Make Friends with Your Instructors

To make the most of your learning experience, and to get the best grades possible, it is good to form a positive relationship with each of your instructors. In some cases this is easy to do: you are dazzled by the instructor’s knowledge, make opportunities to ask questions, and find encouragement to share your views. A mentor helps you make contacts in your field of interest, and coaches you in your early efforts. Continue reading “Make Friends with Your Instructors”

The Adult Learner in Academic Mid-Life

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

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.


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

Contact person: David Stein–
© 2000, Hilda Glazer and David Stein

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Between Dread and Assurance: Autobiography and Academic Conventions in the Writing of Adult Learners

describes methods used in L. Nishihara’s writing course that have succeeded in increasing the confidence of adult learners.

by Laverne Nishihara
Assistant Professor of English
Indiana University East

As a teacher of composition and autobiographical writing at a university with a high percentage of nontraditional students, I have often heard adult learners express anxiety about writing papers for the first time in years. My presentation described methods used in my Autobiographical Writing course that have succeeded in increasing the confidence of adult learners, methods that establish a foundation for achievement in writing. I took participants through exercises that have increased the learners’ confidence and cultivated their enthusiasm. Later in the presentation, I speculated about possibilities for extending the techniques used in autobiographical writing to improving the formal academic research and writing of adult learners.

In the Autobiographical Writing class, a good part of the writers’ increased confidence can be attributed to their examining, during the first class period, a short excerpt from Brenda Ueland’s classic text If You Want to Write. It is no coincidence that Ueland describes her own writing class as one dominated by adult learners: "prosperous and poor, stenographers, housewives, salesmen, . . . timid people and bold ones" (3). Students ponder Ueland’s other statements: "everybody is talented, original and has something important to say." (3). "Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express" (4); and "Everybody is original, if he tells the truth, if he speaks from himself. But it must be from his true self and not from the self he thinks he should be" (4). The magic in Ueland’s work appears to be its assertion of the integrity of individual experience, and its placement of talent and originality in being truthful about that experience. Examining her statements appears to modify adult learners’ conception of writing as a rule-following, constricting exercise. Among the students in my classes, I have seen the paralyzing fear of the instructor’s red pen replaced by an attitude of freedom to write productively and originally. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which I have adapted for in-class freewriting exercises, have led to stimulating essay drafts based on the writers’ experiences.

Initially, I was afraid that using Ueland’s statements and Goldberg’s freewriting techniques would lead to undisciplined writing. However, it has become clear that the definition of talent as expression, and originality as truth-telling, also leads to writers’ willingness to offer and consider suggestions about their writing. The peer reviewing process, in which students offer comments about each other’s writing, appears to work more productively in the atmosphere of acceptance created by this class than an atmosphere of criticism. Though this is a long-accepted truism, I was struck by the contrast between this class’s peer reviewing and that of my others. I was also struck by the writers’ increased willingness to dialogue with me about their writing: they would voluntarily write what amounted to long letters explaining their intentions and hopes, and asking me to look for specific elements in their work. The quality of the essays turned in for Autobiographical Writing has been superior to the quality of those turned in for any others I teach, reversing any impression that emphasizing criticism would lead to the greatest improvement. Typical student comments about the class include "excerpts, books, and workshops . . . helped me to elicit out of myself uninhibited writing"; "I was a skeptic at first as I am not a sharing individual, but it grew on me"; and "the essays I read in class were remarkable."

A challenge now is to transfer some of the atmosphere and the outcomes of the Autobiographical Writing course to my composition classes. I have thought that one important function of a first-year composition and research class that I teach is that it is a survival course in academic writing; people should emerge from it better prepared to write reports and papers in as many academic disciplines as possible. Yet the transition from personal writing to academic writing is difficult; adult learners in particular might decide to withdraw from the class in the face of the academic writing conventions that might seem to inhibit thought rather than inspire it. Bruce Ballenger’s recent book Beyond Note Cards: Rethinking the Freshman Research Paper has been useful in addressing this transition from the autobiographical essay to the research paper. Ballenger advocates the exploratory research essay as an alternative to the thesis-driven research paper. Rather than beginning with a claim and then selecting lifeless excerpts from research to support it, students are encouraged to generate and explore questions in their research. The papers are more accurately called essays in their exploratory quality and in their freer development of thought.

I have just begun a process of offering people in my classes the option of building their research papers upon autobiographical topics; previously, I had only specified that personal anecdotes could supplement other (more legitimate) evidence. My motive is to increase the personal engagement of the writer in the research paper assignments. The experiences of adult learners, which contributed so potently to their work in the Autobiographical Writing class, would then provide motivation for research writing. I am also trying to re-frame the tools and conventions of academic writing (the claim, the introduction, the organizational strategies, the documentation formats) as structures that can liberate rather than inhibit. Just as the dimensions of a canvas or a block of marble provide a foundation for the creativity of the visual artist, so can the structures of writing provide a creative challenge and inspiration to the writer.

