Teaching Methods so that
Mature Learners Remain
Engaged in their Study

Access to HE courses provide a bridge towards Higher Education particularly to take account of non-traditional and delayed educational experience.

Student ages are rising, there are more women involved and diversity of backgrounds. In such students, many being adults, there are a number of blockages to learning to be considered.
On an intellectual level:

Such learners have indirect, maybe direct but long ago, experiences of subject acquisition that now enjoys an emotional capital that produces blocks to learning. Thee are many assumptions built up, and these exist as:

  • Prejudices: certainties and strongly held beliefs, and
  • Habits: that provide the ways and means of certainties
Learning in subjects provides such people with intellectual challenges to their emotional capital, for which their negative responses can be:

  • Authoritism: that what their previous understanding as an authority said was true
    • Though such authoritism can be transferred
  • Reality evasion: the new argument seems convincing
    • But it is evaded with only selected changes
  • Compartmentalism: students learn how to throw a switch between what they are supposed to say in class and what they otherwise have invested in previously

For such students this learning is highly threatening. If new knowledge is railroaded through, there is a danger of switching off and evasion, and over time a lack of interest in taking the subject up at Higher Education level.
The teaching strategy must be to find the assumptions already in existence and to bring about unlearning, the unlearning carried out by asking how the old views came about and why do they become entrenched. So the teaching needs some detective work, and to take the students as experienced, for them to deliver what they apparently know in order to address these matters.
There are other forms of frustrations with learning:

  • Issues of advancing age with declining mental powers
  • Family needs and background
  • Working in jobs
  • Travel to learn
  • Hours of learning with other busy hours

All these question the priority given by a student to learning. Crunch points can be exams: the preparation with time needed and the doing of them. All this can be summarised as:
Anxiety has negative effects upon:

  • Confidence in and production of original thought
  • Building kinaesthetic skills (a good example is frustrations exhibited when learning to drive) and
  • Making personal judgements and decisions
So what students in this situation need is the confidence-buildingsetting to evaluate their views and those expressed by the teacher. The teacher therefore needs sensitivity:

  • Less in the way of criticism and disapproval
However, such is not enough. The students need to develop, using these teaching and learning techniques:

  • Confidence through sharing
  • To be around the table discussing

These have the effect of building abstract learning skills, where the mind makes connections around hypotheses. All this is so that students develop:

  • Original thought
  • Kinaesthetic technique
  • Coming to and having confidence in a decision
Some students start off well and enthused, but lose this, in a condition that might be called...
Early Arousal
The early enthusiasm just drains off. The subject is different from and more complex than was thought to be the case at application.
A mistake here is for the teacher to claim that the subject matter is easy. If it is said to be easy, and it is perceived otherwise, then the loss of enthusiasm is potentially made worse.
The pain and shame of potentially failing leads to:

  • Resistance to academic methods
  • Rejection of ambiguity
  • Deliberate myopia - rejecting what is not obvious

A desire arises for:

  • Order
  • Certainty
  • The answers laid out
  • Working out the probability of passing the exam
Parrot learning is a defeat for understanding, whatever may be the repetition achieved. What must not happen regarding both anxiety and early arousal is:

  • Pandering to the demand for spoon feeding
  • Producing paragraphs for students to rote learn
  • Giving pre-arranged essay plans that simply tell students where to slot their learnt sentences
Why this is a danger, and yet is often done, is because:

  • It is a tempting short cut for all under time pressure
  • A student that memorises still meets the statistical return of showing educational output
  • The exam pass is 'all that matters'
  • It reduces thought to concrete acquisition

It is easy until the next time: until Higher Education expects some independent ability to study and to use abstract thought. Preparation for HE then has not done its job.

  • A student that hears remembers little
  • A student that sees might remember but won't understand
  • A student that participates starts to understand
  • To understand is to remember
Part of unlearning is to realise that there are few simple answers to intellectual problems.

