The Adult Learner in Academic Mid-Life

Hilda R. Glazer, EdD, and David S. Stein, PhD


Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, May 29, 2000.

Retention of adult learners in the distance doctoral, teaching and learning environment is an issue of concern to faculty and administrators alike. The improvement of retention rates is critical during this time of decreasing enrollment in graduate programs both campus and virtual. Retention efforts focus on the beginning students as they orient to on-line learning and distance education and adjust to independent learning. These students are typically supported by an orientation or start-up team and specially selected mentors to guide them through the first year. Often progress is closely monitored in terms of benchmarks to be completed during the beginning quarters. Learners are motivated by the elation of beginning the program of study. The advanced students have the support of dissertation committees and are motivated by being able to see an end to their program of study. It is the students between these two groups who are of particular concern in this presentation: these are the students in academic mid-life.

Academic mid-life is a stage between the completion of first year tasks and the acceptance of a proposal. It is during this stage that students are typically more isolated from faculty due to the fact that they tend not to maintain frequent contact with the mentor but rather work with individual faculty for shorter periods of time. These students also tend to have completed residency requirements and as a result have less face-to-face contact with the university community. The excitement of an academic program becomes tempered with the requirements of family and job and learners may become bogged down with the press of academic requirements and the search for a dissertation topic.

The objective of the present study was to identify from narratives of faculty and students how the student maintains a high level of integration in the distance academic community. What level of academic support is desired and what level did the students receive during this period?

This presentation explored and described the strategies developed by faculty and students to provide academic support for the mid-life student. The researchers used a variety of data collection techniques: on-line student interviews in the form of narratives, on-line faculty discussion over a three week period, and an on-line focus group with student volunteers. The data was subjected to qualitative analysis techniques to identify patterns, themes, and trends in the data regarding the interaction of faculty and students during this critical period.

The faculty and learners participating in this study are from Walden University. Walden offers doctoral programs in two formats. The first is the traditional, course format that characterizes the programs in the Division of Psychology. Courses are offered in an on-line format and in a format that combines on-line instruction and face-to-face learning. The other doctoral programs in Management, Education, and Health and Human Services use an independent study format is which learners work with an individual faculty member to develop a learning agreement based on knowledge area modules. The product of the learning agreement is a three-part demonstration of learning over a well-defined area of knowledge.

The relationship between the learner and faculty mentor is has been seen by Walden as a critical part of the learning process. Defining that role and relationship for the midlife student is one of the focuses of this study. What are the characteristics of the successful mentoring relationship during this stage of academic life? Walden University works to develop opportunities for students and faculty to maintain contact with the academic community. This task is more difficult to achieve in the virtual environment. Innovative uses of student listservs and bulletin boards, residency options, and academic support services available on-line and by phone are provided. Which ones are desired and needed by the mid-life student becomes one of the questions addressed in this study.

Keegan (1998) proposes that the manner in which a distance education institution reintegrates the teaching act with the learning act influences learner retention and the quality of academic performance. This theory informs our study of academic mid-life learners. Keegan’s theory suggests that the student’s retention is enhanced when academic support services are available which integrate the student into the academic community or provide the student with the feeling that he or she is a member of the academic community even though the student is at a distance. In distance education, learners often do not have access to immediate learner to instructor or instructor to learner feedback, reinforcement may be delayed, and peer and academic support can be lacking. Reintegrating the teaching with the learning act reconstructs the interpersonal relationships that exist in the face-to-face classroom. Keegan hypothesizes that the separation of the teaching and learning act is responsible for a weak integration on the student into the scholarly life of the institution.

This lack of integration may contribute to students dropping out of the learning experience. Further, the separation of the teaching and learning act is responsible for a weakness in interpersonal communication, leading to a lack of quality in the learning achieved. This study explores how reintegration of the teaching and learning acts can occur in a distance-learning environment.

Analysis of the student and faculty narratives indicate that frequent meaningful communication seems to be the key to retention. Communication appears to be a metaphor for caring about the individual; the perception that one is cared about makes the difference. Being responsive is an important element of this. A second theme is the importance of knowledge of the program mechanics and how to work through it and knowing that the mentor is able to help the learner through the bureaucracy. It appears that the mentor and learner through the quality of the interaction are trying to simulate face-to-face interaction in the virtual environment. The third theme is that now is the time that the mentor begins to stress academic values as a way of integrating them into the academic community as opposed to the initial focus on content.

References:

Keegan, D. (1998). Foundations of Distance Education. London: Routledge

Contact person: David Stein– stein.1@osu.edu
© 2000, Hilda Glazer and David Stein

Posted with permission.

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