Friday, 13 January 2012

Principles of Adult Learning

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Assessment of needs

Legally almost all University or TAFE students would claim to be adult learners, so adult is not a good word for distinguishing between university students. The use of the word ‘adult’ to describe learners is common in educational use and is used in this course, however the preferred term may be ‘mature’ learner. This term can be used to make a distinction between mature students who have a longer experience of living autonomously and independently, and other University or TAFE students who are recent school leavers.

The definition of an Adult

The definition of an adult depends upon many theories; according to ‘Burns’ in the article ‘Theories of adult education’ states, “ adulthood is dependent on achieving a certain level of physical development, cultural expectations, individual values and goals”.

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Every adult who is enrolled in a program come from different cultural backgrounds with different experience and different expectations to the program (Vella, 14). Due to this reason, during my first lecture in any semester, I introduce myself to the students and ask about their introduction. I normally ask them about their country of origin, so that I can guess about their religious believes and cultural values. It is not a good idea to ask any student about their religion, because it can easily offend overseas students and spoil teacher-student relationship. This is important because, the adults from different backgrounds have different believes and came from different style of secondary school education system.

The other important information for me to know about the new students is about their educational background, because I teach technical courses and require good mathematical and technical knowledge. I also need to know their knowledge with regards to the course and also their expectations from the course. This generally gives me a good idea as to what level of students I have in my class and it also helps in establishing a connection between the students and me as a teacher. I need to map the assessment of learning skills and needs of learners before the actual teaching can take place. According to Hutchinson (178) as cited by Vella (14), teachers need to discover the knowledge base of a student and also the student’s expectations in terms of what they want to learn and know.

This type of information helps me to decide about the starting level of my teaching. Mostly, I need to start from vary basic of concepts and then gradually increase the depth of the topic (also cited by Vella 14).

It was noticed that, this type of introductions and discussions during the first lecture builds confidence between students and enhances the trust and relationship between teacher and students, and motivate the students as students become confident that they will be taught according to their base knowledge and every effort will be made to match their skills against the learning outcomes of the course which makes the course interesting for them (cited by Vella, 14). I ask students to build groups of four in the class, as they need to perform tasks and conduct experiments on a set of four computers as different machines. Total freedom is given to them to form these groups, and found that the students from similar age and cultural form their own groups, which again builds the confidence and give the sense of security in the class (cited by Jane Vella in 1 principles for effective adult learning). These groups then required to discuss with other groups, which involves the whole class, providing opportunity for all students to participate. I also found that team building tasks such as solving case studies in class in a team and presenting the answer to fellow classmates rather than me was a good way to enhance confidence and motivation among the students.

According to Adams (175) as cited by Vella (14), listening to the needs of the adult learners is the key to designing a course for them. This could be done by surveys, questionnaires, face-to-face interviews, research, setting form focus groups that can target the learning outcomes and topics that need to be included in the course and also by knowing the skills that are needed by the industry. This should promote active learning among the students and develop them as adult learners.

In my reading I discovered that I have been trying different ways to carry on needs assessment in class, which matches with the theory and concepts of what the researchers say is effective although my ways were derived from my own knowledge, experience and from trial and error in every semester. Knowledge of the researched theory and that it matches with my ways has made me more confident about the ways in which I teach and guided me to some other aspects as cited by Vella (14) as mentioned below

· Trust in the competence of teacher and course design and feasibility of course objectives and their relevance to the topic, makes the students feel safe.

· Teacher should not empower adult learners; they should encourage the use of power that the learners were born with, specially knowing their cultural background.

Learning needs analysis

Learning needs analysis

All individuals analyse information differently on the basis of either learned or inherited knowledge and skills. Dunn (167) describes this as a Cognitive Style Method as opposed to the Brain Lateralization Theory which is based on different functions of the two hemispheres of the brain the Left brain responds to “Verbal-sequential abilities” and Right responds to “emotions-special holistic processing”. Furthermore, learning Styles of students can be classified into four categories Auditory where students prefer verbal instructions from the teacher and learn by listening, Visual where students prefer visual demonstrations in class and learn through description of topics, Tactual where students take notes while listening and reading, and Kinesthetic where students learn by getting involved in a project or activity (Dunn,167; Gardner, 18).

Hughes and More (17) define ‘ways of learning’ as the “mental processes and instructional settings, which a student uses while learning, and learning style’ as a way of learning in which the student has a strength”.

There are all types of students in my class, who can be classified according to above-mentioned categories. Due to diversity in the class, I prefer to use many different style of teaching methods, which I consider best for my students at time to time. My different teaching method includes, the use of verbal communication, using whiteboard and other tools such as diagrams, data show projectors etc. However, I constantly find that some students were still not able to understand the topic, maybe due to loss of concentration when so many different methods were used at once. This also means that I will need to work on how to effectively integrate and implement strategies for targeting all learning styles during every session.

Promoting Active Learning / Designing tasks for active learning

According to Baath, adult-teaching strategies should be based on seven main principles - he maintains that adult learners learn best when

1. They can make sense of the information presented

. They discover meanings themselves

. They feel safe

4. They feel that someone cares

5. They have opportunities to practice

6. They feel they are progressing successfully

7. Learning meets their needs and relates to their experience and knowledge.

It is very difficult to teach a group of diverse background, specially the mixture of adult or mature students and young school leavers. The mature students have different approach towards study and learning.

