The purpose of this article is both to highlight barriers to the learning process and to share some techniques and strategies teachers can use to help overcome them.
Barriers to adult learning
The key barriers identified through research are:
- lack of time and energy
- negative perceptions of education from their own experiences
- lack of available courses
- lack of support
- lack of confidence in own abilities
From my own experiences of working with adults returning to education, there can be a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Physically entering a classroom for the first time is an intimidating experience for most adults; that first step can be daunting and scary. Making a welcoming environment is absolutely essential to help adults feel safe. Valuing adults as a resource is a key motivational strategy; life experience is a real asset when working with adults, and drawing on this helps to foster a sense of self-worth.
The biggest external barriers for most adults returning to education are access and affordability; both tuition fees and childcare present significant financial barriers. As for internal barriers, I would say confidence is the most significant; the big step coming back into a classroom environment cannot be underestimated; some adults may have been out of education for a considerable period of time.
Returning to education is a step-by-step approach and each step needs to be managed carefully. Common issues that working with adults can present include; study skills may need development; undiagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia can become evident; anxiety around assessment. For most adults, returning to education is not only about their own aspirations, it is also about their family’s well-being. Being a lifelong learning role model for their children can be a strong motivator for adults on their own learning journey but the other aspects of their learning experience may overshadow this motivator if not recognised and supported by the teacher.
Techniques and strategies
Key ways to create a positive learning environment for adults include:
- involving learners in planning methods, assessment and curriculum content (where possible)
- involving learners in identifying their own learning needs;
- asking learners to write their own learning objectives for lessons;
- encouraging learners to evaluate their own learning and development
With an ever-changing labour market, it is very likely that if you work in FE, you will work with adults returning to education; to upskill, retrain or as a second chance opportunity. Recognising what motivates adults to return to education is vital for their success, as is valuing what they bring with them in terms of life experience. Awareness around the additional challenges they may have as a student population with regards to outside commitments, such as work and family, are important to keep in mind alongside their affective needs related to being a student again.
As a teacher of adults, you will need to consider barriers to learning as a key part of your practice, in both planning and delivery, and it requires interpersonal skills as much as teaching expertise.