Learning to Teach Adult Students

A pair of adult learners engaged in a lesson. (iStock Photo)

A pair of adult learners engaged in a lesson. (iStock Photo)

Bonnie Edelen Ph.D. ’09 teaches her nursing students to write about how their new experiences relate to their prior experience and knowledge. She says the practice, known as reflective journaling, helps them better retain information, score higher on tests, and make better clinical decisions.

Reflective journaling is a strategy she explored in her Ph.D. dissertation, which earned her not only a doctoral degree in adult learning from the Neag School of Education but also an award for Excellence in Nursing Research from the Connecticut Nursing Research Alliance. Now she’s passing on what she learned to her students at Capital Community College.

“I use the skills I learned at UConn every day,” said Edelen, “and I get really excited when I start talking about it. The critical thinking and reasoning skills I learned in the Adult Learning program, and am now able to pass on to the students I teach, have led to increased test scores and enhanced abilities.

“Fellow teachers say that strategies like reflective journaling, which I learned at UConn and then passed on to them, have also changed the way they teach – and, more importantly, the way students learn,” she adds. “Test scores are higher, our nursing students practice medicine better, and the ultimate result of that is better patient care. That’s exciting!”

Learning from faculty, learning from each other

At any given time, approximately 30 graduate students – most of them full-time working professionals – are enrolled in Neag’s Adult Learning program.

Students can earn a graduate certificate, master’s degree, or doctoral degree in the program, which provides both the proven principles and practical experience needed to more effectively create learning programs and teach other adult learners in their respective disciplines.

Approximately one-third of students are healthcare professionals like Edelen. Each class, however, is made up of a diverse range of mid- to senior-level personnel from a variety of fields. A manufacturing executive may sit next to a human resources trainer, or a physician next to a technology specialist or agricultural educator.

Students attend classes at UConn’s Storrs campus, within the Neag School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership, where they work together to learn the theories and best practices needed to:

  • Critically assess the learning needs of individual adults, groups, and organizations;
  • Design supportive learning environments and systems;
  • Effectively facilitate individual and group activities designed to optimize adult learning;
  • Evaluate learners’ successes and organizational outcomes.

Doctoral students take their studies further, conducting rigorous research and examining methodologies to both identify, and suggest corrective measures for, issues that impact adult learning – something Edelen did when she wrote her dissertation on “Measuring and Enhancing Clinical Decision-Making Ability Among Students in an Associate Degree Nursing Program.”

In it, she shows how reflective journaling helps clarify ideas and actions, and promotes changes in perspectives.

“Our students tend to be as diverse as our faculty, which makes our classes interesting and exciting,” says Sandy Bell, associate professor in the Neag School’s Department of Educational Leadership and section head of the Adult Learning program.

Bell says one of the principles of the program is that the knowledge students bring is just as important as the knowledge faculty have to share. “We stress the idea of respecting, and learning skills from, each other. Adult learning is different, in that the classes are a bit more relaxed and customized to meet students’ needs, goals, and interests. We encourage students to think about how everything they learn is relevant to their profession and the adult learners with whom they’re going to work.”

Best practices

For Tim Speicher Ph.D. ’10, an athletic trainer and faculty member at several Utah universities, that meant learning not just how to best engage adult students, but understanding why certain techniques and practices do or don’t work.

“The great extra benefit was that I was also learning more about myself, and how the manner we’re taught impacts what we retain and remember,” said Speicher, who used the expertise he gained in the program to establish the Positional Release Therapy Institute in Utah. There, he and five other clinicians provide hands-on, manual physical therapy instruction to fellow healthcare providers and the general public.

“One of the things I love about UConn’s Adult Learning program is that for the motivated student, there are no limits,” adds Speicher. “You take the lessons you learn and apply them to your own goals. There’s also no real focus on grades, but instead a focus on making you the best researcher and educator you can be. I spent my time there surrounded by exceptional mentors, scholars, and peers.”

To accommodate work schedules, classes take place in the evening. Topics range from “Influences on Adult Learning” and “The Brain, Experience, and Adult Learning” to “Strategic Applications of Adult Learning Principles.” Some students have regularly scheduled class meetings; others center on small group research or consulting projects, and may include online learning as well.

“As a field of study, adult learning is unique in that it offers opportunities to develop knowledge, skills, and values that you can apply to any other academic discipline, profession, or career,” says Bell, who is recognized as a pioneer in applying adult learning principles to improve agriculture and conservation practices. “At its most basic level, it’s a program that teaches the teacher. But instead of just teaching that certain strategies work, we teach why certain strategies work.”

Healthcare professionals can especially benefit, Bell adds. Graduates find that the critical thinking and inquiry skills they learn in the program help them make better clinical decisions as caregivers. They conduct more effective research and professional development opportunities, such as those related to occupational health and wellness; and are able to develop effective educational programs both for students in health care professions and for large health care institutions”

“Every student brings something unique and different to the program,” says Bell. “But their goals are the same: to become the best facilitators possible for adult learners.”

For more information about the program, visit http://edlr.education.uconn.edu/.