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Teaching Adult Students the Way They Learn:

The Instructor's Role In Retaining Adult Learners and Increasing Their Chances of Success in College

Al Siebert, PhD

Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, Georgia

Professional Development Center, School of Business, Portland State University


Teaching adult learners requires more advanced teaching skills than teaching traditional students. This interactive session will focus on ways for classroom instructors to help adult learners overcome their fears, handle the transition into college, develop support groups, and be less likely to drop out. Participants in this interactive session will ask questions, share experiences, and tell each other about their successful efforts with adult students.

Session Content

Adult learners begin college classes with more fears and concerns than traditional younger students. A skillful instructor devotes much of the first class meeting to reducing the fears and concerns, then develops strong intrinsic interest in the course by connecting each student's plans for the future and past experiences with the course material. To facilitate learning in adult students, an instructor needs many diverse skills, including creating a non-competitive atmosphere that encourages cooperative learning.

The following classroom activities improve the retention of adult students and enhance their motivation to learn:

First. While waiting for stragglers to show up for the first class, have the students introduce themselves to others sitting nearby. Have them interview each other about their reasons for taking the course, and talk with each other about any fears or concerns they have.

Common fears and concerns expressed by adult learners:

Comment: Adult learners begin courses with more fears and concerns than younger students. This initial getting acquainted activity helps adult learners relax and makes them feel more free to speak up in class than hearing reassurances from the instructor.

Second. Quiet the group and have each person introduce himself or herself to the rest of the class. Have them state their reasons for taking the course and express any fears or concerns. Have brief interactions with students, but avoid long dialogues. Aim to get around the group quickly.

Comment: Adult students often begin courses feeling anxious, isolated, and out of place. Nervousness and fear are greatly diminished by expressing them openly. This activity also lets students make mental notes about someone they identify with and may want to talk with after class.

Third. Now talk about yourself, your background, how you became interested in subject, and your way of teaching the course.

Fourth. Pass out the course syllabus with all dates for papers due, examinations, and other required work. Ask for questions about the course.

Comment: Do not start the class by passing out the course syllabus and explaining it. By focusing attention on the students first, and having them express their concerns, interests, and goals, the students develop a more positive emotional connection with the course and the instructor.

Fifth. Facilitate the formation of support groups. Adult learners increase their survival chances and do better in college when they form support groups with other students. The following guidelines for starting a "College Success Support Group" have received excellent ratings on course evaluations:

Comment: Research into stress-management and resiliency has established that people in friendly support groups cope with pressure better, stay more healthy, and are more successful than isolated individuals.


Instructors who get the best evaluations from adult learners relate to the students with empathy, use a flexible teaching style, and teach in an "adult to adult" ego state (ala Eric Berne). Research has shown that adult learners do better in courses where instructors:

© 2000- Practical Psychology Press