Thus far, I have seen some positive outcomes of giving adult learners the option of using an aspect of their extensive experience as the center of their research papers. They appreciate the choice, and some are selecting that option. One difficulty so far has been that writers tend to compose their entire paper drafts around personal experience, leaving research to be fitted in at the end; they have not been interacting with the research materials as extensively and with as much engagement as I had hoped. I have consequently altered assignments so that the writers frame autobiographical questions that motivate their research from the very start.

Works Cited

Ballenger, Bruce. Beyond Note Cards: Rethinking the Freshman Research Paper. Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann, 1999.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 1986. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.

Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write: A Book about Arts, Independence and Spirit. 2nd Ed. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1987.

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Relationship of Optimism/Pessimism, Vulnerability to Stress and Academic Achievement of College Students

The present research is about the incredible power of mind on body. Can one’s optimism/pessimism effect his/her vulnerability to physical and psychological stress.

Ms. Shazia Malik and Dr. Ghazala Rehman *


The present research is about the incredible power of mind on body. The aim of the study was to find out the effect of an individual’s thinking style such as optimism/pessimism on his/her vulnerability to physical and psychological stress. The study also explored the relationship of academic achievement with the variables of the study.

It was hypothesized that:

  1. There exist relationship between optimism / pessimism and vulnerability to stress.

  2. Optimism is inversely correlated with vulnerability to stress.

  3. Girls are more optimistic as compared to boys.

  4. Boys are more vulnerable to stress compared to girls.

  5. High achievers are more optimists compared to low achievers.

  6. High achievers are less vulnerable to stress.

  7. Students belonging to lower socio-economic status (SES) will be more prone to stress compared to the students of high SES.

  8. Students belonging to upper SES will be more optimistic compared to the students of low SES.

For the present research, the sample of 100 students both boys and girls acted as subjects. 50 girls and 50 boys from colleges of Rawalpindi city, were selected as the unit of the study. All the subjects were full time enrolled students of their colleges. And they all were students of F.Sc second year ranging in ages from 17 to 19.

Three instruments had been used for the study. Life Orientation Test (LOT) was used for the measurement of optimism/pessimism traits of personality, Stress Vulnerability Scale (SVS) was used for the assessment of stress vulnerability. In order to assess the Academic Achievement level of students, their marks in last attended examination were obtained. The researcher made the score range to distribute the group in high, medium and low on the basis of their marks. The demographic information of the subjects, i.e., his/her name, age, sex, father’s monthly income, grade and institution was collected with the help of a personal information sheet which was attached to the questionnaires.

The data obtained from the research was compiled. The comparison of the scores was also made in terms of Mean, Standard Deviation, ANOVA and t-test. The analysis was also done to see the internal consistency using Reliability of the scales through item-total Correlation and Alpha Reliability Coefficient.

Results revealed that the entire hypotheses which were formulated for the present research had been confirmed. Hypotheses numbers 3 and 4 were partially confirmed because both boys and girls are equally vulnerable to stress as well as equally pessimists.

The general trend of the present study, however, indicates that optimistically oriented people are less susceptible to stress or stressors and they are academically high achievers. Whereas, pessimistic people are more prone to excessive worries and tensions. Thus, this is not what happens to a person but how he perceives the situation that makes all the difference. Positivity or optimism not only makes a person less vulnerable to stress but it also benefits health of a person as a whole.

A complete report of the research is available from the author:

Shazia Malik, MSc.

Behavioral Sciences (BHS)

Fatima Jinnah Womens University

Rawalpindi, Pakistan


Author Information:
Ms. Shazia Malik, is a student of Behavioral Sciences, Fatima Jinnah Women University, Rawalpindi. Pakistan. She has conducted this research as a part of Master of Science Thesis research work supervised by the second author. Dr. Ghazala Rehman, is Associate Professor, at National Institute of Psychology, Qauid-I-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

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Personality Traits and Learning Styles For Divergent Learners

Results of one study shows that there are significant correlations between ten personality traits and academic achievement, and these findings were consistent with the review of literature that suggested that personality factors and learning styles may be related to academic achievement.

Dr. Carol Johnson, Dr. Joe Pitts, Dr. Jim Lane

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

Abstract of Presentation

Having taught a variety of students with a wide range of abilities, Johnson (1996) became aware that certain personality traits and global learning styles were placing students in a crosswind with traditional teachers and classroom environments, and these factors were contributing to underachievement in academic performance. Therefore, a study was conducted to examine the relationship between specific personality traits and learning styles and academic achievement in gifted students to determine whether or not these factors resulted in their becoming "at-risk" in the educational system because of their divergence.

