Active Learning Strategies for Adults

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will look at some characteristics of adult learners and the strategies recommended for providing adult students with an active learning approach.

Understanding Adult Learners

Many adult learners have spent a long time away from a schooling environment and as a result, have a special set of needs. Adult learners, like nontraditional university students, may have taken a break from school to work or start a family. These life experiences are usually more hands on and highly interactive, involving a variety of information delivery methods. Effective instruction will incorporate some of these characteristics.

Active Learning

In order to better facilitate effective instruction of adult learners, it is critical to incorporate active learning strategies into your instructional methodology. Use a variety of curriculum materials and interactive content to deliver information to adult students. Adult learners also want to see some practical application of the things that they are learning. This means that lessons, assignments, and assessments should mimic real-world experiences.

Active learning is just that: active. Adult learners are not unlike their fidgety elementary compatriots in that they might need recess and nap times. Unfortunately, recess and naps are not usually available to adult learners. There are several ways to provide the need for activity, and research shows that incorporating these strategies into the classroom will benefit adult learners.

Some ways to add activity and movement into class are providing stretching breaks, moving around the class to work in groups, standing to speak when possible and asking students to write on a board or demonstrate for the class. Some activities for individual self-stimulation at the desk involve providing candy, manipulatives, toys, colored pencils and paper, or small arts and crafts supplies. Giving adult students something to do to keep their hands active can increase the brain's focus on mental tasks.

Let's look at some examples of the kinds of diverse curriculum content and instructional methods to incorporate into an active learning strategy targeted toward adult students.

Group Discussions

Adult learners benefit from open discussion opportunities in both large and small groups. Some students are deterred from participation in a whole-class discussion. For these anxious students, small group discussions provide a chance for participation. Another benefit of varied student groupings is that it hits on that practical application quality we need by mimicking group collaboration in a workplace setting, lending itself to relevant skills training.

One suggestion is to vary the ways groups are formed. Depending on the needs of the project, allow for student choice, ask them to work with someone they have never worked with, or group students randomly. One helpful tip for random grouping is to count off each student by the number of groups needed. For example, ask students to walk around the room counting off (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 and so on), then group all the 1s, 2s, and 3s together by moving them to different parts of the room. Allow for the groups to choose a scribe and spokesperson to bring the findings of the group discussions together into a whole.

Performance Assessments

Active learning strategies are best evaluated with performance evaluations. In contrast to assessments like homework, quizzes and essays, a performance assessment is a major project, usually demonstrated by the student and presented to the class. This interactive element lends itself well to active learning and the presentation style is similar to the useful, real-world relevance that adult learners crave.

Common examples of performance assessments are book reports where the student presents an essay to the class, a debate session between students, the science fair, a quiz bowl, presenting the findings from a research project, designing a survey to administer to the class, working as a group to write a proposal, designing a website, or a thesis defense.

Performance assessments are any kind of project, whether solo or collaborative, that requires the student to speak aloud to an audience of one or more, in explanation of the work. Students are required not only to be able to explain their learning in print, but to also demonstrate the ability to articulate that learning.

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