Universities neglect the role of experience in learning

Dit kunnen jonge studenten waarschijnlijk beter
Here young students probably perform better

I have been working for a long time with initial fulltime students and with full-employed adult students as well. A bigger difference cannot be fancied. For young students encountering each other at the campus and participating in student’s life is mandatory and time-consuming. Most elder students enter university for work-related reasons, varying from curiosity to the need to compensate missing knowledge or to be graded higher. But they want to be spared of the bustle of campus life.

The role of experience

Besides differences in motivational background, differences in experience play a significant role. Adult students excel in practical experience and tacit knowledge. Smart use of this knowledge allows a significant faster progression through the program. Unfortunately, this seldom happens because most teachers usually are not acquainted with this kind of knowledge.

Onderwijs - Knowles Adult LearnerAccording to pragmatist philosophers both reason and experience are involved in becoming acquainted with the world. Educators like John Dewey and Eduard Lindeman have studied the impact of this vision on education. The best-known contemporary theorists of adult learning, Malcolm Knowles (1990) has build on the shoulders of these giants.

Elaborating on students’ experience is subordinated to learning of concepts and theories. This practice is rooted in the rationalist mainstream in western thinking about knowledge and education, As a consequence the seminal work of Knowles is relatively unknown, hence a brief explanation of his thoughts.

Knowles’ theory of adult learning can be summarized in six learning principles:

  1. Adult learners are internally motivated and self-directed in the first place. The most occurring motivations are job-satisfaction and self-esteem and occasionally, the acquisition of better income.
  2. Adult learners will use their own experiences and prior knowledge as frames of reference while acquiring new knowledge. Their experience is the most important source of knowledge but they highly appreciate new knowledge that brings additional insight in and structure of their experience. They expect a personalized approach in order to cope with their own experience and learning needs.
  3. Adult learners are goal-oriented: Their eagerness to learn correlates with the satisfaction of their self-defined learning needs.
  4. Adult learners are relevancy-oriented: Learning is functionally related to cope effectively with real-life situations in the present or near future. In case of lectures, they expect a prior account of their relevance.
  5. Adult learning is practical: Adults prefer a task-centred or problem-centred approach in learning, directly related to better performance of their own tasks.
  6. Adult learners want to be respected and trusted. They appreciate if teachers tune their teaching with their situation and they hate being put-down and not taken serious.

A dedicated curriculum for adult students will improve the efficacy of their learning taking into account these characteristics. However, in most universities students are mixed or curricula for fulltime and parttime students are copies. How will a curriculum for adult learners look like?

The attainment of higher education objectives by adult learners

  1. Knowledge and application
Dit is zelden een goede opstelling voor onderwijs aan volwassenen
This arrangement seldom supports adults’ learning

Taken into account Knowles’ learning principles, learning of scientific concepts and theories occurs in the context of application. As a consequence, the attainment of the first and second Dublin descriptors (knowledge and its application) is an integrated process, starting with meaningful cases reflecting students’ experience. Subsequently, scientific concepts are introduced as conceptual tools for structuring and deepening experience. This does dot imply that each student’s experience always must be made explicit. Curriculum developers can suffice with interviewing a sample of prospective leaners and collect a set of relevant experiences. A variety of didactic models can be deployed, like problem-based learning, case studies and group discussions. Short lectures will do to introduce concepts and theory. Teaching can take place in classrooms or at distance.

  1. Critical thinking

The development of critical thinking skills (third Dublin descriptor) requires a different approach: Here a learning sequence starts with a real life problem that has to be analysed, evaluated, or solved. In the beginning students do not have any clue, which theoretical concepts might be helpful. Adult working students will recognize the problem because of their tacit knowledge.

Projects offer the best opportunity for students to go through this process.  Adult students might be allowed to elaborate problems that they have encountered in their own practice. For them, the conceptualization of the problem with scientific concepts is new and exiting. The supervision of projects is challenging as knowledge of one or more disciplines, methodological expertise and in-depth knowledge of the working environment are required. The combination of these abilities in one person is rare in an academic environment.