Results of the study showed that there were significant correlations between ten personality traits and academic achievement, and these findings were consistent with the review of literature that suggested that personality factors and learning styles may be related to academic achievement.

In the final analysis of these data, a set of descriptors was developed to more clearly delineate the personalities of achievers and underachievers (Johnson, 1996). A summary of these descriptors compares achievers with underachievers this way: achievers were found to be more introverted, abstract-thinking, emotionally stable, mature, able to face reality, serious, conscientious, moralistic, self-assured, secure, self-satisfied, self-sufficient, resourceful, prefer their own decisions, socially precise, relaxed, tranquil, and composed. Whereas underachievers appeared to be more extroverted, warm, kind, willing to participate, concrete-thinking, affected by feelings, enthusiastic, spontaneous, expressive, cheerful, expedient, apprehensive, insecure, self-blaming, group oriented, more willing to listen to others, and not bound by social rules. Both groups of students exhibited global perceptual tendencies, but the achievers were highly flexible. Although they were more global in thinking, they could easily adapt to analytical situations whereas the underachievers could not adapt.

Divergent learners are endowed with a unique variety of personality traits that separate them from the general population, and many of these traits are related to their academic achievement and effective leadership. Since personality traits are expressed in learning styles and preferences, teacher education programs should concentrate on making pre-service teachers more aware of personality traits and global learning styles and provide extensive training in how to best accommodate these individual differences in students.

Through in-service and staff development, experienced teachers need to be equipped to utilize learning styles and preferences in their instruction to meet the needs of all learners. Teachers need to be more knowledgeable in identifying reasons for discrepant achievement on the pan of students, assessing the needs of these students, and utilizing appropriate strategies for remediation, circumvention, and intervention. If teachers are to accommodate these differences, there must be a departure from the traditional teaching styles and classroom management approaches, and that departure needs to be understood and accepted by administrators.

Changes in teaching strategies and classroom management should be accompanied by restructuring classroom environments through peer interaction, cooperative group learning, collaboration, and modifications in seating, lighting, and student mobility whenever feasible and possible. Many of these students are visual learners, need a variety of models and involvement with manipulatives and hand on experiences. They resist direct instruction and prefer to solve problems and discover answers using their own methods and techniques. Time preference is a critical factor relating to truancy, and this learning style needs to be addressed whenever possible. Scheduling activities and tasks to coincide with the time of day when certain students are more attentive can have significant positive results in their academic performance and motivation to learn. In addition, many students have a need for high calorie intake during intense study, and ignoring this factor may have a tremendous adverse effect on their engagement in learning.

Classroom instruction should incorporate certain skills and learning styles whenever possible and as often as possible. Students need reading and writing in all content areas and need to be taught how to transfer and apply skills and knowledge from one subject area to another. They need time to brainstorm, share ideas, and have opportunities to express themselves creatively and in multiple representations such as reading, writing, art, music, and dance. Many students need external organizers such as cognitive maps, matrices, outlines, spatial arrays, models, diagrams, graphs, images, and pictures. Research skills need to be developed by allowing them to make observations, gather data, analyze their findings, draw conclusions, and determine implications of results. Students need to be engaged in social interaction, working cooperatively with others, sharing ideas, and valuing others’ points of view.


Johnson, C. B. (1996). Personality Traits and Learning Styles: Factors Affecting the Academic Achievement of Underachieving Gifted Students. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of South Carolina, Columbia, S. C.

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Strategies for Active Learning

If you are going to make a presentation to any group, it is important for you to understand the differences between a lecture format and an active learning format.

Dr. Joseph Pitts and Mr. C.R. Horton

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

Active learning has been defined as providing opportunities for students to meaningfully talk and listen, write, read, and reflect on the content, ideas, issues, and concerns of an academic subject (Meyers & Jones, 1993). The structure of active learning involves three categories: elements, strategies, and resources. The elements refer to what we do during the presentation (i.e. talk, listen, read, write, or reflect. The strategies determine what we do as a group (i.e. small groups, cooperative work, case studies, simulations, problem solving, or journal writing), The resources might include readings, outside speakers, teaching technology, or commercially produced educational programs.

If you are going to make a presentation to any group, it is important for you to understand the differences between a lecture format and an active learning format. In the lecture format the presenter assumes that the listener knows what is expected, involvement of the listener is selective, and the listener is provided with no feedback until the test. Whereas, in the active learning format the presenter tells the listener exactly what is expected and how responses are to be made. Feedback is almost constant.

