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Recommendation: People in Transition

Secondary audience: Teachers of people in transition

Audience Considerations: Reader and/or Rhetoric for Adult Learners Draft, Karen Uehling, March 28, 2011

1. By age

Age 25 or over?

Many researchers define adult learners as those twenty-five or over, but this figure is simply convenient. What defines an adult is more a state of mind than chronological age. Malcolm Knowles, a specialist in adult education, defines adults as those who perform adult roles, such as worker, spouse, parent, or responsible citizen; and those who see themselves as responsible for their own lives (The Modern Practice 24). The term responsible citizen does not exclude those who work at nontraditional jobs or assume nontraditional roles. A responsible citizen is one who makes responsible choices. —Uehling, Starting Out or Starting Over

Adults are characterized in educational research literature as highly motivated, having practical reasons to learn, and bringing to the classroom a wealth of life experience. Consequently, scholars argue that such students need instruction which is life , task , or problem centered rather than subject centered, instruction which values adults’ life experience and sense of self; this educational philosophy, usually credited to Malcolm Knowles, is termed “andragogy,” or the teaching of adults, as opposed to “pedagogy,” or the teaching of children (The Adult Learner, 53 60). —Uehling, article in The Writing Instructor

Under age 25?

The definition of adulthood as those who perform adult roles includes many learners under twenty-five. When I proposed a beginning writing textbook exclusively for students over 25, a reviewer of my proposal suggested that many younger students, especially 18- and 19-year-olds in community colleges, technical schools, and state colleges, also fit the adult learner profile. Stated the (anonymous) reviewer: “Life-, task-, and problem-centered approaches are also clearly preferable for these students . . . [who] also tend to view education in terms of their broader lives, . . . their families, . . . [and] hopes for a career, . . . “

Some students are only in their early 20s or younger, with children, often divorced, with no skills. They work sometimes two or more part-time jobs often without benefits and go to school because they know they want something better. Adrienne Rich, reflecting on her teaching in the early days of open admissions in New York City, characterizes these younger (and older) adult students: Some were indeed chronologically older than the average college student; many, though eighteen or twenty years old, had had responsibility for themselves and their families for years. . . . They had held dirty jobs, borne children, negotiated for Spanish-speaking parents with an English-speaking world of clinics, agencies, lawyers, and landlords, had their sixth senses nurtured in the streets. . . . (58)

These (young) adults are just the latest members of the working poor, working and going to school, while they desperately wait for grants and loans to come in. The jobs they do, usually without benefits, are physical, exhausting: flipping hamburgers, scanning sales tags in a department store, tending bar, serving in the national guard a weekend a month, ringing up beer at a convenience store, delivering meals to nursing home patients. One basic writing student, the father of two babies, worked three ten-hour shifts every weekend at a computer chip factory, and sorted packages for a delivery service at night. Perhaps Studs Terkel should write a piece called “getting through school.”

2. By situation

“New” students — Younger and older students who are underprepared or who simply need to review to build confidence and skill as they enter the college mainstream.


People retraining/unemployed — Displaced workers — Moving from a goods-producing, industrial economy to a service-oriented, information economy, where, ironically, salaries may be less (Markey and Parks 11).

Women entering or re-entering the workforce, especially after divorce; also after acting as stay at home mother. The “moms” who raised the curve

Seniors: discount tuition; “General Studies” degree. Grandparents. May have waited many years, craving an education, and are grateful for any help and instruction.

Reentry students (such as displaced homemakers, older learners who are retraining, or former members of the military)

People of color or speakers of more than one language or dialect, refugees or immigrants

First-generation college students

“Employees who study” — Approximately 22% of undergraduates are “employees who study” – undergraduates 24 and older who see themselves primarily as employees (Berker and Horn iii)

People who experienced erratic or interrupted high school educations or dropped out of high school and later earned General Equivalency Diplomas, people with learning or other disabilities

[some of above adapted from Uehling history of CBW in Bedford bibliography for Teachers of Basic Writing]


Examples of all the above. So an adult learner may be a 19 year old single parent, a 20 year old veteran who joined the naval reserve to pay for his education, a 30 year old blue collar worker who must learn new skills because he’s physically unable to perform manual labor any longer, a 40 year old woman whose children are grown, or a 50 or 60 year old grandparent who just wants to learn.

3. By institution:

  • Community colleges
  • State universities
  • Private colleges/technical colleges
  • Training programs for adults: government, industry, business, unions: for examples, see Belanger, Kelly, and Linda Strom. Second Shift: Teaching Writing to Working Adults. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook/Heinemann 1999.
  • Special private or state colleges for adults: for examples, see Belanger, Kelly, and Linda Strom. Second Shift: Teaching Writing to Working Adults. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton Cook/Heinemann 1999.
  • Online courses (Phoenix University, others)
  • Mixed age classes?
  • Students isolated by age—younger during the day, older at night, special programs for adult learners/seniors?
  • Quote Sommer on texts [?]

4. By student level:

  • Short or long terms training or reentry writing program
  • Re-entry/review course—basic writing or some form of BW
  • First year writing
  • Advanced undergraduate
  • Graduate program with students needing special work on writing

Publishers Sommer, Jossey-Bass Quinn, Harper & Row Knowles, Gulf Publishing, then Follett Uehling, HarperCollins+’

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