They may have a wide range of experience that offers a framework to support learning. On the other hand, experience can also make learning more difficult when suggesting a new material is inconsistent with a learners experience and personal goals. Such a situation requires opportunities for dialogue between the teacher and students, and requires students to spend more time and energy than other less challenging types of learning.

Mature students usually enter a course with a clear motivations and goals (e.g. job promotion). Their motivation to study particular subjects and achieve particular objectives will come from the learning process itself. By removing and reducing obstacles to learning, the teacher can maintain such motivation. Motivation is enhanced, when students experience success early in subjects.

In my own experience as a student at VUT, I choose specific subjects for Master of Science in Computer Science, which were related to Data Communication and Networks. Not all of these subjects were available from the School of Computer Science. The School of Telecommunication Engineering only offered many of these subjects. I was highly motivated by excellent success in the course, which inspired me to undertake a research project for further post-graduate studies leading towards a Master degree in Telecommunication Engineering.

With my own experience as a mature age student, I believe, mature students enter the course with concepts and feelings about their ability as learners. These concepts and feelings are based on past and current experience and may have little to do with actual ability. Such learners need acknowledgment, encouragement and recognition of achievements to build confidence.

Mature learners expect to be treated as adults, they have well-developed ego-defense mechanisms and many will avoid activities they know will undermine their self-confidence. Any student should not be expected to perform perfectly. As the mature students tries to incorporate their experience in the learning, they will learn more effectively in an environment where some mistakes are acceptable but successful performance is finally expected.

One very important factor needs to be considered that most of the mature students have responsibilities to family, job and community. Workloads should be stated clearly in the beginning of the course and should not be changed without warning, explanation or negotiation. Adults like a program that allows them to learn efficiently and return quickly to lifes other demands. They will avoid or resent activities that appear to waste their time.

Mature learners are usually more interested in their own goals and achievements than in meeting objectives and standards set by others. If it is not possible to let learners set personal objectives for assessment, they should be fully informed about subject assessment and should understand its purpose.

I use to alter my teaching methods depending upon the type of group I got. Sometimes, there are many mature age students from industry, who already familiar with the course but need to attend the classes to gain some formal qualifications. These types of student need different approach to teaching and learning than the students who have no industry experience and are fresh school leavers.

Planning programs and designing tasks for adult learners

When planning a subject, develop a clear definition of three target groups and design the subject for three audiences. The audiences are firstly, the bright students who need to be challenged, secondly the average students who have the skills and experience to succeed, and thirdly the students for whom quality of teaching is important, those who will fail if the subject is not well designed and supported.

The logical sequence of the subject discipline may not be the most appropriate way to structure the teaching program for a subject. Start at an interesting or topical issue to assist motivation. Surveys indicate that lecturers tend to prefer to work from generalized concepts to specific examples whereas students unfamiliar with a topic prefer to begin with specifics.

Many learners have misconceptions about subject matter - these should be dealt with or students build two views of reality, one for themselves and one for assessment. This makes learning a complex cognitive exercise.

Where two groups of learners have different backgrounds, you may have to write for two target groups, provide alternative modules or optional exercises and assignments. The materials should be designed so that students with adequate previous knowledge and skills can fast track through those parts of modules with which they are familiar.

There are many researchers who researched and suggested many different strategies to be implemented for teaching mature students, for example the theory as stated by Bonwell and Eison (00) that active learning can only be promoted in class when students are required to listen, read, write, discuss or become engaged in problem solving activities. To promote effective active learning during a lecture to the students, the lectures need to be supplemented by brief demonstrations or small writing exercises followed by class discussions (Bonwell and Eison, 00).

I believe, the active learning should not be targeted towards only a group of students but to the class as a whole, because the whole class may have many diverse groups, and an activity such as group presentation involves only a few students and hence becomes an active learning for that particular group and not for the whole class.

In my experience students are better engaged in class when they understand the relevance of the class exercises to the actual subject matter taught or that relates to their everyday life (this is demonstrated in my video presentation, where I gave an example of a home address at High Street, Box Hill) or even if the exercise is relevant to any other course that they might be doing. Some of the topics in my Network Management (4th semester) course are similar to concepts from another course of the same program (eg the concept of ‘Subnetting’ is covered in nd semester in Network Technology course, and the concept of ‘Subnetting & Supernetting’ is covered during 4th semester) but it is more detailed and technical than nd semester content. This allows me to relate the topics together and make the students understand the advanced Subnetting & Supernetting.

Overall, I do try to implement all strategies that are mentioned by researchers for active learning but in my personal opinion, I need to work on getting a better class discussion going by involving as many students as possible or maybe just by managing the groups a bit better so that they are forced to take part in the discussion.

Adult Education and Social Changes

According to Bates 16, the adult education is not limited to addressing the needs of identifiable cultural groups, but it has wider application as a method of developing critical understanding, building confidence and analytical skills, and linking them with social action in a verity of contexts and at socioeconomic levels.

According to Arnold and Burke 18, the adult education process begins with the influence of cycle of action then reflection then action again. The same principle is suggested by Mackenzie 1, as cycle of practice then theory then practice. These theories of cycles have great impact of society. The adult learner already has some experience in life which can be considered as the practice of society, then the learner can be taught theory of that practice, after learning the theoretical concepts, it need implementation, which is later can be called as refined practice. This refined practice can make the social changes.

As proved by many theories, the education for social transformation and development is an ongoing process. Although a particular program may appear to be unsuccessful in its immediate goals, but it may contribute at least one step in long complex and continuous ongoing process of social changes.

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