Preparing Adult Learners for Success

Academics often express frustration with the poor preparation of learners entering college and being able to succeed with academic rigor, let alone thrive with it. Organizations question our (colleges) ability to produce the individuals with the skills needed as they lament the lack of critical thinking skills, decision-making skills, and communication skills being graduated and brought into the workforce (Hoover, Giambatista, Sorenson, & Bommer, 2010).

What is going on? Is everybody just whining? Are the students that ill-prepared and is it really that challenging to set them on a path of self-directed learning?

In short, academics has yet to fully embrace what is needed to prepare students for knowledge management careers.

Who are we recruiting?

The first issue to fully embrace is the unique audience. We are not talking about our Stanford and Harvard kids hawkishly competing at the top high schools in the United States to earn their seats. We are looking at the non-traditional learner (adults averaging 38 years old) who often have dependents, jobs, and the perception of being overwhelmed by the demands of modern living.

As our society shifted from the manufacturing base that did not require collegiate education to a knowledge work environment that requires not only collegiate knowledge but also emotional intelligence, we also face the fact that affective skills so important to knowledge work has spiraled downward (Forbus, Newbold, & Mehta, 2011; Goleman, 2000; Neisser, 1998; Woosley & Shepler, 2011).

The audience that so many colleges have enrolled are these individuals.

What do they want?

These learners typically do not attend their first class with an articulated sense of self-direction. We already know that self-direction is made manifest through preferences between goals, activities, and simply the desire to learn for the sake of learning with the majority of them by far focused on what typically are short-term goals (Houle, 1961). In accelerated and online environments especially, we find these are career related being taught by adjunct faculty who have deep expertise in their field, but not necessarily academic coaching and gap filling.

What do they need?

While the cognitive goals of certification may be getting fulfilled for those students who have survived the transition, are they getting what they need? Affect, a missing element in too many learning experiences, has been found to be a critical factor to learners becoming more successful not only in the softer skills in demand by organizations (critical thinking skills, decision-making skills, communication skills), but also an aid to retention of the cognitive experiences (Rose, 2015). As such, academic environments are even further challenged to provide not just the knowledge, but engaging and relevant in order to ensure perception of value that is important to make into the long term memory.

What are they missing?

A lot.

  • Prioritisation: Unfamiliar with academic expectations, where does one even start? This population does not have the norms that many educators presume.
  • Workflow: Even with all the pieces in front of them, how does one juggle all the responsibilities … perceived or real.
  • Self-esteem: I can’t do this. I’m overwhelmed and there is only a million people that will beat me to the job I want anyway.
  • Grammar: Text talk. Incorrect word usage. Punctuation. Spelling. You would weep to see first-week discussion posts.
  • Communication: Let defensiveness reign! Introducing the affective taxonomy and coaching the students through an emotional minefield has it’s challenges.

….this list can go on for pages because these items and many more, simply are absent in so many of our adult learners entering associate level programs. Even if I ignored the literature, 10 years in higher education focused on this population across a variety of small colleges certainly attests to these gaps.

Now what?

We have to feed them, nurture them, love them.

We have to train adjunct faculty with the skills to feed them, nurture them, and prepare them for upcoming semesters, building them up to the rigor desired.

Dropping the majority of this population into a fully rigorous academic environment defined by educational expectations even 20 years ago leads to high attrition, but heartbreakingly more important, loss of an opportunity for those who gave up.

We have to focus on authentic assessment that prepares learners for reality, not an academic glass bubble. The Accenture Strategy 2015 College Graduate Employment Study reported that 59% of college graduates claimed being prepared with only 23% of employers agreeing that the graduates were prepared. Rigor is not the answer. The combination of outcomes and authentic assessment is needed to get our learners ready for career success.

….because, ladies and gentleman, as Miller (2015) tells us, it’s not about getting knowledge. Anybody can get information. It’s about giving our learners a set of tools that allows them to understand the problems and develop solutions in an empathic and effective manner.


Forbus, P., Newbold, J., Mehta, S. (2011). A study of non-traditional and traditional students in terms of their time management behaviors, stress factors, and coping strategies. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 15, 109-125. Retrieved from

Goleman, D. (2000). Working with emotional intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

Hoover, J., Giambatista, R., Sorenson, R., & Bommer, W. (2010). Assessing the effectiveness of whole-person learning pedagogy in skill acquisition. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 9(2), 192-203. Retrieved from

Houle, C. (1961). The inquiring mind. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Neisser, U. (1998). The rising curve: Long-term gains in IQ and related measures. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Woosley, S., & Shepler, D. (2011). Understanding the early integration experiences of first-generation college students. College Student Journal, 45(4), 700-714. Retrieved from

Cross posted with Marian Willeke’s LinkedIn

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About Marian

My passion is centered around ensuring effective learning experiences that improve people's lives. Developing a learning mindset is my ultimate goal whether working with academic programs or corporate training; formal or informal learning practices. It is my belief that our potential for agility is limited only by our capacity for learning.