Humor, understanding and peers help adult learners overcome their fears and frustrations
When Patric Schine, D.N.P. and associate professor of nursing, wanted to review the basics of an ear, nose and throat exam with a group of nursing students, he didn’t stand at the front of a lecture hall and deliver a point-by-point list with a Power Point list flashing on a screen behind him.
Instead, he asked for a volunteer to be the patient and then peppered the group of students with questions: What would you ask; how would you … ; if she says …., what do you do?
And the answers came flying back. True, many of the students, all with some nursing experience but often several years removed from formal education, took notes. They also asked questions and offered examples.
Walk into any classroom at Brandman, attend any immersion weekend, peek at any online course, and you’ll find hundreds of other examples of how the university approaches learning when adults are involved.
“The challenge for adults is not just to know information. It’s being able to recognize that you have to understand it. Nothing is done, nothing is set, so you have to be open to revamping that which you ‘know’ on a continuing basis,” said Dr. Kimberly Greene, who founded Brandman’s Center for Instructional Education and is an associate professor, serves as chair of the Master of Education team and is a member of the Faculty Executive Council.
“It’s really hard for a lot of grownups. Our education, what we were rewarded for, was repetition and replication of exactly what was delivered to us by the teacher. That’s what we came to recognize as successful learning,” said Greene.
When you can Google almost anything, knowing facts and calling that knowledge just isn’t enough.
“Being able to find the information is not the be-all and end-all. What’s required is being able to understand it on a different level, to deconstruct it, to analyze it, to synthesize it and clarify your perspective,” she said.
Being stuck in “information, please” mode can be a barrier to learning for adults who may have been away from school for a while, as can fear of the unknown.
Equally challenging can be getting adults, who have experiences to back up their points of view, to open their minds to new ideas.
Tips for adult learners
- Read out loud: Standup, use a mirror and let the words bounce back to you. Hearing as well as seeing the words makes you more present.
- Don’t take notes while reading: Write about the key points afterwards as if explaining to someone completely unfamiliar with the topic. Write a second set of notes as if explaining to an expert.
- If you use highlighters, use different colors to symbolize different concepts./>
- Don’t worry about holding still while studying. Move a little.
- Ask questions
“Adults will use their experiences as a blinder and not realize it,” said Greene. If the professor says the sky is blue, for example, but the student experiences it as green, the student will assume the professor doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In a lecture style class, there’s a good chance the adult student would just reject what’s been said and stop listening.
The reaction changes, however, if a fellow student shares her experiences about the color of the sky. “When a peer shares something different than what you’ve experienced, you’re far more willing to be open to rethinking that which you thought you knew,” said Greene.
Brandman classes, whether blended, online or immersion, emphasize dialog over monolog to take advantage of that. Group discussions also give adult learners the opportunity to rehearse new language and new learning behaviors in an environment where feedback is coming from their fellow students.
“Nothing is more boring than listening to me talk,” said Dr. Raymond Hurst, an assistant professor of education at the Ontario and Victorville campuses who primarily teaches special education courses for teachers.
His experiences at all levels of education with students who learn differently give him special insights into the fears and worries of adult learners. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as helping adult learners get past their fears about technology. Sometimes it’s using humor to erase the fear. What we feel, is what we remember, he said.
“We’re all in the feeling business, no matter what our credential says. I’ll use humor to get things working properly in their brains. I’m there to help and to mentor and I often use humor as a way of laying the foundation,” he said.
Adults have also learned how to compartmentalize their lives, both a plus and a potential minus for learning. It can mean being better able to focus and avoid the curse of procrastination.
“Brandman students know how to set goals,” said Hurst, who finds it’s usually legitimate, serious life problems that will prevent a student from completing an assignment.
But being compartmentalized can also make it difficult to take what’s being learned in classroom discussions and move it into real life, the true sign of learning, said Greene.
Greene wants students to move from being on the outside looking in to being real-life practitioners. She encourages students to purposefully take a word or two or an action from class and use it in the real world, even if unsure. We may all know what a knife is, but butchers and surgeons use them differently, she said. “Use the tools, let them come into your world.”
Like their students, Greene and Hurst say they’re still learning.
“We talk about multiple intelligences – I think we’re up to nine – and the research is continuing. How the brain learns, both the gifted brain and those with special needs. Especially in autism, there’s new information every day,” said Hurst, who spends some time each day tracking the latest research. “I love learning.”
“There truly are differences between teaching children and the art and science of teaching adults. Not recognizing those differences shortchanges your experience as a teacher and a student,” said Greene.
“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
—Oliver Wendell Holmes
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