How To Work With Adult Students

May 30, 2017

Judith Barrass looks at the ways to understand the needs of your adult students as a private teacher

Over the years as a teacher, I have taught young and old — and there are many similarities — but also many differences between teaching an adult compared to a child.

For example, whether you’re teaching children or adults, you need to talk in their language to help them understand and enjoy your class. But you also need to alter your approach from all angles, so let’s look at some differences and how to achieve an adult friendly learning environment:

Different motivations

A key difference is the reason an adult decides to take your class. This impacts on the attitude they bring to your class and that has a knock-on effect on their ability to learn.

Years ago, I taught a course that was half full of students aged 18 to 25, which you would class as young adults, and the rest of the class were over 25-years-old. The younger group had their fees were paid for by the government, the older group paid for themselves.

As you can imagine, the older group never missed a class, they were never late to hand in their homework, and constantly asked questions to further their knowledge. They were like sponges and it was a pleasure to teach them. The younger group needed more motivating. While some were keen, their enthusiasm didn’t come anywhere near the older group.

Yes, you’ve guessed where I’m going with this. It was all down to who paid for the course.

The older group were there because they wanted to be, they were hungry for the knowledge and willing to pay. The younger group may have wanted to be there, but they were not as hungry.

This meant often I stayed behind with the older group as they had more questions they wanted answering. They had done their research, wanted my opinion and we often had interesting discussions that may have gone off subject slightly, but I felt these discussions brought context and background knowledge to the class, so would help with the main theme.

When doing exercises and tasks, I would mix the groups up as I knew the older group would keep the young ones on track. However, it was also good for the older ones to get the younger perspective. And for me it was a win-win situation to use all the expertise I had in the room from whatever background.

If the younger group did miss a lesson I did a recap session and the older group were ready with the answers and happy to show off their new found understanding. This method consolidated the knowledge with the older group and gave them time to practice or discuss, and the younger ones hopefully got the chance to catch up.

Learning a new skill

The older group in my previous example were also coming to my class to change their career. They were entering the fitness industry and so they needed both the theory and also practical skills to succeed in their new career.

So, the adult learners were coming to class not just for fun, but to enhance their lives and to transform their hobby into a credible new job. The well-known saying ‘do what you love, love what you do’ applied to this older group — and that made them keen and easy to teach.

With this in mind, we need to keep the adult student interested. You may want to set goals but with adult students it may or not mean exams. Again, it depends on the ‘why’ they are there.

If they are coming to your class to learn a skill, they may need a qualification to further their career or keep their job, for example, and this may create pressure, which we as teachers need to take into consideration.

Balancing work and study can be a stressful time and it may have been quite a few years since these adults were in an exam environment. On exam day, don’t presume that as adults they are not nervous. They may even be worse than the average 16–year-old, especially if there is a lot riding on the result. Make sure they are well prepared to try and alleviate some of that anxiety. Perhaps a practice session in exam conditions or lots of past papers may give them the confidence they need for the day.

Time management may be something you could include in one of your sessions. This doesn’t have to be a dull lecture, try becoming a facilitator and let the group come up with ideas for what works for them. Perhaps even share your own stories, as (to be where you are now) you must keep up your skills/ qualifications/continuing professional development — and so who better to share?

As adults there will probably be lots of knowledge and skills in the room, that have been acquired over the years, that you can tap into. Use it to your and their advantage.

A quick note on cost

Cost also may be an issue for both adult and child learners. Some may not be able to afford the qualifications they need, but (as a means to an end) they may be stretching themselves financially to obtain this new award.

However, I feel cost is another whole other area for discussion. It’s not your place to decide if someone can afford your services — so don’t start adjusting your prices. People budget in different ways and you are not in a position to know what’s going on financially in your student’s life.

However, do be aware if there are any grants your student can apply for. There may be different options available for mature students (or children) so make sure you’re up-to-date with this information. If you’re really savvy with your knowledge of such grants and awards, use this as a marketing tool to stand out from the crowd.

Work or play?

Not all adult learners will come to your classes to push their careers forward, many will see your class as their “me” time and an opportunity for them to escape from a stressful lifestyle or job.

Those students looking for a break from a rigorous routine will have a different attitude to learning, many with the emphasis on fun.

If it’s ‘playtime’ then the pressure is off and we can be more relaxed in our approach to learning.

Here’s a quick video of one of my adult classes enjoying a bit of twerking — you’re never too old!

Friendships can be forged

Confidence can also be an issue, don’t assume because they are an adult they are comfortable in a new environment. Make them feel welcome and at ease, introduce other members of the class and new friendships may blossom.

Adults sometimes need you to break the ice for them. Not only is it nice to build relationships with your peers, but these friendships may encourage your adult learners to stick with your course.

Judith Barrass is a sports therapist with 30 years experience in the fitness industry, which includes health promotion and wellness.


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