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CCCC ‘14 SIG Summary by Sonia Feder-Lewis

On Friday, March 21, the Adult Writers in Diverse Contexts SIG met at CCCC to discuss issues specifically affecting adult learners and teachers of these learners as education increasingly migrates into online environments. Concerns and strategies were discussed in three main domains: for students, for teachers, and for departments and institutions.


  • Students require support structures, as do their face to face counterparts, but for online learners, their needs may be less visible to their families and workplaces, as their hours are viewed as flexible and unfixed. Thus it may be harder for them to find the time and resources to do their work, always pulled by other demands.
  • They may also take part in this marginalization of their time, by not placing the same priority on their school time, since it is perceived as being a “convenience” to be online, rather than having a set time, place, and schedule for courses and coursework.
  • The digital divide may be greater for adult learners who have a more difficult time accessing digital equipment and services, such as the internet, when they do not come to a campus each week. Limited technology may make those who might benefit most from the ease of availability of online education least able to access it effectively. This needs to be considered with any online element of adult instruction, such as additional online work in a traditional face to face class.
  • The vastness of the diversity in online learners is not fully acknowledged; diversity in age, class, educational background, technology skills and availability, English proficiency, time management skills, all complicate the ability of an instructor to meet each person’s needs, especially in the somewhat anonymous world of online learning.
  • Strategies discussed: helping students to define the time demands of their classes in a positive yet clear way to enable support people to understand the demands; design of assignments to make best use of available technology.


  • Majority of online composition courses are taught by physically isolated adjunct instructors who may face the same perceptions of their work as do their students; that their time is constantly flexible, and that their work is not legitimate academic labor. Isolation also limits the ability of online instructors to collaborate or experience the support of community, to share strategies, and to support ongoing shared learning with other professors.
  • Instruction and preparation for online instructors in the course environments in which they will be working, and in the technology their students will be employing is often limited, and teachers are therefore learning the technology along with their students, frequently rendering them unable to fully assist students who struggle with the technology. This issue is again further exacerbated by the isolation of these teachers.
  • Strategies: Faculty need to develop networks within the institutions where they teach, perhaps through virtual communities such as a shared virtual space, to connect and share with one another. Greater professional recognition of their contributions will support them as professors. More support to enhance their presence at conferences such as CCCC will also help define their professional roles and encourage support for them. Greater technical training on the systems they will be using will enhance their teaching and their relationships with their students, better enabling them to support student learning.


  • Institutions are concerned with the poor success rate of these students, and may not fully know how prepared their students may be to take online classes. Effective recruitment for online programs should more effectively assess that readiness, and help prepare the student to better succeed in their classes.
  • Preparation of faculty effectively can enhance both teacher and student retention, and support a better learning environment. More training in advance in the use of the platforms can allow everyone to spend more time on learning and less on wrangling technology.
  • Integration of online faculty into a community will support their teaching and professional development. Institutions need to create spaces in which this can occur.
  • Universal design and accessibility can also be better supported.
  • An important and thorny question faces online education: can it effectively reach basic writers and students with significant English Language Learning challenges?

Material from the CCCC ‘11 SIG Teaching Adult Writers in Diverse Settings

Title: Exploring possibilities for developing a text for adult learners in composition classes

Description of Session:

Our goal is to outline a composition reader that addresses the interests and needs of adult students and, in the process, explore whether or not it is possible to find common ground for our diverse adult student populations.

At our 2010 SIG, we found ourselves discussing the lack of texts that speak to the concerns, interests and needs of adult composition students. Once we moved from what is not available to what we might create, we found ourselves having to consider whether or not we could create a common text that would appeal to our different adult student populations. For 2011, we plan to run this experiment by assembling an outline for a composition reader for adult students. In the process, we will explore how we define adult students; whether or not these students have enough in common with each other to make such a reader (and our shared assumptions about adult students) viable; and how we might re-think the idea of a reader given the time and financial constraints our students often face, the availability of free online resources, and the increasing importance of multimodal communication. We have begun our exploration at our blog, Teaching Writing to Adults (

Chair: Michelle Navarre Cleary
Co-chair: Karen Uehling
Co-chair: Sonia Feder Lewis

Material from the CCCC ‘09 SIG Teaching Adult Writers in Diverse Settings

Title: Navigating the Waves of Personal History: Supporting Adult Learners through the Prior Learning Assessment Process

Description of Session:

Adult learners represent an enormous and growing population in composition classrooms across the country. For many adult returning students, the composition classroom represents their re-entry into the academic world. Despite their increasing presence in our classrooms, the amount of research and academic attention to adult learners has lagged behind, especially in composition studies. Although the number of sessions at CCCC devoted to issues concerning adult learners is increasing, they are still an underrepresented group. Over its eight year history, the Teaching Adult Writers SIG has fostered a community of learners who support each other throughout the year with information and shared research, as well as an ongoing discussion of the changing environment for their students. The SIG this year will focus on Prior Learning Assessment and the role of writing courses and instruction in supporting the Prior Learning Assessment process.

Presenter 1, Michelle Navarre Cleary, will discuss and demo a website built to support students who work on PLA outside of the structure of a class. The presentation will cover identifying the need for the site, addressing faculty objections and getting buy-in, integrating use of the site into writing classes so students are familiar with it, and the need to assess the effectiveness of the site.

Presenter 2, Barbara Gleason, will report on 20 undergraduates’ perceptions of learning in the context of a Prior Learning Assessment autobiography course.

Presenter 3, Sonia Feder-Lewis, will discuss the development of a reflective life writing course as a way of empowering adult learners to explore the lessons learned through life experience and articulate the meaning of those events. The course is designed to be part of preparing a portfolio for prior learning assessment.

