Supporting adult learners:
my experience working with older
We have a huge challenge ahead of us.
As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ripple through our society, we expect to see increased numbers of adults returning to education – to retrain or to learn new skills.
There is a clear benefit for learning for all age ranges, including older workers or older people. But negative attitudes to learning are limiting older workers, and if expectations of older workers are low, then they could miss out on real opportunities.
Now more than ever, inclusivity is important.
Inclusivity in education means allowing every learner an equal opportunity of success.
Everyone deserves a chance to achieve.
And to help with this, you need to know your learners’ starting point and what barriers to learning they may face.
What are barriers to learning?
Barriers to adult learning may be based on background, personal circumstances or learning differences. Any of these factors can make it difficult to experiment with learning new skills or acquiring basic skills.
Around 1.5 million people in the UK have learning difficulties.
Learning difficulties affect how people understand information, communicate or learn new skills. They can include difficulties with reading, writing and processing new information.
Adults with unidentified learning needs often face a wide range of emotional, professional and mental health difficulties.
These learners can lack self-esteem or confidence due to:
- Low skills levels
- Negative personal experience of learning
- Social problems such as unemployment
They may be highly intelligent but underperform at work or school due to this unidentified need. Leading to feelings of shame or a lack of confidence, which traps them in a negative feedback loop.
What can we do to address these barriers in adult learning?
Early identification of needs allows you to flatten the barriers quickly and permanently.
Ideally, assess your learners on enrolment or as close to this as possible. This best practice approach enables you to identify a clear starting point and informs the learner journey.
From my experience working with university students, mature learners who are identified in later life have had to develop their own coping mechanisms, which can mask a need. These learners, usually having completed a significant proportion of their degree programme before being identified with a need, would frequently tell me of their sheer relief of understanding how they thought and learnt through cognitive assessment.
It wasn’t bad news for them; it was freeing.
Not to put people in boxes, but typically, these students dedicated every spare minute to their courses, relinquishing family, friends and social lives. They did receive good grades, but at an unsustainable cost.
It was a highly stressful, frustrating experience with no downtime. To understand their strengths and weaknesses enabled them to tailor their learning to become smarter with their time. They used assistive technology and worked on coping strategies to shave the time off their studying as they became more focused.
Cognitive assessment is life changing.
Catching needs early in a learner journey is crucial to learner wellbeing and success.
For tutors, it is crucial to know how your learner works best. Do they prefer to have a verbal discussion about a topic, or would they rather watch a practical demonstration on YouTube? Tweaks to the way a tutor communicates with their learner can have a major impact and improve the relationship.
One tutor told me about a learner they thought was being disruptive or seemingly not bothered about learning. Following a cognitive assessment, it turned out the learner had a need in executive function, which explained why they struggled with their time management and forgetting appointments.
Once the tutor realised this and strategies were put in place to support the learner, the misunderstanding and previous friction disappeared. The learner then went on to succeed.
It can take months to figure out how to work best with a learner.
Left too late, this can lead to learners leaving their courses prematurely and further damage to self-esteem.
There is certainly a feeling of trepidation in the sector when it comes to supporting learners with needs.
Tutors worry they won’t ‘get it right’, despite a real desire to do the right thing for their learners. The truth is, they are doing it right in most cases, but through an often painfully slow process of trial and error to work out what works best for the learners.
Knowing how someone works from the off makes everything simpler.
The impact on learners is massive. Being taught and communicated to in the right way for their brain and having their learning process understood builds self-confidence and resilience. For adult learners, they may be feeling this for the first time in their lives, having had a previously poor education or employment experience with little opportunity for improvement.
At Cognassist, we have assessed over 100,000 learners and identified approximately 30% with learning difficulties. 11% of these learners are over the age of 40. Using a short digital remote assessment means providers can assess at scale, opening the door for support almost immediately for any learner on a programme of three months or more.
For more information and to investigate how you can implement change within your educational environment, read our free handbook to gain practical advice on supporting adult learning.
Director of Education
Download our free handbook
- How to understand the different needs of your adult learners.
- Best practice support for adult learners.
- How to accurately demonstrate intent, implementation and impact to Ofsted.
- How to build a learning journey with high impact support.
- Best practice evidencing.