Here Comes Generation A: What Faculty Say About Adult Learners

On Thursday, October. 25, 2012, Martha Aynardi, Director of Academic Support and Special Projects, Penn State Berks; Martha Jordan,photo of Martha Jordan Director of Admission Services for Continuing Education and World Campus and Adult Learner Advocacy; Jane Owens, Senior Director of Continuing Education, Penn State Abington; Karen Pollack, Director of Academic Affairs for Undergraduate Programs, Penn State World Campus; and Patricia Shope, Prior Learning Assessment Coordinator, Continuing Education and World Campus, spoke with over 100 attendees representing 17 campuses. Panel members shared assessment findings from the Commission for Adult Learners (CAL) 2011 faculty survey and discussed ways to recruit and retain adult learners. View Penn State’s adult learner definition.

In fall 2011, the CAL invited approximately 4,800 University Park and Commonwealth Campus faculty members to participate in a survey that photo of Martha Aynardiexplored their perceptions of adult learners; 506 faculty members took the survey (approximately 11% response rate). Two thirds of the survey respondents were Commonwealth Campus faculty, which Aynardi attributed to the larger proportion of adult learners at the Commonwealth Campuses, compared to University Park. At the Commonwealth Campuses, 98% of faculty indicated that they had taught undergraduate adult students and at University Park, 86% indicated the same.

The vast majority of faculty members responding to the survey believe that undergraduate adult students are highly motivated, engaged students who work hard and actively participate in class. Faculty did not generally believe that adult students require more advising time, are slow learners, or are resistant to using technology. When asked aboutphoto of Karen Pollack their flexibility related to teaching undergraduate adult students, three-quarters of faculty indicated a willingness to teach in a blended format (part face-to-face and part online) and in the evenings. Faculty least often indicated a willingness to teach on the weekends (36%).

Thirty percent of faculty indicated that their campus or department needed to provide additional services to increase the enrollment of undergraduate adult students, but 15% disagreed and 55% were uncertain. Among those who were uncertain, many indicated that they weren’t aware of the currently available services. Shope indicated that this lack of awareness leads to a lack of engagement with adult learners. More than half (59%) of respondents expressed an interest in attending a w orkshop designed to address the needs of faculty members who teach undergraduate adult learners. Penn State’s World Campus and the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence are currently developing such a workshop for use across the University.

In addition to exploring faculty perceptions of adult learners and services, the survey asked a series of questions to gauge faculty members’ openness to and experience with offering credit for prior learning experience (PLA). Shope said, “[Penn State is] committed to offering our adult students an efficient degree completion process that provides a quality education and includes the option to earn credit through the assessment of prior learning. It’s that simple. It’s the right photo of Jane Owensthing to do for [adult learners].” However, only one in five respondents indicated that they currently offer credit by exam. Of those who had not, however, 43% indicated that they would be willing to do so in the future. Only one in 10 faculty members indicated that they offer credit by portfolio assessment and of those that did not, only one third indicated a willingness to do so in the future. When assessed skills are found to be college-level, credit may be given, but faculty have many misperceptions about PLA, including the belief that it is just credit for work experience. Faculty indicated that in order to offer credit by exam or by portfolio review, it would be helpful to have predetermined guidelines or standards and administrative support. Shope acknowledged that increased education, standardization, and flexibility were needed to integrate this option in a systematic way at Penn State.

Offering PLA makes the institution more attractive to adult learners, aphoto of Patricia Shope growing segment of the student population, because it can result in reduced time to degree for adult learners and higher graduation rates. Shope emphasized that “[PLA] tells [adult learners] that we recognize that [they] don’t come as a blank slate and we are able to help adults connect what they have already learned to what they are currently learning and their future career goals.”

View the slides from this presentation, including more detailed survey findings.

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.

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