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Understanding the Mindset of the Adult Learner

Today, more than ever, adults need to be lifelong learners. Technology brings about constant change, and many adults are discovering that they need to return to more formal education environments for degrees or certificates. Embarking on that journey can fill the returning student with feelings of uncertainty and even inadequacy.

Balancing Education and Life

Education programs are addressing the time constraints of adult life by offering courses online, at off-campus locations, and by using hybrid, accelerated, and alternative-time options. Some adults love the flexibility afforded by online programs to work when it best suits their busy schedules. Others gravitate toward cohort-based programs that offer learning in community with others. At my university (Tennessee Tech) we offer a program where adult non-traditional students can complete a Bachelor’s degree at off-campus sites in partnership with community colleges. Many programs are still learning how to fully integrate adult students into systems traditionally designed for younger students. The returning student has an advantage: asking questions is part of adult life.  

Adult students are often overwhelmed with feelings of worry about their competence as learners: “Can I compete with traditional-aged students?” “Is my brain too old to learn?” One key factor to successful learning is making connections between new learning and existing knowledge. The stronger the connection, the more significant and lasting the learning. Adult students have an advantage: they bring a rich set of life experiences. Connecting new learning to personal interests, families, and work creates rich and meaningful networks of knowledge.  

Often, adult students discover that they are more competent than expected, and can even outperform traditional-aged students. Motivation is one of the most important factors in learning success. They bring a different set of motivators: life transitions, advancement opportunities, potential raises, economic mobility, unfulfilled goals, serving as a role model for children­–the list goes on. These students understand the value of what they are trying to achieve and have things to prove to themselves and to others.  

Getting that Degree

Adult students have real-life concerns regarding how long it will take to complete needed programs. In addition to alternative time formats, colleges/universities often offer avenues for granting credit for college-level, credit-worthy learning acquired outside of “school” settings (workplace trainings, leadership programs, online learning, etc). Taking advantage of “prior learning credit” can help shorten the time to completion of a program. Studies by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) show a strong connection between prior learning credit and successful degree completion (

What is the hardest part about going back to school to earn your degree or certificate? One of our TTU graduates, who came back and finished his undergraduate degree at 74, often says that the hardest thing about starting back to school is “just doing it, getting started”. Take the step, you may very well surprise yourself!

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