Presenter 4, Kimme Nuckles, will present how students may gain credit for specific courses based on real-life experiences. The students must create an argument for how they have met the outcomes for a course. However, over the last several years, fewer students are taking the opportunity to gain credit in this fashion. The presenter will look at the possible reasons for this lack of interest in gaining credit for prior learning experience.

Materials from the Session:

Michelle Navarre Cleary’s “Creating Online Support for Students Working Independently on Prior Learning Assessment (PLA)” is available here:

Sonia Feder-Lewis’s “Selected Bibliography of Useful Sources on Reflective Practice, Portfolio Development, and Prior Learning Assessment” has been added to the Bibliography.

Material from CCCC ‘07 Panel on Teaching Writing to Adult Students

Title of Session: Gray Hair in the Front Row, Cabbie in the Back: What Writing Teachers Need to Know about Adult Learners

Description of Session (one sentence): Using case studies, research on adult development and our experience teaching diverse adults, we will present effective strategies for teaching writing to the forty percent of college composition students who are adults.

Longer Description of Session:

Two of every five students taking college composition are 25 years or older. The U.S. Department of Education predicts that, over the next six years, adult student enrollment will increase more rapidly than that of students under age 25. Yet, as a profession, and as teachers, we rarely take our students’ ages into account when we consider their identities. At the 2006 CCCC, only two panels and one special interest group were devoted to adult students. In contrast, nine panels were devoted to second language learners. The “Call for Program Proposals” for the 2007 CCCC convention includes a sixty word sentence listing identity labels such as “basic,” “race,” and “sexuality.” Age is not included. Nor does it appear alongside “race/ethnicity,” “gender,” “class,” “sexuality,” or “disability” in the list of options for panelists to check to indicate their “Interest Emphasis” on the proposal form.

As a result of our failure to consider age as an identity category, composition scholars and teachers of writing know very little about the needs and experiences of adult learners in the composition classroom. We do not know, for example, if returning students, who often have years of experience with writing for personal, community and work purposes, develop academic writing skills differently than younger, less experienced writers. Much of what we do know about adults learning to write comes from the field of adult education, a field with which most composition teachers are not familiar. Moreover, in both the fields of composition and adult education, the majority of work on adult writing focuses on basic skills and literacy as opposed to average writers who happen to be adult returning students.

With this panel, we seek to give composition instructors a better understanding of the diversity and the unique needs of the forty percent of college composition students who are adults. Using case studies and drawing upon research on adult development as well as our experience teaching diverse populations of adult students, we will present effective strategies for teaching writing to adult students. Speaker one will focus on the nature of adult literacy, speaker two on the experiences of adult students, and speaker three on those of their teachers.

In “Teacher Aides, IT Managers, and Telecommunications Workers: What Writing Teachers Need to Know about Adult Learners ‘In the Middle’”, Mike Michaud will report on his research examining the ways in which literacy functions in the lives of adult learners who do not yet have a bachelor’s degree but who have already earned a high school diploma or GED, have often completed some postsecondary coursework and/or an associate’s degree, and have gained a wealth of work experience, often entailing literacy work, in today’s “knowledge economy.” These adults “in the middle” have been returning to school in droves for a variety of economic, social, and personal reasons. Mike Michaud will describe research participants’ literacy beliefs and histories, current practices and processes, and plans or goals across three domains: school, work, and home/community. He will argue that many compositionists do not know enough about the myriad ways in which literacy practices are already thriving in the lives of adult learners “in the middle.” Finally, he will suggest that, as a field, we need to know not just more about who these adult learners are, but also, about how best to teach them.

In “Diverse Voices All Singing in the Same Key: Portraits of Adult Learners in a Multi-Cultural Composition Classroom,” Sonia Feder-Lewis will report on the results of retrospective interviews with several students on an all-adult campus of incredible ethnic diversity. These interviews explore the extent to which “adult” identity unifies and shapes the experience and outcomes for students who may come from Africa (particularly Somalia, Kenya, Liberia, and Nigeria), the Middle East, Taiwan, Laos, Latin America, the African American community in Minneapolis/St Paul, as well as the predominantly middle-class, white Minnesotans of the suburbs. Sonia Feder-Lewis will compare the attitudes students had towards their own writing prior to and following a composition course in this richly multicultural environment. She will also show how adapting the course to meet their needs better integrates these students into the sometimes threatening academic atmosphere.

In “Teaching for, to and with the Adult Composition Student,” Michelle Navarre Cleary will show how the writing-related motivations, anxieties, and prior learning of adult composition students at both a public community college and a private university can become barriers to success when these students are treated as if they were 18-year-olds. Using a mentoring journal as well as observations of and interviews with teachers new to working with adult students, she will show how teachers learn to adjust their assumptions, practices, and teaching methods to better serve the needs of their adult students. She will focus on the many ways in which teachers’ default models of student identity obstruct their ability to communicate with and effectively teach adult students and will present strategies for disabling these default models.

“Gray Hair in the Front Row, Cabbie in the Back: What Writing Teachers Need to Know About Adult Learners” is Michelle’s opening presentation making the case for the need to start paying attention to the unique strengths and needs of adult learners: Attach:Gray_Hair.ppt

“Teaching For, To and With Adult Students” is Michelle’s individual presentation from CCCC ‘07: Attach:Teaching_For,_To_and_With_the_Adult_Composition_Student.ppt

“Diverse Voices All Singing in the Same Key: Portraits of Adult Learners in a Multi-Cultural Composition Classroom” is Sonia’s individual presentation: Attach:Diverse_Voices.ppt

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