There are basically four steps that this presenter takes in planning an active learning lesson. First, set expectations. Since there will be some noise and movement, the students need to know just how much noise and movement is appropriate. Second, establish objectives. The students need to know just exactly what it is you want them to learn during this session. Third, plan activities. This is where an active learning lesson is very different. You as a presenter have to plan activities that will involve the students in learning. During a lecture, they are listening (if you are lucky). During an active learning lesson they are doing. Your job is to determine just what they will do to learn the material. Fourth, determine assessment. How will you determine that they have learned the material? Fun and games are nice but unless you know they have learned what it is you wanted them to learn, that is all it is, fun and games.

During the presentation the participants experienced some of the following strategies:

  • Develop a matrix
  • Create a graphic organizer
  • Write a story to show a concept
  • Make a 3-D model

Participants also learned how to implement the following strategies:

  • Global lessons
  • Discussions
  • Inquiry
  • Guided Discovery
  • Cooperative Groups

It is usually very hard for a presenter to change from a lecture format to an active learning format. But there are some things that help change to come about:

  • Start small
  • Know your teaching strengths
  • Ask for help
  • Expect some failures

The main question we as presenters need to ask ourselves is, How will we know if our active learning strategies are effective? There are two indicators: One, students will demonstrate improved mastery over the subject matter. Two, we will see an increase in attendance, more animated discussions, and better questions from students.

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Quest for the Grail? Searching for Critical Thinking in Adult Education

Retention of adult learners in the distance doctoral, teaching and learning environment is an issue of concern to faculty and administrators alike.

Heather M. Boxler

Pennsylvania State University

Presented at the 2002 Adult Education Research Conference. Posted here with permission.


The concept of critical thinking is explored from the perspective of an adult education graduate student. The paper argues that critical thinking, as presently constituted, lacks both clarity and depth. These problems need to be addressed before critical thinking can become viable and useful.

Locating Myself/Locating "Critical"

Often students are expected by adult education faculty to be critical in their approach to graduate studies. "Critical" is seemingly everywhere, in article titles, papers, books, dissertation abstracts, course syllabi, and so on to the point that "critical" becomes axiomatic.

For me, the problem was that the meaning of "critical" seemed to change from syllabus to syllabus and article to article. So the question: "What does it mean to be critical?"

As I read more, the questions shifted: From what theoretical background does this author or instructor come? How does this professor intend for us to be critical? What are we supposed to do with it? Is it worth doing?

These difficulties have been haunting me since my first semester as a graduate student, three years ago, and have spurred my subsequent explorations. At first it was very much a matter of survival. I believed that to be successful in graduate school one must be critical. A second criterion for success is determining what sort of critical a given professor values and working in that mold. But how could something so important be so nebulous? How could no one really tell me what it meant to be critical or why it was necessary? Why weren’t my fellow students worried about it?

At my first Adult Education Research Conference I began to ask conference participants what critical meant, and received rolls of the eyes along with an impatient air of, "Oh, not that tired old thing. Let’s talk about something interesting." One person even told me that critical thinking could not be defined because its meaning is unique for everyone. I considered for awhile that perhaps critical thinking was a fad, that it was a concept with no real significance, a piece to play with in "buzzword bingo."

I kept plugging away, however. I came to believe that there had to be something to the concept-I couldn’t let it go. Moreover, I began to wonder if the problem with critical thinking had less to do with my lack of understanding and more to do with the incoherence of theoretical underpinnings informing its use. I valued the concept; I wanted to understand it, to give it depth, to be able to articulate a position and choose my practice based on this understanding-and thus my master’s thesis was born (along with my second child). I cannot say that the thesis was a resounding success in doing all that I wanted to do, but it gave me some direction, helped me to understand some of the meanings and the tensions involved in the combination of critical thinking with adult education. It is this discussion, the discussion of meanings, tensions, inconsistencies, and potentials that I wish to explore further.

This paper is not intended to be an exhaustive review of the literature on critical thinking. A more complete review can be found in my M.Ed. thesis (Boxler, 2001). What I will highlight is a discussion of some of the tensions underlying the assumptions of critical thinking. As such, this paper should be seen as a beginning exploration rather than conclusive argument.

Positionality in Critical Thinking: Individual Empowerment and Social Change

My review suggests that two indistinct camps emerge from the literature: Those who seek individual empowerment through critical thinking and those who wish to inculcate critical thinking as a social responsibility. Those focusing on the individual tend to treat critical thinking as an end, with clearly identifiable goals, standards, and processes learners must use. Richard Paul’s work exemplifies this view. Critical thinking is a general skill, not context-specific. In Paul’s view critical thinking is "a systematic way to form and shape one’s thinking. It is thought that is disciplined, comprehensive, based on intellectual standards, and as a result, well-reasoned" Paul & Willsen, 1993, p. 20). He distinguishes between someone who thinks critically in the "weak sense" as described above and someone who thinks critically in the "strong sense," which is much more context specific. According to Paul, someone who has mastered the logic or the basic skills of critical thinking is a weak sense critical thinker until she desires and has the ability to move beyond herself to see the bigger picture, therefore becoming a "strong sense" critical thinker. The strong sense critical thinker recognizes that "muddy" problems dominate in our world, and therefore must be able to cope with problems without retreating into an egocentric or ethnocentric shell (1993a, p. 205-209). Paul describes the basic drives and abilities of what I call strong sense critical thinking:

