The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence

Designing Effective Adult Learning Experiences

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The following post has been compiled based on observations made by workshop participants including faculty, TAs, and Center for Teaching Excellence staff.

Dr. Susan Hines leading the "designing effective adult learning experiences" workshop on October 27.

Dr. Susan Hines leading the “designing effective adult learning experiences” workshop on October 27.

Self-directed. Voluntary learners. Problem solvers. Intrinsically motivated. These are phrases that Dr. Susan Hines, Associate Professor and Director of Faculty Development at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, uses to describe adult learners. Understanding that adult learners function differently in the classroom than do traditional age college students is key for faculty who want to create effective adult learning experiences. Today’s post shares highlights from a workshop Dr. Hines led on this topic at Duquesne University on Monday, October 27.

According to Dr. Hines, an effective adult learning experience needs to honor the following 5 principles:

  1. Instructors should make learning experiences relevant to an adult student’s social roles.
  2. Classroom learning should build on the wealth of life and work experiences adult students have.
  3. Lessons need to be applicable to the real world.
  4. Learning experiences are best when designed to fit an adult learner’s needs.
  5. Adult learners want to be involved in the learning process.


So how can we as faculty and TAs create learning experiences that follow these principles and leave our adult students feeling like the return to school is worth it? Dr. Hines advises instructors to approach the classroom as a “learning laboratory” where both instructors and students engage in learning as an adventure, innovating and taking risks. During Monday’s workshop, she offered a 4 step process that optimizes student engagement by tapping into adult students’ life experiences and cutting material that is not directly relevant to their academic goals. This process provides a flexible structure designed to work in any discipline and in both face-to-face and online classes. All 4 steps can be accomplished in the context of one lesson.

The following outline of the 4 step process is adapted from a handout created by Dr. Hines:

Step 1: Awaken current knowledge. Encourage students to think about their prior contact with the content of the lesson you are about to teach. By mining their experiences and knowledge, you engage their interest and create an opportunity to integrate their current knowledge into the lesson. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Reflection Prompt: “think of a time when . . .” or “what was your worst/best . . .”
  • Storytelling: bring your students’ “autobiographies” to the classroom by asking each of them “to tell a story that is closely related to the” content of the lesson.
  • Anonymous Polling: “use anonymous polling software to gather student perceptions related to the content topic.”

Step 2: Add new knowledge. Once students share their current knowledge, give them an opportunity to encounter new material by engaging in

  • Student Micro-Presentations: “have students, working in small groups, provide a micro-lecture on topics related to the reading concepts.”
  • Socratic/Guided Questioning: give students an opportunity to “design questions to probe into their understanding of the readings.”
  • Gallery Walks: “post key questions, separately on poster paper, around the room.” Direct students to visit “each poster and write their response” and then debrief the responses as a class.

Step 3: Practice new knowledge. This step affords instructors the greatest opportunity to connect classroom content to the real world. You can do so by incorporating

  • Mini Case Studies: “provide students with real-world case studies to solve/apply learning to.”
  • Fish Bowl: “have students role-play a newly learned skill while other students observe and critique the performance quality.”
  • Critique Examples: “provide examples of the newly learned skill and have students critique the qualities.”

Step 4: Apply new knowledge. Unlike traditional age college students who typically believe they will apply their newly acquired skills sometime in the future, adult learners tend to want to apply their knowledge immediately. You can facilitate this need for immediate application using some of these ideas:

  • Self-Assessment: invite students to “self-assess their learning products/assignments (before submitting for grade)”
  • Real-World Application: “have students write a brief reflection on ways to apply new concepts to personal work/life roles.”
  • Create a “Never Again List:” prompt students to write “a list of what they will never do again based on their new learning.”

Now it’s your turn. In the comments below, we invite you to share what has and has not worked as you design learning experiences for adult students.

For more information on the topic, Dr. Hines recommends the following resources.

Angelo, T. & Cross. K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bean, J. (1996). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching: Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Meyer, D. (2000). The accelerated learning handbook. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Nilson, L. (2003). Teaching at its best: Research-based resources for college teachers. Boston, MA: Anker Publishing.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach a subject. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Wlodkowski, R. & Ginsberg, M. (2010). Teaching intensive and accelerated courses: Instruction that motivates learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Author: duqcte

Founded in 1989 as a faculty initiative, the Center for Teaching Excellence helps faculty and graduate student teaching assistants excel as teacher-scholars deeply invested in their students’ learning. We believe that excellent teaching is an art that grows through scholarship, practice, reflection, and collaboration. Our approach at CTE is a personal one. We promote excellence in teaching by getting to know our faculty and TAs, learning from them, fostering their leadership, and bringing people together from across the University.

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