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Kim Aling

ocTEL MOOC week 2 Teaching and learning

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Working with adult learners

Adult learners:


Distance learners are more likely to be adult learners and so this means that we have to not only consider the needs of distance learners in terms of the specific support they need to undertake this method of learning, but we also need to think about their needs as adult learners and ask if this is distinct from young learners.

Greaves looks at the support needed for distance learners. Particularly support for their affective development and the need to create a supportive environment.  It is also important here to provide way for learners to avoid or quickly deal with negative emotions, such as the frustration of not being able to use the technology or find help.  Negative emotions are counter to effective learning. Students develop better in a fully supported environment, which includes technical as well and content support and when they feel supported they are more likely to feel more confident with the new learning environment.  Research has highlighted that lack of support is a considerable barrier to learning for students. MMU (Manchester Met) provided a website to support studying online. 

Support is an important aspect of distance learning.  As the use of online tools increases it has become even more important.  Students are not necessarily furnished with the skills or confidence for online learning and it is a very big barrier to success. The OU has a similar supporting framework to MMU with a very well developed site on Skills for OU study.  For technical help there is the Computing Guide which is well linked from a number of different areas and is very student and beginner friendly.  The library also have information and guidance and hold a number of online seminars on a range of online tools, as well as guidance on how to use the online library. Tutors are also another source of advice and guidance and the tutor group forum is a good place to provide support.  It is important that this support is timely though or it can only add to a sense of frustration.

It is argued that adult learners have different needs and motivations to young learners.  Knowles (2005) work on andragogy suggests that adult learners need to know why they are learning something, feel more responsible for their lives and their learning, are life-centred and usually have a reason for undertaking study which motivates them. The suggestion is that learning is therefore grounded in learners’ experiences and interests. Adult learners are also much more diverse and so a more student-centred, individual approach is required. McKeachie (2002) provides advice on teaching strategies best suited to adults. Lectures should give space for student involvement and activities to help think through ideas and ground them in experience. Problem-based learning is effective, including role play and simulations.  Case studies are useful as they show real world situations to support abstract ideas. Discussion is also suggested as, again, it helps ground ideas in experience and improve learning retention. From experience adult learners generally do prefer to be engaged in activities and discussion.  It is also useful because it draws out prior learning and other examples from people's own life experiences and enriches discussions.  The most effective tutorials are those that are active.  With adult learners the teacher becomes a facilitator (Gagné) and this is very much how I see the role of an OU tutor. We facilitate understanding of the module material via a range of methods and technologies.  Understanding is improved if learners have to think about the material, sometimes giving them a slightly different perspective.  Thus questioning and discussion are the basis of facilitating understanding. We have the benefit of not needing to deliver material as this is achieved though the online and written resources produced by course teams and so we do have the luxury of being focused on the assimilation of knowledge.

Clardy (cited in Rees 2010) provides a critique of the andragogy theory arguing that adults aren't different to children as learners - ie they still learn in much the same way.  Possibly at a fundamental level this is true. My argument is that the different strategies they call upon to make learning effective and their degree of control over their method of learning are different. He does argue that adults are an heterogeneous group, which is true and possibly more so than children and so this is also a feature that draws them apart.  However he does argue that not all adults are ready to be self-directed learners and this is where the need for advice, guidance and support comes in. 



Knowles, M. S., Swanson, R. A., and Holton, E. F. III (2005) The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.)California: Elsevier Science and Technology Books.

McKeachie, W. J., Pintrich, P. R., Lin, Y., and Smith, D. A. F (1986). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of literature. Michigan: The University of Michigan.

Rees, D. (2010) Androgogy: Adult learning theory found at http://www.slideshare.net/AtomicMeme/adult-learning-theory-principles-and-practice-4247587 [Accessed 02/05/13]


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