  1. an ability to question deeply one’s own framework of thought,

  2. an ability to reconstruct sympathetically and imaginatively the strongest versions of points of view and frameworks of thought opposed to one’s own, and

  3. an ability to reason dialectically (multilogically) to determine when one’s own point of view is weakest and when an opposing point of view is strongest. (p. 206, italics in original)

Brookfield (1987), falling in line with Paul’s strong sense critical thinking, believes it is necessary for adults to live intelligently and responsibly in a democratic society. He argues that critically aware populations are more likely to participate in the formation of their political and social contexts than those who feel distanced. By "distanced" we mean those who choose not to participate in the aforementioned activities, possibly due to mass representation and significant sociopolitical decisions being made far away by a small power elite.

Critical thinking is necessary if seemingly unempowered masses are to turn away from their self-absorbed private lives to become socially concerned and active (p. 52-56). In spite of this language and rhetoric, Brookfield’s work is targeted toward individual change. He delineates steps and processes, describes the process for an individual, and essentially is hoping that an individual who masters the processes will be willing and able to contribute to social change.

Jack Mezirow’s transformation theory attempts to make sense of problem solving when the problems are ill-structured and grounded in life experience Mezirow, 2000). Mezirow offers this definition:

"Transformative learning involves an enhanced level of awareness of the context of one’s beliefs and feelings, a critique of their assumptions and particularly premises, an assessment of alternative perspectives, a decision to negate an old perspective in favor of a new one or to make a synthesis of old and new, an ability to take action based upon the new perspective, and a desire to fit the new perspective into the broader context of one’s life." (1991, p. 161)

It becomes clear that Mezirow is quite close to the traditional idea of rationality, which uses evidence and logical reasoning to determine a course of progress. While he makes use of Habermas’ theory of communicative learning, one sees little or none of central social responsibility/action concepts in Mezirow’s theory of transformation. As Cunningham noted, Mezirow "explicitly separates personal transformation from social transformation" (1993, p. 10).

Thinking critically as a social responsibility is an entirely different matter. From this perspective, critical thinking is a process one uses within the larger practice of ideology critique. Critical thinking is merely a tool (albeit a crucial, valuable tool) one uses to identify, uproot, and prevent oppressive practices. Michael Newman (1994,1999), an exemplar of the social responsibility approach to critical thinking, discusses critical social theory and the hope it offers:

Critical theory is concerned with far more than analysis or logical thinking. It recognizes the influence of cultural values on people’s reasoning and acting, and takes into account interaction, insight, feeling, intuition and other non-scientific ways of knowing. Critical theory envisages forms of thinking in which people not only perceive the world more clearly but also perceive their perceptions of the world. (1994, p. 44)

In order for social change to occur, however, people need to be critical thinkers. A critical thinker is one who takes responsibility for both words and actions, is open and clear about values, assumptions, and ideology. A critical thinker is not only critical in thought, but also in the necessary component of action (Newman, 1999). Newman’s quote can be seen as a statement of the influence of critical social theory on Brookfield and Mezirow; the main difference between the two camps is scope. Brookfield and Mezirow focus largely on the individual, teaching skills that may help a person know more about herself and her culture.

Hopefully, the ensuing awareness of self-situatedness in society will turn the individual away from looking inward to becoming more involved in the creation of her own life and culture. Newman dismisses this approach as entirely too conservative (1994).

The line between critical thinking and critical theory becomes unclear, and sometimes Newman seems to treat them as identical concepts. However, on closer inspection, one can see that critical thinking and critical social theory are not identical. Critical thinking is a main tool that one must develop and use to enact social change. Remove the critical thinking tool and social change is no longer possible. Newman indicates clearly that one should think critically for a specific purpose, using that ability as necessary to fight oppression.

Airing the Issues

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that in much of the adult education literature the language of social responsibility is employed but the models used are individualistic versions of critical thinking. The authors seeking improvement primarily for the individual tend to treat critical thinking as an end in itself, with clearly identifiable goals, standards, and processes learners must use. The social change advocates treat critical thinking as a process one uses within a larger process of ideological critique. Critical thinking is emphasized but not dissected.

