After graduating with her master’s in adult education from East China Normal University, Bo Chang read a landmark work, Learning in Adulthood, and began corresponding with one of the authors, Dr. Sharan Merriam, a groundbreaking scholar in the field of adult education and a professor at the University of Georgia. Their emails led to Chang’s enrollment into the university’s doctoral program, known for its pioneering work and international scholars.

Q: What do instructors need to know about teaching non-traditional adult students? What does that mean for practice?

There are many differences between adult learners and non-adult learners, besides the fact that adult learners have to balance responsibilities for their jobs, family, and learning.

First, adult learners need to be treated more like colleagues, instead of students. Many adult learners have worked for many years and some play leadership roles in their workplace. When they enroll in the academic programs, it is not so easy for them to transition from the ones who lead other employees to the ones who are led by the instructors. Due to their positions and their past experience, they might be very sensitive to criticism, and can become resistant to suggestions provided by the instructors. As instructors, we need to change our assumption from being an expert and leading adults’ learning to being a learning partner and facilitating adults’ learning.

Next, education for adult learners requires a practical approach. Unlike non-adult students who come to school to learn the systematic knowledge for their future, adult learners focus on their current needs. They come to school mainly to fill the gaps in their current knowledge base. Some older adults, after they retire, gradually become inactive and lose the social connections with others. These adults want to rebuild networks with other people so they can still be active in society. Other adults, who are actively working, may want to learn new ways to solve problems in their workplace or to help them advance their professional careers.

Also, adult learners have much more experience compared with the non-adult learners. Their experience can be used as a part of the learning resources. In online discussions, for example, instructors can ask adult learners to use their experiences or the examples they know to interpret the theories. Adult learners understand how a theory really works through a variety of examples. Some may not resonate to some examples provided by their peers, but they may find that “niche” from other peers’ experience which speaks to their situations most. What I want to emphasize here is that, experience alone will not definitely lead to learning. The instructors need to guide adult learners not to just share experience, but to use experience as a tool to explain how theories work in practice.

Finally, adult learners’ physical conditions are different from those of non-adult learners. For example, their physical speed for processing information and their ability to memorize facts are declining when they become older. Starting from their 30s, adults’ short-term memory begins to decrease. We need to respect such changes and provide an environment that can accommodate adult learners’ physical limitations. If we require adult learners to take tests at the same speed as non-adult students, it may not be fair for some of them due to their physical limitations.

Q: What’s the most important thing students can learn?

I’ve always told students that content-based knowledge is important, but what is the most important is to actually learn how to learn, or “procedural knowledge.” Once you learn how to learn, then there’s nothing you cannot learn.

Let me give you an example: Before I came to Ball State, I had never taught an online course. I have had a lot of training in online teaching here because Ball State provides an excellent training system for its faculty. I also learned different tools for online teaching on my own through diligent research. Whenever I had questions, I always Googled, and searched YouTube. These are the basics that we can learn by ourselves.

Q: Besides subject matter, what else do you want your students to learn?

Even though it may not be our [the professor’s] job, my concern is that we have a lack of opportunities to teach students how to be an independent and professional scholar, how to build their networks, how to manage their time, how to deal with relationships with instructors, how to be a professional, and how to just be a pleasant person. I think we need to have more informal gatherings where students and professors can have a chance to interact and where students can observe their instructors as professionals and leaders.