The Strange Experience of “Adult” Education

As many of you readers know, I am 44 years old. And I have gone back to school. This makes me a “nontraditional student,” or even more euphemistically, an “adult learner.” This are the monikers that colleges apply to those of us students who stick out like an El Camino at Kia dealership and are typically referred to as “the old dude in the corner.” In spite of the social obstacles — both perceived and real (thank you online courses!) — going to school as an adult has real value, even beyond what we get charged for tuition. Which, I might add, is no cheaper than that of “normal” students.

Learning is a lifelong process for adults. We actually learn differently from younger students, and feel social pressures — as I alluded to before — in traditional classroom settings that are different from those experienced by our “traditional” counterparts. According to some experts,  we adults need “to be free to direct [our]selves” (Lieb, 1991). Our learning process can be enhanced by letting us pace our learning to their own schedules and abilities. Reducing obstacles such as pressures on time and constraints placed on adult learners by work and family are ways to foster a successful adult learning environment.

Because we have our own life experiences and knowledge, we want to view ourselves as successful and productive in everything we do. We have this self-perception of being achievers, and want to be treated in a manner that respects our experience and abilities. Adults do not want to find themselves in situations where they are not in control. Adult learners do not want to be judged or patronized or be told what to do or that they can’t do something. Environments that are non-threatening to an adult’s self concept or esteem are more conducive to adult learning.

Studies show that adults are much less prone to feel threatened when they are skilled enough to manage their own education and ascribe value to their roles as adult learners. The learning style of adults is unlike the passive learning style of children who receive and (hopefully) store information that adults have decided to be necessary to their education.  An adult’s perception of himself as an achiever often interferes with our ability to feel like a student or a learner. Such difficulty tends to crop up because we have misconceptions of what learning is, or should be.

Older students also need feedback for success… we’re praise hounds. In order to entice us into modifying our learning behavior to be more effective, we need to hear how we’re doing as we do it. According to research, the timing of the feedback is important, as a more immediate response has a greater effect or on our ability — and desire — to continue learning. Studies show that if too great an interval is allowed between a learner’s performance and an educator’s feedback, the feedback is less likely to have a positive impact on learning (Brundage & Mackeracher, 1980).

Along those lines, the sooner we do well in a course, the better we feel about the experience and the more motivated we are to keep going. I suppose that’s why, three weeks into the semester, I keep checking for grades on my community college’s learning portal. To quote an infamous line delivered by a thug in “Dirty Harry”: I got’s to know.

So, why bring up the whole adult learning thing — apart from the fact that it’s kinda what I’m doing right now? Because adult and executive education is BIG business. In my area, I don’t see too much advertising for colleges trying to attract liberal arts majors, but I see a number of billboards — yes, billboards — paid for by colleges competing for “Executive” MBA dollars. In the next post, we’ll take a look at some of the monetary aspects of adult learning, including some thoughts on paying for it without having to cash out the retirement account.



  1. How is this different from / similar to the “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N”, the experience of an irrepressible student at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults, and his personal war with the English language? I would recommend reading this humorous book and hope that your own experiences are educational, if less entertaining… ;)

  2. Best of luck! Back in the 80s I went back for my Ph.D. in management. I was by far the oldest in class, so I know of which you speak. It will without a doubt be worth it, no matter what it costs.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>