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How Adult and Higher Education Instructors Can Address Adult Learner Skill Gaps

Friday, November 3, 2017 -- Leslie Holland

Have you ever agreed to teach a new class, and when you start doing research to begin the lesson planning process, quickly realized that there are aspects of the topic you’re perfectly comfortable with—along with aspects that feel completely foreign? Now, as you get further into the planning process, a few of those topics probably come flooding back, but others don’t, and becoming fluent in them takes real time and effort.

Welcome to the reality adult learners face. Making the decision to return to the classroom is inevitably somewhat of a daunting one, and whether adults have been absent for months or years, the experience is going to amplify what they remember, as well as what they believe they have forgotten.

With the understanding that knowledge and skill gaps are going to be present in all adult learners—and take very different forms for each individual—what strategies can we as instructors use to help focus, target, and differentiate instruction in the most effective way? Here are six strategies to help your adult learners fill their skill gaps in any subject.

1. Find out what your learners remember. It doesn’t matter if they last set foot in a classroom two weeks or twenty years ago—ask each learner what they remember from their last formal education experience. Review the topics so that you are aware of what they most recently covered (and remember) and be sure to highlight any key vocabulary that may help recall a concept. This helps you understand what you need to focus on throughout the rest of the term.

2. Ask your learners to self-assess. With adult learners, who have a greater awareness of their own life experience than most traditional students, being blunt can work in your favor. So, ask your students the strait-forward question, “Where do you think you are?” Getting a grasp on what topics your learners feel confident in and what they’re intimidated by can provide helpful clues as you plan lessons—and determine what they’re truly interested in.

3. Cover topics your learners are familiar with through a quick review. Open, up-front conversations with your adult learners can help you determine areas where they do have strong prior knowledge. Once you’ve identified these concepts, can you proceed to the next level through a quick study and review of the vocabulary and key terms? By devoting less time to these areas of strength, you can free up instructional hours to focus on the concepts your learners truly need work in.

4. Set clear goals for achievement. After you’ve clearly identified areas of strength and weakness, goal setting is key. Start by asking yourself, what are your goals for the class as a whole? Do you have short-term expectations? Do you need learners to reach a certain level within a timeframe (i.e. passing a GED test or professional certification)? Plan your instruction to fill learners’ skills gaps most efficiently to meet those goals.

5. Look at the data. The data you have on your learners is an outstanding tool to bridge the gap between their own feelings on where they are at and your goals for their learning. Consider any assessment data you have inherited on your students, as well as benchmark assessments you have already administered to assess their skills. This data can help you refine the areas in which you need to focus instruction, in addition to arming you with valuable evidence to direct individual learners’ efforts.

6. Provide your learners with a roadmap. It’s bound to be either your favorite thing or greatest challenge in regard to teaching adult learners—they truly have minds of their own. Adult learners have returned to the classroom for a reason, and providing them with a well thought out roadmap as to what they will gain from being there is key to success. Once you’ve gathered all the evidence you can about what your learners’ needs are, provide them with some kind of roadmap (whether written or represented with graphics) to illustrate what your class will focus on and what they can expect to gain from it.

Agency is critical when it comes to adult learners. Respect their unique experiences as well as their unique needs when it comes to designing effective curriculum and building strong, effective instructor-student relationships, and you can set yourself up for a successful semester.  

Interested in learning more about how Edmentum’s online programs can support your efforts to benchmark new students and fill skill gaps with engaging curriculum? Check out our Courseware for Higher Ed or take a look at our specialized programs for Workforce Readiness!