Use Techniques that Complement the Adult Learner

by Tina Calandrino

“Adult learners tend to be practical in nature, so explain the purpose of the activities and assignments and how it relates to the student experience.”

Once incentives are selected, it is time to design the training. The six basic techniques presented here are all tailored with respect to our audience, our faculty, who are adult learners at the core. The purpose of this area is not to explain exactly how to set up the training, but rather to instill these overarching principles.

Tailor Techniques to Your Respective Audience

Adult learners are different from the traditional, college-aged students with which faculty might typically be more familiar. They bring a wide range of expertise, experiences, and preferences into a training program. It is always important to gauge the level of expertise of the faculty participating in the training.

Consider these questions when developing training of online faculty:

  • Have they previously taught online or blended courses?
  • When teaching face-to-face courses, how deeply do they integrate online components?
  • Have they ever taken an online course before?

It is very possible that your adult learners will not have been students for quite some time, and are initially uncomfortable in that role. If the learners have not been students in quite some time, and have never taken an online course, the discomfort could be palpable.

Communication, organization, and support are major factors in helping students feel comfortable in their learning spaces (Futch, deNoyelles, Thompson, & Howard, 2016). For these reasons, it is advised to keep it simple, especially at first. What modes are they comfortable working in? Try to begin the learning process there. For instance, a blended format for the training might be a preferable mix for those that are more comfortable with face-to-face interaction. Other useful hints include:

  • Provide an orientation to the online components of the training.
  • Stay well-organized.
  • Be very transparent on how the course is set up.
  • Graphics can be a powerful tool.
  • Communicate any changes that should occur as the course unfolds to keep learners empowered.

Model Course Design by Having Faculty Become Learners

When faculty have not been “students” in a while, remember to be transparent and prepare them to put on their student hat, immerse themselves as students, and experiment with how it feels to work within those parameters. Encourage this role play, and acknowledge that it may not always feel comfortable.

Adult learners tend to be practical in nature, so explain the purpose of the activities and assignments and how it relates to the student experience. For instance, it is helpful to offer a variety of activities within the training, with varying settings. Some suggestions include:

  • Have them take a timed quiz
  • Have them take another quiz where they cannot go back and check their answers
  • Have them engage in a group discussion in which they must have consensus at the end of the week
  • Ask them to participate in a peer review assignment

Let them know that they are going to have varying experiences during the training, and the purpose is for them to get a better appreciation for the student experience. They will begin to understand what works best for them and they will gain contextual proficiency with the tools.

Adult learners prefer learning when it is practical and instantly relatable to their needs and goals (Butler, Lauscher, Jarvis-Selinger, & Beckingham, 2004). When possible, have them learn primarily in the modality in which they will be teaching for a more authentic experience. Reflection is key. What worked, what didn’t, how could it be tweaked in future iterations? Relate the experience to their future online instruction. This helps them relate their current experience to benefit their design and the students who will participate. Draw the connection between student and teacher.

Encourage a Community of Learners

It is helpful to employ a framework to understand the concept of community within online-enhanced courses. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework has been used many times since its inception in 2000 to conceptualize community in many online learning studies. This framework can be used to better design your training program.

Community of Inquiry (CoI)

This framework proposes that there are three essential elements that contribute to a successful educational experience: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence.

Community of Inquiry

Community of Inquiry model ( Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000)

Social presence is the extent that participants project their own personal characteristics into the community (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). In the online component of the faculty training, here are some techniques to enhance social presence:

  • Use humor in an online discussion
  • Mention people by name in an announcement
  • Commend a group for their exemplary work
  • Sharing personal experiences
  • Leave personalized feedback for the participants

To encourage social presence, it is suggested to create and then require certain interactional activities (such as online discussions). The most important strategy is the modeling of social presence cues. Basically, if you want your faculty participants to be socially present, you need to be socially present and lead the way.

Cognitive presence is the extent that instructors and students can construct meaning through discourse in the community (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). Strategies that support cognitive presence in online communities are:

  • Offering problem-based assignments
  • Structuring synchronous and synchronous debates
  • Facilitating online discussions and assignments (Zydney, deNoyelles, & Chen, 2014)
  • Using questioning techniques and assuming a challenging stance can encourage learners to build upon their knowledge.
  • Have the learners solve problems and come to a consensus.
    • For instance, scenarios about copyright are distributed to small online groups within the IDL6543 program, with the overall goal to have them come to an agreement by the end of the week.
  • Carefully review the assignments; how can students show you what they know?

Teaching presence is the backbone of the community. It involves facilitating the discourse within the community, injecting knowledge, and designing instruction to support the cognitive and social development of learners (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007). Be the model and show how to have civil, productive discussions. It is important to note that students (especially adult learners) can engage in teaching presence as well. That frees you up to inject knowledge when necessary and to ensure that things are on track.

Are you overwhelmed with the work of facilitating every discussion and giving feedback to every participant in your online training? Your instructors probably are concerned too. Faculty often struggle with having limited time and feeling overwhelmed by the effort required to fully facilitate an online course. Research shows that providing prompt but modest feedback is preferable to learners (Zydney et al., 2014).

Set a Timeline and Goals

Adult learners are juggling many different roles; in this case, faculty are balancing their “teacher” and “student” roles in your training program, along with others in their lives. It is advised to:

  • Promote flexible learning opportunities. Assignments should be open with plenty of time to complete the work.
  • Set a reasonable timeline and expectation up front. Be reasonable and realize that an entire course will not be fully developed in weeks. Try to build one module and then they can go from there. Build a little of the course at a time. In IDL6543, they are building their course in very small ways–requesting a banner at first, for instance.
  • Set up a game plan for each faculty member taking part in the development.
    • What are their goals?
    • When does their course go live?
    • Drawing up an actual contract can help faculty think through the process.
      • Set guidelines for minimum standards for course development. For instance, a syllabus, schedule, and one solid unit of content can serve as the foundation for future course development.


Your faculty have diverse lives and academic experiences to bring to the training. Encourage them to express themselves, and tailor the faculty development around their voices as much as possible. Have a clear organization to support all, but especially those that are brand new to this arena. Make blatant strides to build a community of learners–have them communicate and build social connections, encourage them to solve problems together, and facilitate as needed. Adult learners need relatable, clear tasks–the assignments need to be clearly related to their eventual task, which is teaching online. In conclusion, value what they have to say, and leverage their diverse experiences to enhance your program.

Sample Course

There are several pages in the sample course that contain information to support faculty to instill best practices in their own online teaching.


Butler, D.L., Lauscher, H.N., Jarvis-Selinger, S., & Beckingham, B. (2004). Collaboration and self-regulation in teacher’s professional development. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20, 435-455.

Futch, L., deNoyelles, A., Thompson, K., & Howard, W. (2016). “Comfort” as a critical success factor in blended learning courses. Online Learning Journal, 20(3), 140-158.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), 87-105.

Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. The Internet and Higher Education, 10 (3), 157-172. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.04.001

Zydney, J., deNoyelles, A, & Chen, B. (2014). Strategies for creating a Community of Inquiry through Asynchronous Online Discussions. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10 (1), 153-165.