In an attempt to describe the attributes of adult learners that differentiate them from child learners, Malcolm Knowles posits six assumptions that can help us to facilitate learning in adults that better meets their needs. First, Knowles argues, adults will be more receptive to learning if they understand why they need to know what they’re learning. Because adults are likely to have developed a mature self-concept, when they are learning it’s important for them to their learning process is self-directed. Adult learners bring a wealth of experience into the learning environment; that experience can serve as a shared resource (Taylor & Kroth, 2009, p. 6) and can enhance learning (Stavredes, 2011, p. 14). Adult learners are likely to have a readiness to learn if they believe what they’re learning will be relevant to meeting a need or solving a problem. Similarly, if there is an immediate application for what they are learning, adults may have an orientation to learn. Finally, adults have different motivation to learn than children do; where children are likely to be motivated by grades and other external factors, adults’ incentives to learn are likely to be internal.
While these assumptions make a great deal of sense in general, it seems to me that there can be great variation from adult to adult (and even from child to child—I’m not willing to assume that there aren’t children to whom these assumptions might also apply) in how applicable each assumption is. My experience as a student in a master’s program in library science serves as an example; I entered the program having no experience working in a library, while many of the other students in the program had been working in libraries for many reasons. Our motivations for pursuing the degree, and our prior experiences, were vastly different. Presumably, some of them already knew and already were doing much of what they had to “learn” in the program, which would have made their need to know and their readiness and orientation to learn very different from mine.
Because Knowles’ assumptions are so generalized, in an actual teaching scenario, I think David Grow’s Staged Self-Directed Learning Model would better help online instructors to support adult students. Grow’s model takes into account that adult learners may be in very different places depending on their prior experiences, their level of confidence, their motivation, what they already know about the subject, and what they want to get out of the learning process. The implication of this model for online instructors is that we’re probably rarely going to have the “ideal” situation in which every adult in a class is going to be fully (or even partially) self-directed. Every student may need a different level of support. It may not be obvious to an instructor where each student is in Grow’s model.
When I started the MET program, I think I was somewhere between stages 2 and 3 in Grow’s model. I had already been, to some extent, an educational technology practitioner. However, I tend to lean toward having lower confidence, and when I’m starting out in any endeavor (new job, new educational program, etc.), I need a bit more support, feedback, and encouragement to really find my footing. I think it’s reasonable to assume that there are many students who start the MET program firmly in Stage 3, or possibly even in Stage 4, of Grow’s model. So many students in the program seem to have a great deal of experience in the field, and those who teach are much more likely to have much of the background knowledge in teaching and learning theory that I lacked as a librarian. This is my final non-portfolio course in the MET program. At this point in my education, I feel like I’m finally in “Stage 4: Self-directed learner” in Grow’s model.
Stavredes, T. (2011). Effective online teaching: Foundations and strategies for student success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Taylor, B., & Kroth, M. (2009). Andragogy’s transition into the future: Meta-analysis of andragogy and its search for a measurable instrument. Journal of Adult Education 38(1), 1-11.