Brookfield and Mezirow, however, attempt to use critical social theory as a main theoretical source from which they construct their notions of critical thinking. In doing so, they remove critical thinking as a means to an end (social change) and make it into an end. When one removes critical thinking from the social change approach, one is redirected toward an individual change approach. It seems that Brookfield and Mezirow would like people to pursue social change, and hope that learners will voluntarily move from an individual to a social change model. The probability of such a move seems small. If a learner is comfortable with the individual change approach, what will cause her to desire social change? Mezirow states, in the tenth step of his transformation process, that the learner needs to reintegrate with her pre-transformation life (1991, p. 160). How does reintegration lead to social change? Reconstruction might lead to the desired change, but not reintegration.

It seems that the move from a social change approach to an individual change approach represents a case where authors use critical social theory while simultaneously ignoring the purpose for which Habermas and other critical social theorists envisioned critical thinking. Diverting critical thinking to an individual change model may in fact stunt the social change process. Once the learner has achieved personal change and growth, she will feel that she reached her goal. There is no impetus to critique and bring change to the larger social order. There is no impetus to work with others in achieving common visions or goals. Individuality is stressed at the expense of the greater social order.

Why, indeed, would adult education work so hard to find a place in the critical thinking movement? One possible reason is that critical thinking may address a problem that appears to obsess adult and other educators: power and control (see, for example, Apps, 1991; Cervero & Wilson, 1994; Merriam & Caffarella, 1999; Ruggiero, 1988, Askay, 1997). Authors on critical thinking are suggesting that if we think critically, we cannot be fooled, thus enabling us to choose our courses. This may be so. The word "control" seems to imply that not being fooled also means that we will have courage to act on our knowledge; take this a bit further and we see it is also assumed that we have the desire to act on our knowledge, and faith that we may in some way alter the balance of power to take the aforementioned actions. That is a lot of assuming to come from merely having a critical mindset.

I do not accept "control" as a good reason to practice critical thinking in adult education at any level. What types of control, to what extent a thinker may be in control, and limitations of critical thinking in this arena are not addressed. Greater awareness does open up the thinker’s horizons and acceptance of new possibilities, but to what extent? Democracy is often mentioned as a reason to promote critical thinking. There are control issues in that term as well, but let’s ignore them for now. Why is democracy best for everyone? How do we even know it’s best when we (at least in the US and the UK) don’t practice true democracy? I think it may be safer to say that critical thinking is an effort to stave off ignorance. In our information society, ignorance is abhorrent and sometimes dangerous. Those who are not ignorant are less likely to accept glib slogans, catchy ads, and slick assurances.

Critical thinking in the broader sense has a distinct method, philosophy, and identity. Critical thinking in adult education is a hybrid, related to but not sporting all the necessary characteristics that makes thinking critical instead of ordinary. Further, adult education (as well as much of the rest of the critical thinking movement) assumes that rationality is the best way of thinking and knowing. We adopt criticality because we are of the centuries-old Western rational tradition. We have faith in it. Legitimacy is also an issue for our field: If you want someone to take you seriously, you use and teach reason n so therefore it seems likely that adult education has assimilated rationality to improve its image and acceptance. Rationality is frequently associated with the notion of objectivity n and raises the picture of a cold, detached academic studying life under a microscope. Adult education fosters a socially conscious, caring image, and therefore the traditional "academic persona" does not suit. To get around this problem we instead use "sense" to be critical in our vague, unstructured manner. Since our thinking is not disciplined, there is no need to examine its structure for strength and stability using a set of standards. It seems fairly clear that adult education courts but does not truly adopt historical criticality.

Brookfield states that he is not following traditional critical thinking paths (Brookfield, 1993). He is instead attempting to develop a method tailored to the needs and purposes of adult education. There is not a universal definition of critical thinking for adult education. While this is not of itself a problem, there does need to be a stronger sense of the nature and practice of critical thinking in adult education, that it is different from the larger tradition, and in what ways. Evaluating thinking is essential here because we have a new practice, and we need to know how well it works-or does not.

Teaching critical thinking in adult education is problematic. I find it difficult to believe that students can become truly critical thinkers if their teachers/professors are unaware of its nature and practice. Robert Sternberg (1985), points out problems with teaching critical thinking that I found completely plausible based on my experience as a graduate student in adult education. We are taught, for example, that many problems faced by adults in life are ill defined, located in a dynamic context and fraught with power relationships. We are taught less about how to structure the problems; how to identify worthwhile problems; and how to think critically (and constructively) in conjunction with other people. If, as Chaffee (Esterle & Clurman, 1993) suggests, there are other ways of thinking and knowing, should we not also become familiar with them as alternatives? Askay addresses this point when he points out that we "preserve the analytic perspective [by] our Western insistence upon a bifurcation between rationality and alternative ways of thinking. The first receives uncritical acclaim, while the latter is excluded, suspected, or extinguished." (1997).

