Time for a New Paradigm For Young Adult Learners
The changes in the nature and number of students attending today’s colleges and universities and the simultaneously occurring focus on assessment and student completion is causing many faculty members to reexamine what they teach, how they teach, what they assign, and how they grade student performance. We believe that to serve students in the best way possible, we need to use teaching methods and techniques that are best suited to their learning needs and we are offering to start a dialogue on what is needed.
Traditional teaching paradigms range from pedagogy (strategies for teaching children) to andragogy (strategies for teaching adults). Pedagogy focuses on the learning needs of children and is typically teacher-driven. While good teachers always consider unique differences in the learning needs of their young students, it is the teacher, not the student, who chooses what is to be taught, decides how it is to be taught, and then provides incentives for mastery. K-12 students typically view their teachers as the primary source of new knowledge and rely on their teachers to guide them through each step of the learning process — even when what they are taught is not immediately useful. While students in K- 12 education begin with a heavy reliance on the teacher, as they mature, many are capable of taking on more responsibility for their learning.
In contrast, adult learners typically bring with them life experiences which shape and often drive their desire for learning. They are more likely to be selfdirected learners who are prepared to make a meaningful contribution to their own learning experiences and they often have little need for knowledge that is not immediately applicable in their daily lives. Adult students tend to be self-motivated learners who are willing to assume responsibility for their own learning. They see the teacher as a resource to help them learn what they need or want to know. Thus, in andragogy, the teacher’s role shifts from being the primary source of knowledge to that of a learning facilitator. As a result, successful teachers often encourage their adult students to be part of the decision making process about what should be learned, how it should be taught, and how learning should be evaluated.
While this teaching approach may fit non-traditional college students who are returning to school after being in the workplace and who demand hands-on involvement in their education, many young adults coming to college from a high school environment are not yet prepared to assume this degree of responsibility for their own learning. These students are not yet fully independent learners, nor do they have sufficient life experience to fully process and interpret the meaning of what they are taught. They still need the support and guidance of a well-trained teacher. Even so, many new college students are ready to move forward and away from the teacher-centered pedagogy they experienced in the K-12 system
Neither one of these traditional paradigms addresses the unique learning needs of traditionally-aged college students, who are neither reliant completely on the teacher for input, nor ready for the responsibility of entirely independent learning. To progress from simplistic to more cognitively complex thought, young adult students require opportunities for cognitive and intellectual growth. The process of cognitive development typical of many students during the college years is best described by William Perry’s theory of intellectual and ethical development. Perry points out that students typically arrive at college as dualistic thinkers who are looking for right and wrong answers. They expect faculty members to impart knowledge, guide their decision making, and help them determine the value of what they have been taught.
As they experience natural cognitive development, which can be accelerated through the college experience, they become more open-minded thinkers who see multiple viewpoints as equally credible. They begin to rely on peers as a valid source of knowledge and they learn to think independently from authority figures. Gradually, there is a transition to self-directed thought. At this level, students are able to form their own opinions through thoughtful evaluation of information. They can evaluate ideas based on the quality of evidence to support them, not merely on the source of the information. Students at this level can function as active learners who seek meaning by constructing and validating knowledge rather than just from receiving knowledge passively from faculty authorities. This is where most experienced students in higher education are and where we want all of our young adult students to end up.
A Better Fit
Perhaps it is time to find a new teaching paradigm to better fit the cognitive learning needs of young adults who enroll in college. We need a new approach, somewhere between pedagogy and andragogy — something — for want of a better word, we will call collegogy. The focus of this paradigm should be to support the unique learning needs of young adults as they move from dependence on the teacher to more independent and critical thought and more ownership of their own education.
In the collegogy approach, instructors meet young adult students where they are. They offer a flexible learning environment that supports their students’ need for structure while simultaneously enabling students to begin to take ownership for their own learning. Learning experiences in the classroom encourage independent, critical thought, but do not assume that students are already capable of producing it without some guidance. While faculty members still determine the essential content and learning outcomes of a course, they are able to begin giving students some freedom in choosing from remaining topics and objectives. They can also provide some flexibility in choice of projects or assignments that show learning mastery. While maintaining high standards for grades, faculty members can provide options in how students meet the criteria for “A’s,” “B’s,” etc. In short, in the collegogy paradigm, faculty members create and maintain high standards while giving learners more latitude and independence.
A shift towards collegogy has several potential benefits. First of all, young adult students who are frustrated by teaching methods that are either too controlling (as a purely pedagogical approach would be) or too unstructured (as a strictly andragogical approach would be) should do well in a learning environment that blends teacher support with greater student choice and involvement in learning. In this environment, students who are thoughtfully and actively engaged in their own learning are more likely to develop a desire to learn, set higher learning goals, become more accountable for their own learning, and experience more success. A by-product of this increase in student accountability and success should be higher retention rates and a reduction in both anxiety and stress.
We think it is time to rethink our paradigm for teaching young adult students and move toward what we are calling collegogy – an approach in which we challenge students to think critically and more independently, while supporting them as they develop into independent, selfmotivated learners. We welcome your thoughts. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Hammons is a long-time professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where, for 30+ years, he has taught a course entitled, “Design and Evaluation of College Teaching.” He is a frequent presenter on college/university campuses and at professional meetings.
Rochelle Keogh is the academic coordinator for the English teacher training program at Spring International Language Center at the University of Arkansas. She has been involved in curriculum design and teacher training for more than 15 years and is currently at doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas in Higher Education.
Mary Margaret Hui is the senior graduate assistant for the African and African American studies program at the University of Arkansas, where she is currently a doctoral candidate in Higher Education.
This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to email@example.com or, call 512-813-2300.