Developing business education capabilities in learning networks

Met mijn (volwassen) studenten op bezoek in een operatiekamer
Visiting a hospital with my adult students

Ability to bridge the gap between theoretical, practical and tacit knowledge is a major requirement for viable business education. No single university or other organization has the capabilities that are needed to achieve this goal. Collaborative learning networks have to come in place and universities might be able to contribute significantly. The development of a learning network with participants from different angles (companies, not-for profit organizations, consultants, government and universities) is a necessary step to develop and supervise dedicated academic education and for doing research and initiating innovation as well.

Knowles, M.S. (1990). The adult learner. A neglected species. Houston TX: Gulf Publishing.

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Why universities underachieve

European universities consider the Dublin descriptors as their objectives for about 20 years. Consequently, they claim that upon graduation:

  1. Students are acquainted with the knowledge base of one or more fields of knowledge, research methods included.
  2. Students are able to apply the acquainted knowledge, which means that they can relate concepts and theories with related phenomenon in practice (near transfer)
  3. Students are able to think critical about real problems, making references at proper concepts and theories and – if necessary – by gathering and elaborating empirical data (far transfer)
  4. Students are able to communicate at several levels of complexity about scientific knowledge and its application
  5. Students are increasingly able to master their own learning

Having been a member of evaluation panels for more then 10 years, I must say that programs that have realized these objectives are rare.

Insufficient critical thinking skills
Insufficient critical thinking skills

The first (acquisition of knowledge) and the second (application of knowledge) Dublin descriptor dominate the curriculum. Learning to cope with the other three Dublin descriptors stays behind in most programs. I repeatedly asked representatives of programs under evaluation to explain the meaning of the third Dublin descriptor (critical thinking). Unfortunately, I seldom discovered any vision or strategy with respect to the attainment of this qualification, let alone that students were trained in it. The same applies to the fourth and fifth descriptors. The stepwise acquisition of critical thinking, communication and learning skills require that students participate regularly in collaborative research, tackling real-life problems, resulting in papers, presentations and discussions and thorough feedback.

Onderwijs - Underachieving collegesMy observations coincide with Derek Bok’s – former president of Harvard – critical review of higher education in the US. In his book Our underachieving colleges he has collected ample evidence that universities fall short in educating students as critical thinkers, able to judge deliberately and prepared to deal with diversity within the US and in our globalizing world (Bok, 2008).

Virtually no institution that I have been visiting is able to deliver serious proof of the attainment of the outcomes of their programs. Mostly, the thesis is considered as a proxy, which is questionable. Some institutions asked students to indicate the degree of mastery of the objectives of the program themselves, which is better than doing nothing. Some programs have introduced portfolios, but until now they do not convince as proofs of the attainment of the Dublin descriptors.

Onderwijs - academically adriftMeasurement of educational outcomes is not deployed in the US either. The publishing of the seminal reports of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (Arum & Roksa, 2011, 2014) changed the scene. Both authors – employed as professors in US universities – wondered how universities ground their claim that they enable students to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems and communicate clearly. As research to validate this claim is absent, Arum & Roksa deployed the Collegiate Learning Assessment-test (CLA-test). In this test students write a short essay about a real problem. These essays are evaluated from a critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and communication skills angle. 2000 freshmen participated in the experiment and repeated the test after 18 month. 45% of the participants did not show any progress. Four years after the second run, a significant part of the original participants participated for the third time and 36% still did not show any significant progress. The authors conclude: Limited or no learning for a large proportion of students characterizes American higher education. The authors also collected data with respect to the average time students spent to their study. In the well-known University of California this appears to be 13 hours, compared with 43 hours for leisure and social activities.

Onderwijs - academically adrift 8The research of Arum and Roksa has been criticized from a methodological point of view. However, it has contributed to a growing awareness that something is terrible wrong in higher education in the US. More in particular if alumni’s debts (more then $1,1 trillion) and unemployment are taken into consideration.

Unfortunately many universities are over-complacent and over-focussed on their ratings, their publications, their enrolments, their patents and endowments. Deep engagement in education, critical evaluation of their programs and determination to realize their objectives stay behind.

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Jospina. (2011). Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Arum, Richard, & Roksa, Jospina. (2014). Aspiring adults adrift: Tentative transitions of college graduates Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bok, Derek. (2008). Our underachieving colleges. A candid look at how much students learn and what they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton University Press.