Bearing these considerations in mind, consider how many authors cite Brookfield and Mezirow on a regular basis. Both are very influential in adult education. I suspect that many adult educators simply have not thought about critical thinking much beyond Brookfield’s and Mezirow’s work. Their scholarship, motives, and aims are frequently accepted without serious question. Critical thinking is, ironically, accepted without serious question. It is time to start asking ourselves better questions about how we think so we know why we think the way we do, its advantages and disadvantages.


In the case of graduate students, critical thinking will allow us to sort through the plethora of literature in adult education and identify that which is quality from the dusty chaff. Good critical thinking will enhance our scholarly efforts as well as our daily lives. Maybe, just maybe, we can use it to help improve the human condition. However, I think exposure to other thinking traditions (see Askay, 1997) would benefit scholars (and probably others). Promoting critical thinking without exploring alternatives is problematic. Adult educators need to shake off our collective complacency. In terms of critical thinking and even-dare I say it?-thought in general, adult education as a field needs to reflect, to cultivate awareness and then take appropriate, deliberate action to direct its course.

This last point will probably come as resounding a lack of surprise to most readers. My study demonstrates that confusion such as that which I described is justified. To initiates such as myself the literature is confusing and confused. The term, the concept and the practice of critical thinking are an integral part of today’s academe-what professor is going to knowingly take an uncritical position when teaching? What student will be applauded for writing or reading uncritically? However, critical thinking is being cast off from its theoretical moorings; if critical thinking is the academic equivalent to the rudder of a ship, we are quickly becoming lost in a sea of equivocation. If critical thinking is indispensable to the theory and practice of adult education-as most authors imply-a lot more attention needs to be paid to its theoretical underpinnings and the congruence between professed, implied and operational usage.


Apps, J. W. (1991). Mastering the teaching of adults. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.

Askay, R. R. (1997). "Beyond ‘Critical Thinking’". Journal of Thought, 32(4), 23-36.

Boxler, H. (2001). "Quest for the Grail?: Searching for critical thinking in adult education." Unpublished master’s thesis, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

Brookfield, S. (1987). Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. (1993). "Breaking the code: Engaging practitioners in critical analysis of adult educational literature." Studies in the Education of Adults, 25(1), 64-91.

Cervero, R. M., & Wilson, A. L. (1994). Planning responsibly for adult education: A guide to negotiating power and interests. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cunningham, P. M. (1993). "Let’s get real: A critical look at the practice of adult education." Journal of Adult Education, 22(1), 3-15.

Esterle, J., & Clurman, D. (Eds.). (1993). Conversations with critical thinkers. San Francisco, CA: The Whitman Institute.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (Second ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformational dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2000). "Learning to think like an adult: core concepts of transformation theory." In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Newman, M. (1994). Defining the enemy: Adult education in social action. Sydney, Australia: Stewart Victor Publishing.

Newman, M. (1999). i Sydney, Australia: Stewart Victor Publishing.

Paul, R. W. (1993). "Critical thinking: Fundamental to education for a free society." In J. Willsen & A. J. A. Binker (Eds.), Critical thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world (3rd ed.). Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Paul, R. W., & Willsen, J. (1993). "Critical thinking: Identifying the Targets." In J. Willsen & A. J. A. Binker (Eds.), Critical thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world (3rd ed.). Santa Rosa, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Ruggiero, V. R. (1988). The Art of Thinking (2nd ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). "Teaching Critical Thinking, Part 1: Are we making critical mistakes?" Phi Delta Kappan, 67(3), 194-198.

Posted with permission.

Making Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities in College Classrooms

The purpose of this presentation is to show how proper accommodations in college classrooms can lead to more students with learning disabilities being successful in more courses.

Dr. Joseph Pitts

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


The purpose of this presentation is to show how proper accommodations in college classrooms can lead to more students with learning disabilities being successful in more courses. The presentation will center around choosing modifications of traditional ways to do course work so that students are able to bypass obstacles caused by the learning disability, yet at the same time be able to show the professor the material is mastered.


  • To understand what role accommodations play in the college classrooms;

  • To become familiar with the advantages of accommodations;

  • To understand the difference between a proper and improper accommodation;

  • To be able to list accommodations that might be appropriate for your classroom;

  • To develop strategies to help students to become successful in your classroom.

What is the role of accommodations in the college classroom? Specifically, this presenter thinks that the role of accommodations is to let the professor know just what it is that the student knows. A better approach might be to define what are reasonable accommodations. Although reasonable accommodations may be viewed differently by different professors, it would seem that reasonable accommodations are based on the premise that the students with learning disabilities are given an equal opportunity to determine what they have learned, but not an advantage over others in the class. This does not mean lowering course expectations, but it may mean having students learn and express knowledge in a different mode. The basic advantages of reasonable accommodations should be academic success, better motivation, and more confidence. These would continue in an upward spiral if the reasonable accommodations were doing what they are supposed to do. If we try to determine the difference between a proper accommodation and an improper one, this presenter has found the following guidelines helpful: proper accommodations allow the student to present content in a different format. They still have to show the professor they know the material. An improper accommodation would give the disabled student an advantage over other students. In general, support services do not give disabled students any advantage over others; they merely enable disabled students to overcome the disadvantages with which they would otherwise begin. Some of the more common accommodations might include the following: untimed test, notetakers, taping the lecture, readers and scribes, test-taking alternatives, providing the students to check his/her notes for accuracy with those of faculty or another student, or providing sufficient time for copying information from transparencies and the chalkboard.