The impression was once given that there were set answers, but the student needs to know that from now on there are not. Education moves from the predominantly concrete (with a little learning from) to the predominantly abstract:

  1. GCSE: There is a main summary answer to a problem and this can be taught (e.g. how to summarise a religion within a text book)
  2. AS to A Levels: There are two or three answers given by academics and these can be taught (e.g. the problem and answer in each case can be listed and learnt).
  3. Degree onward: There is a researched debate around these answers: so what do you think based on the researched debate?
  4. Higher Degree: What is your evaluation and own contribution to the debate?

Access to HE ought to make a student aware of the future of study, and to be confident about handling both knowledge and ambiguity.
In the course of day to day learning, teaching methods can employ practical steps to help students cope:

  • The items for study can be broken down into smaller digestible units
  • There can be more built in rewards and reinforcements
  • The pace of work can be adjusted via assessment and evaluation
  • The teacher uses positive criticism to build confidence into the student
  • Reciprocal respect builds between student and teacher

It is possible to identify when students are developing more advanced blocks to learning. They show
Defence mechanisms
Defence mechanisms show outward signs as students employ their blocks to learning. These involve:

  • Daydream escape: silly, unrelated ideas that are off the point
  • Sublimation: by enthusiasm for helping in a task when the main point is being missed
  • Avoidance behaviour: like doodling and mobile phone fidgeting
  • Identification: with a 'clever' person and sharing the glory
  • Negativism: by taking requests as a threat
  • Reaction formation: so that the opposite of what embarrasses is built up
  • Projecting own faults: on to other students or the teacher
It is important to try to teach from the beginning in a way that that tackles blocks to learning:

  • All learning should include unlearning
  • Build on existing patterns of knowledge into the unlearning
  • Work on small and specific amounts of learning at once - close objectives
  • Allow for the drawing of own conclusions, and don't force change
  • Create a discussive learning group that generates commitment to itself
  • Role play some existing attitudes and new ones
  • Use trustworthy sources
  • Observation of student behaviour and not just what the student says
  • Discuss identified student concern areas rather than lecturer concerns
In finding appropriate teaching methods, it is useful to consider three zones of activity: that of the teacher, the subject and the student, and how these interact:

  • Not good: Teacher centred activity means didactic lecturing
    • Which is one voice and boring
    • Even demotivating
  • Not good: Teacher centred with subject centred activity means the teacher finds out and becomes more 'expert'
    • But is this useful to the student?
  • Better: Teacher centred with student centred activity means questions
  • Not so good: Subject centred activity means using textbooks
    • Which gets monotonous: textbooks should be one research resource
  • Good to very good: Subject centred with student centred activity means research
    • This is useful HE training, but needs study skills
  • Can be very good: Student centred activity involves experiments, group work and projects
    • The danger is students go off at their own angles beyond the syllabus
Important throughout is seeing that students have adequate literacy and study skills to carry a subject.

If they do not, these need delivering first or alongside the learning.
In assisting study skills the teacher should become something of a mentor. A mentor says:
  • "I was a student once as well; indeed, I still am."
Each student joins a tradition of intellectual thought or methodology. The mentor should, in the context of that tradition:

  • Introduce the tradition's existence
  • Advise by sharing their own past
  • Support, to give emotional encouragement
  • Tutor, to feedback
To mentor is to focus on the human relationships, on the display of commitment, and on resourcing the learning through study skills and literacy.
The Mentor offers:

  • Empathy
  • Wisdom
  • Subject knowledge
  • Assistance where necessary

How is this done? By using the semi-structured interview format not just for assessment but for a wide ranging enquiry and showing the basis of support.

If these are realised, then the teacher-student relationship can develop.
But eventually the teacher pulls back so that the student can develop necessary autonomy.
I have experience delivering:

  • Two teaching qualifications
  • My Religious Education teacher training emphasises abstract thought development
  • A course of study in the psychology of learning
  • Higher Education teaching and support experience
  • Literacy (by traditional teaching and portfolio)
  • Study Skills support (drop in centre)
  • Teaching research by much interviewing as well as lecturing
  • A broad range of academic subjects
  • Some pastoral skills (Unitarian college)



Rogers, A. (1996), Teaching Adults, second edition, Buckingham: Open University Press, especially 204-219.



Adrian Worsfold