Adult Learners -
Keep Them Involved, Motivate
Adult learners come to class to improve their skills and for many other reasons that we as educators seek to understand and to address. In this article, I will elaborate on approaches to instruction that go beyond content to provide adult learners with a total learning experience that engages them, motivates them to participate, and encourages their persistence in the program they have chosen.
Overcoming Barriers to Persistence in the Adult Learner’s World
“Help them believe in themselves.”
Many adult learners come to class with low self-esteem. Repeated attempts to acquire knowledge and skills may have resulted in failure. It is helpful for the instructor to remind students that failure is a necessary step on our way to success. I share with students some of my failures that turned into a better experience later on. When every attempt to participate in the class is recognized and valued despite errors, students are more comfortable and willing to take a risk.
“Sorry, no drive-thru!”
After the first few classes, adult learners begin to realize that learning new skills may take a longer period of time than they had originally expected. The gap between expectation and fulfillment may be especially wide for adult learners at the basic education level. Reasonable short-term goals, the achievement of which can be measured by testing, can give these students an experience of success. Guadalupe Ruvalcaba, director of The San Antonio Independent School District Adult and Community Education Department, describes this process with a lively image: “We eat the elephant one bite at a time.”
“When the gauge reads nearly-empty…”
Many adult learners come to class after many hours at the workplace or in a care-intensive home. Tired students are aided by frequent change of material studied and by active participation. Learning activities that call for standing or walking to another part of the room are stimulating. I encourage students to toss a light weight toy to their classmates to choose the next person to take part in an exercise. Interest and enthusiasm run high!
“My family comes first.”
This is not a barrier to the adult learner’s persistence; it is a boundary created by many learners’ values, a line which will not be crossed. Respect for the learner’s priority of family care and a flexible attitude often lead to retention even when the student is missing classes due to a family matter. In The San Antonio Independent School District Adult and Community Education Department and at The Bob Billa Family and Community Resource and Learning Center instructors are encouraged to call students who are missing class. The telephone call may bring a learner’s family health concern or bereavement to the attention of the instructor, whose sensitivity at this time often results in the adult learner returning to class as soon as possible. Adult education instructors are given the Student Follow Up Form in order to log the telephone calls to students and add comments as needed. These records are kept in the instructor’s Required Instructional Development Handbook and are available to supervisors to keep them advised of the adult learners’ needs.
Creating a Classroom Learning Community
“We’re playing on our home court!”
I have enjoyed participating in professional development workshops called Quantum Learning. One of the concepts introduced in this program is called “The Home Court Advantage” to ensure student success. I ask myself how to make our classroom more like the adult learners’ “home court.” When I began teaching as a substitute, I introduced myself on the first day of class as “Ms. Mary.” The adult students responded by introducing themselves as “Ms. Terri,” “Ms. Andrea,” “Mr. Greg,” and so on. I have always addressed adult learners as “Ms.” or “Mr.” ever since that day, and their response has been positive. To help the adult learner feel welcome in the classroom, I greet each student with a handshake as that person arrives. There is also the “Congratulations” handshake as each student prepares to leave at the end of class.
Once adult learners are familiar with their learning environment and understand their importance in the class, they are experiencing “the home court advantage.” Teamwork is a key to their success in this positive learning experience. Guidance from classmates who are mentors reassures and inspires learners who are experiencing difficulty. Classmates who serve as mentors generally experience growth in their communication skills.
Student Goal-Setting and Progress Tracking
“Doing it their way…”
In working for San Antonio Region 20, for The San Antonio Independent School District Adult and Community Education Department and for The Bob Billa Community and Family Resource and Learning Center, I have found that these three interrelated organizations share a commitment to interviewing adult students about their personal goals for the learning process. Each program has created learner-friendly forms that invite the student to create and share his or her personal definition of success as an adult learner. Some examples:
- Parent/Community Survey
- Type of class you are interested in attending
- Times of class (that suit your needs)
- Achievements of Participants (based on their transitional goals)
- Evaluation of the Adult Education Program
“Progress Tests-Do the math.”
Accountability for instructors of adult learners in Texas is ensured by the administration of standardized baseline tests followed by standardized progress tests at regular intervals. Adult learners appreciate the scores and level indicators that give them an objective measure of their progress in reading, writing and math skills. Instructors take the time to share test results with adult learners, both previous scores and levels and actual scores and levels. The positive effect on retention is well worth the time.
Community Partners in the Employment Field
“Telling it like it is.”
The 2006 conference “Charting the Course Toward Success” was a joint project of Texas’ South Central Project GREAT, Alamo WorkSource, City of San Antonio and Adult Education and Family Literacy Programs from within the South Central Region. The conference afforded employment counselors and instructors of adult education and family literacy the opportunity to meet local employers and appreciate the employers’ priorities regarding the communication skills and knowledge that increase the adult learner’s chance to be hired and to succeed in the workplace.
For a work-related lesson, highly-practical learning activities such as the following are received with enthusiasm by adult learners: writing a fax as one business representative communicating to another, writing a fax or e-mail to a co-worker or supervisor, writing a note in order to bring a need or suggestion to the attention of a supervisor, filling-out an application, writing a resume, and explaining a procedure to classmates as a training experience.
A final note…
We have considered approaches to retention of adult learners. A common thread is to increase their sense of self-worth. Each student knows that he or she is valued when we encourage every effort, appreciate each individual’s definition of success, respect priorities, provide clear and objective indicators of progress, and facilitate advancement in the employment field. It is hoped that all adult students will regard us as both instructors and friends. As adult learners are on their way to the classroom, may their experience be as memorable as an African proverb:
“To the house of a friend the way is never long.”
About the Author
Mary Sharp Aparisi has been an Adults ESL teacher in San Antonio for two years. She teaches for the San Antonio Independent School District Adult and Community Education Department and for the Bob and Jeanne Billa Community Family Resource and Learning Center. Mary and her husband, photographer Frank Aparisi, volunteer their time to create portraits of adult ESL students and their families. Mary is a graduate of Northwestern University and did postgraduate work at Indiana University.