If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Monday, October 24, 2011

Adult Learners

This semester I am teaching both undergraduates and doctoral students.  After teaching for over 5 years in both programs I am finally beginning to understand the difference between the two types of students.

Of course there are the obvious differences.  A lot of faculty focus on the difference in motivation: graduate students (especially doctoral students) want to be in school and have a vested interest in the field while many undergraduates feel college is mandatory and do not have a fondness for academics generally or the field specifically.  I suppose this changes by institution, field and program but the majority of our undergraduates are just doing time.

But the difference I've really narrowed in on lately is the ability to be vulnerable.  Undergraduates (at least traditionally-aged undergraduates--undergraduates are a pretty diverse group these days and I know I am over-simplifying here) are used to not knowing material.  They have been effectively trained throughout their K-12 education that they don't know much and the teacher knows everything. This is unfortunate as many of us know a lot less than we think and some of us would welcome being challenged on what we do know.  An effective undergraduate teacher needs to provide them with opportunities to challenge not only what they know but what others (particularly those in authority) know and then be able to evaluate the difference.  They need to own their knowledge enough to be vulnerable when it is challenged.  There is less vulnerability because they have less to lose.  They need to learn how to push their knowledge and to push back when others, such as their teachers, make knowledge claims.  I haven't mastered this yet by any means but I am recognizing that this is what my students need.

Doctoral students are in a very different position.  Most of them are coming back to school and are accomplished adults.  To get into a doctoral program is not easy and ours requires you already have a masters' degree.  This means we are teaching individuals who have a level of expertise in our (or a related) field and most have been working professionals for some time.  They are talented, intelligent, motivated and used to excelling in their area.  In their very first semester of the doctoral program this confidence is being shaken.  They are recognizing all that they do not know; all that they have to learn; and are beginning to question if they really are all that they thought they were. Many have a very difficult time being vulnerable in the classroom or in their assignments.

Vulnerability is incredibly important for learning.  You can only learn if you are open and being open makes you vulnerable.  Most (young) undergraduates are used to being open and don't feel defensive about acquiring new knowledge (that is not to say they can't be resistant; there are many ways that people resist learning).  Being vulnerable is a risky business and adults who have gained a sense of competence and confidence are reluctant to put themselves in that position again.  I am learning how to recognize this reluctance and to help students work through it.  For many it is helpful to acknowledge their expertise and to allow them to be comfortable with the discomfit of being a novice again.

I gave feedback on papers to both my undergraduate and my doctoral students last week.  Most of it was negative.  The undergraduates were concerned with their grades.  If the grade was even marginally good they didn't feel the need to see the feedback.  If the grade was bad, their only concern was the ramifications for their final grade.  The doctoral students reacted very differently.  I had two in my office today to discuss their papers.  The underlying concern was that this meant they might not be who they thought they were.  I could see the dreaded imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head.  With each of them I discussed writing as an continuous learning process and I acknowledge what they could do.  I let my students know that I expect them to struggle and that I deliberately give them difficult assignments so that they will be forced to do so. I expect them to learn from their assignments and they do.

I feel confident in my ability to make the classroom safe spaces for my doctoral students; a space to admit what they don't know; to stretch themselves and, occasionally, to fall down.  Sometimes it takes private conversations like the ones I had today to help establish that trust. I feel less confident in my ability to push my undergraduates.  I don't really buy that they don't care.  I'm sure there are a few who truly don't; a few who don't know why they are in college in the first place; but I am convinced that no one wants to do poorly and that most people want to push their understanding of a topic as long as you can hook them on the topic in the first place.  Now I need to find that hook.

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