Teaching Adult Learners Online

By Anitha Cadambi, Assistant Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Southern California

The phrase, “a delicate balancing act” best describes an adult learner’s journey back to school. With a growing number of online degrees and certificates currently being offered by top universities, many people over the age of 25 are keenly pursuing higher education opportunities. While their reasons vary, generally these individuals are interested in expanding upon their existing skills while simultaneously learning more about a specialty that both immediately satisfies student curiosity and provides opportunities for professional growth. This, coupled with a flexible, online format, makes a journey back into education worthwhile and achievable.

This unique group of learners creates an attractive teaching opportunity. Instructors must emphasize factors that are different from traditional learning when teaching adult learners online. These factors include the following:

Understand unique needs: Teachers should recognize that adult learners come with years of work and life experience. This makes them a valuable teaching asset in the classroom. Teachers can draw on their existing experiences and allow for more enhanced instruction as these students often can directly relate to many of the concepts being discussed.

Interactive discussions: Students enhance class discussions as they bring their own experiences to the classroom. A great example of this came from a session I taught on criminal procedure. A student of mine, a senior law enforcement official, brought lessons from the field to help illustrate several concepts. He essentially served as a leader for this discussion, and several students later commented that this was one of their favorite sessions. This can be a valuable experience not only for students but also for those teaching.

Learning styles: As can be surmised from the experience with the senior law enforcement official, adult learners require more opportunities to apply their learning because they learn better by doing. In teaching an introductory class on U.S .Law, I noticed that students enjoyed studying history, purpose, and rationale for legal doctrines, but also wanted to understand how they played out in real life. In response, I pulled topics directly from the headlines and discussed several recent scenarios to help reinforce topics. One of my favorite discussions was on executive privilege. We started with a look at history—precedent set in United States v. Nixon – and then related those concepts to modern day executive privilege.

Value Feedback: A great deal of instruction comes from individual feedback that teachers give their students. Constructive criticism and targeted advice go a long way with these learners. Many are seeking to improve, and they value comments on their performance, understanding and application of the materials, and writing styles. They are invested in the learning process.

If being in a classroom with adult learners excites you, consider pursuing a teaching opportunity in a master’s degree program.