visit: https://chronicle.com/campusViewpoint/University-of-Phoenix/29/.