Teaching the “Seasoned Learner”

 

“Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.”

        Benjamin Franklin

 

The seasoned learner is highly relevant to the work of graduate professional schools generally and business schools in particular, where virtually all of the students are mature learners.  Residential MBA students at Darden average about 28 years old; EMBA students range in their 30s and 40s; and executive education students range up to senior managers in their late 50s.  What difference does the presence of a “seasoned learner” make to the professional school instructor?  The point of this blog post is to consider some of the opportunities and challenges—and how to address them. 

 

Kristin Behfar [1] and I convened an informal teaching seminar for faculty, focused on teaching the “seasoned” learner.  Our discussion consolidated wisdom from participants around the following points.

 

1.      What distinguishes the seasoned learner from the novice?

a.      The seasoned learner brings considerable experience and a mental model of the world into the classroom.

b.      The seasoned learner aspires for some self-determination in shaping the learning experience.

c.      The seasoned learner is focused on fulfilling goals and needs, and on building competency on issues related to practice rather than on merely building mastery of a subject. The seasoned learner asks, “How can I use these ideas?” 

d.      The seasoned learner wants to connect and learn from all others in the learning space, not just the instructor.

e.      Teaching the seasoned learner presents a very different set of challenges and opportunities compared to teaching children—as the following table suggests.

 

 

Teaching Children

Teaching Adults (or “the seasoned learner”)

Concept of the learner

A dependent.  Teacher takes responsibility for determining what/when/how of learning.

Increasing self-directedness.  Teacher guides and develops the learner’s movement from dependence to self-directedness.

Role of learner’s experience.

Learner’s experience is of less worth.  Teacher’s experience is of more worth.

Adults = big reservoir of experience, a resource for learning.  Adults attach more meaning to learnings they gain from experience.

Readiness to learn

Ready to learn differs by age group.  Therefore, standardized curriculum by age. Evaluation is by the teacher.

Adults are ready to learn when they experience a need to learn. Teacher is responsible to help learners discover their “need to know”—provide diagnostic experiences to measure the gaps in competencies.  Need to involve learners in the process of planning their own learning.  Need to involve more self-evaluation.  Need to time learning in step with developmental tasks.

Orientation to learning

Education is a process of acquiring subject-matter content.  Therefore, curriculum should be organized into subject-matter units.

Adults see education as a process of developing increased competence to achieve their full potential in life.  Therefore, curriculum should be organized around competency-development categories.  Focus should be problem areas, not subjects.  The learning/teaching transaction is the mutual responsibility of learners and teachers.  Focus more on experiential techniques, with emphasis on practical application.

Source: Points synthesized from Malcolm S. Knowles The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy

 

2.      If goals and needs matter to the seasoned learner, how can an instructor learn about these from the students?  A key precept of student-centered teaching is to start from where the students are. 

a.      Class cards and resumes.  These can be pretty weak sources of insight—you may learn what’s great about the student, but less about needs and goals.

b.      Breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner, receptions—active listening.

c.      Teaching teams (section faculty, Exec Ed program faculty, the faculty in any team-taught course).  Share insights among each other.  Role of the team leader is important in bringing faculty together.

d.      At the opening class, ASK the students: Why are you here?  Why do you care? What do you want to learn?  What challenges are you facing?  What are your expectations?

3.      If connectivity matters, how can the instructor promote it?

a.      Give students tasks to perform together.

b.      Focus on problem-centered learning—ask students to bring their experiences to the problems.

c.      Physically locate the student in useful ways.  (For instance, the iLab affords students to sit together at circular tables.)

d.      Set ground-rules at the start of a course that help to create a “safe space.”  (Speak freely.  What is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.)

4.      If self-determination matters to the seasoned learner, how can the instructor harness it to draw learnings from the course?

a.      Promote student self-evaluation to help them assess their own growth and/or the existence of any gaps between their aspirations and their level of development.

b.      ASK the students what meanings they have drawn from the educational experience.

c.      Frame exercises and assignments in a way to promote student-generated insights.

5.      The flow of our hour together in this session exemplified the overarching way to think about teaching the seasoned learner.  1) Begin with a clear understanding of the seasoned learner’s wants and needs (Be student-centered: start from where the students are.)  2. Design the learning process to harness the experience of the learners through exercises, applications to practice, and growth of connectivity among students.  3) Ask students to make their own meaning from the educational experience, rather than simply telling them such meaning.  4) From the students’ own meanings, draw more insights about their wants and needs.  This suggests a cycle of work for the teacher of the seasoned learner:

 

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The big message of our work on the “seasoned learner” is that didactic, push-driven, teacher-centered teaching isn’t likely to work so well with such students.  So, adapt!  Draw on the richness that the seasoned learner brings to class.  Benjamin Franklin, an iconic life-long learner, said it well, “involve me and I learn.” 

  1. I’m especially grateful to Kristin for her collaboration on this subject.  She brought great insight and wisdom to our work. []
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