What are some other general guidelines or suggestions that are important to consider when making accommodations?

The recommendations that follow are taken from the Faculty Guidebook used at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Maybe they will be helpful.

  1. Talk to students with disabilities early in the semester– during the first few days of classes. If they don’t approach you, don’t wait- approach them yourself after class.

  2. Do not single out students for special attention in class because this could embarrass them. Speak to them privately about problems or issues related to the disability.

  3. Discuss course issues related to the disability and identify potential problems. Talk about what the student can do in your course and discuss what adjustments or modifications you might make in your teaching style and in your evaluation procedures.

  4. Encourage students to keep in touch with you during the term so those problems can be solved as they arise and so those crises can be averted. Let students know that you are available to meet with them.

  5. In matters where the disability is not an issue, treat the students as you would any other students.

  6. If the student is failing because the disability makes it impossible to meet certain course requirements, examine the importance of the problematic requirements in your course. If the problematic requirement is not essential, you may want to adjust your grading scheme so that the student can show mastery of course material in equivalent ways. Note: this is not the same as simply waiving a requirement– it is replacing it with one of equivalent importance and level of difficulty.)

  7. If it is essential that the student be able to complete all requirements, let the student know early in the semester what course requirements will not be modified.

  8. If the student fails for the "usual" reason, allow the grade to stand. Do not pass students with disabilities just because they tried hard. This is unfair to all of your students.

  9. Talk about assistance that the student may need from classmates, tell the student about resources for your course that you know of, and discuss what kinds of modifications to your regular routine would be helpful e.g., seating arrangements, format of exam, grading issues).

  10. Make adjustments in your teaching style which would make it easier for the student to learn (e.g., allow audiotaping, say aloud what you write on the chalkboard, hand out assignments and reading lists early.)

  11. Be flexible with exams (time needed, format) and with deadlines on assignments (there may be problems getting articles in a readable format for the student or in finding assistants to help with library research). Do not, however, grant unearned grades.

  12. Make a special effort to be well organized, to make assignments clear and to communicate effectively.

  13. Talk to students about the impact of the impairment on their ability to do well in your course and about adaptations that you can make to help them do well.

  14. If the student’s impairment interferes with writing ability, allow extra time for exams and be flexible with the modality in which the student provides answers (e.g., oral or audiotaped rather than written answers).

Posted with permission.

Adult Students Need Resilient, Emotionally Intelligent Colleges

The colleges most effective at attracting, retaining, and graduating adult students are those that are highly resilient and demonstrate excellent emotional intelligence with adult students.

Al Siebert, PhD

The colleges most effective at attracting, retaining, and graduating adult students are those that are highly resilient and demonstrate excellent emotional intelligence with adult students.

In the past, college systems, processes, and instructional methods functioned to handle teenagers coming directly from high school. This traditional student was proceeding, as expected, with the next step in life. The old procedure had young students choose a major, learn what the professors taught, and compete with each other for grades for four years. The sixty percent (approximately) who survived received a diploma. Employers knew they were trained to be obedient employees in large, unchanging organizations.

Colleges were not very resilient when more and more older students enrolled. Colleges did not know what to call or how to handle older college students very well. The phrases "adult students" and "adult learners" are still not fully satisfactory. Such phrases silently imply that traditional students are "adolescent learners."

Most adult students are emotionally coping with unexpected, and often unwanted, major life transitions. They start college classes with more fears, anxieties and concerns than traditional students. Because of family, work, and other responsibilities, they tend to think of enrolling in January and signing up for one or two courses at a time. They feel like misfits on campuses where most of the class schedules, student activities, and messages are for traditional younger students. They feel like misfits in classes where instructors do not know how to teach the way adult students learn. They feel that they aren’t getting their money’s worth when they are not taught in ways that prepare them to survive and compete in today’s world of constant change.

Organizations now make internal changes so frequently, it is rare for anyone to have an up-to-date job description. Organizations want people who:

  • have an internal locus-of-control with attitudes of professionalism
  • are self-motivated
  • can transition quickly
  • work well in temporary teams
  • constantly learn new technology and new skills
  • strive for continuous improvement
  • succeed at reaching team-set goals

In today’s world, colleges must role model organizational resiliency, be change proficient, and demonstrate emotional intelligence in their handling of adult students.