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Book Review: Adult Learners in the Academy by Lee Bash

The author of Adult Learners in the Academy has extensive experience with adult learners as the dean of the Lifelong Learning Division at Baldwin-Wallace College.  He clearly states the purpose of the book in the preface: “This book is designed to assist any faculty or administrator who wants to understand how the impact of adult learning programs has already helped transform the academy and how newer initiatives are likely to impact their own campus in the coming decades” (p. viii).


According to Bash, the academy can no longer ignore the adult learner and their particular needs.  By 2005, over 50% of college students will be over the age of 25 (p.26).  They already make up a significant portion of many schools.  This group is often viewed as the “cash cow” because they bring in significant revenue at minimal cost to the school.  Adult learners require fewer external programs such as special events, dormitories, and entertainment.  Even when adult learning programs have been offered, the academy has looked down on them.  Many of the traditional faculty are unwilling to invest in the concept of adult learning or to teach in the programs.  In fact, there are some schools with adult learning programs that will not give credit for the classes if the adult learner decides to transfer to a traditional program!


What are some of the characteristics of adult learners?  They are autonomous and self-directed, goal oriented, relevancy oriented, practical, need to be shown respect, more assertive than traditional students, and need to feel they “matter” to the school, fellow students, and instructors (p. 28ff).  Many of these differences can be attributed to this population being older, more experienced, having higher customer service expectations, and having a sense of urgency to complete the assignment, the class, and the degree.  In spite of their assertiveness, adult learners are also more likely to have a poor self-image and fear of failing.  Many have had poor educational experiences in the past or have not been to school at all in a number of years.


All of these characteristics can make teaching adult learners a challenge.  A successful instructor can’t stick to the tried-and-true methods of the traditional classroom. Faculty must be willing to change their teaching styles to help the students to become active learners instead of passively taking in information. 


Let’s face it; on how many of our campuses do we view the “cash cow“ adult learning programs as a necessary, but unwanted stepchild?  We can stay in our ivory tower and believe that education doesn’t need to change, or we can embrace the adult learner and truly make them part of our campus community.  Creating this environment will require financial investment in the program, on-going faculty development to help instructors understand the adult learner and to adapt to a new style of teaching, and a willingness to create adult programs that are flexible, sensitive to the learner, but still intellectually challenging.


Everyone in higher education today should take the time to learn about adult learners and how they are impacting education.  This book is an excellent starting point.  It provides a clear view of the situation and discusses characteristics of adult learners and good adult learner programs.  Bash illustrates his points with case studies of students but I do wish he had used more concrete examples of good instructional techniques instead of generalities.


Reviewed by Alice Ruleman, Crichton College

"Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful observation of objective structures we cause thought processes to move in a certain way . . . When done with concentration, perception and repetition, ingrained habits of thought are formed."
-Richard Foster; Celebration of Discipline