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Adult Learning Lit Review: Framework Findings and Next Steps

You might say CAEL’s Ten Principles for Effectively Serving Adults have “arrived.” Tracing their roots back to 1998, when CAEL began work on a study to glean principles of best practice among "Adult Learner Friendly Institutions," the principles (initially seven of them) are the foundation of Adult Learner 360. The data that emerges from comparing theory and practice, perception and reality, yields valuable insight. CAEL has used it to help hundreds of postsecondary institutions and systems, re-imagining the entire adult learning lifecycle at many of them, from recruitment and retention through completion and career viability. 

The Principles’ transformative legacy is grounded in their benchmarking roots. During the two-year project that started in 1998, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, CAEL surveyed two- and four-year top-performing institutions around the country. This research revealed the battle-tested methods they had developed and deployed on behalf of adult learners. CAEL distilled these findings into the Principles to create a sum of all best practices, or as described in a report at the turn of the century, “a framework for assessing institutional commitment to and capacity for meeting the needs of adults.”

But today, once-trailblazing catalysts of adult learning like online classes, remote access to support systems, and statewide articulation agreements are approaching ubiquity. In that sense, the Principles’ arrival is a reminder that in the world of lifelong learning, success isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. 

The Principles have indeed evolved to remain oriented on the most decisive factors in adult learning (they even grew in number). But if their focus is on meeting adult learners where they are, it’s also only connecting them to traditional postsecondary pathways. With education and employment landscapes facing an onslaught of tech- and pandemic-accelerated change, circumstances present an urgent need to “reframe the framework.”

In May of this year, that’s exactly what CAEL set out to do. Partnering with the Education Quality Outcome Standards Board (EQOS) and Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy (CFHETS), it began working on a new Framework that will boost education providers’ ability to effectively serve adult learners of the 21st century. The collaboration also includes ten top-performing adult learning programs, which contribute data through questionnaires, focus groups, and networking events. The Framework study is supported by grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the Charles Koch Foundation that have been matched by Strada Education Network. 

In September, CAEL and CFHETS completed the first phase of the project, a comprehensive literature review and landscape analysis of best practices and emerging methodologies in adult learning. Sean Gallagher, Ed.D. and CFHETS executive director, and Barry Nickerson, senior director of higher education initiatives at CAEL, led the literature review. As an applied research center that builds on Northeastern University’s heritage of more than a century of leadership in experiential learning, CFHETS is an ideal partner for the project. It operates in many of the same spaces as CAEL, including the sometimes-hazardous intersections where learning and work converge, striving, also like CAEL, to bring the voice of employers into the postsecondary education ecosystem.

Although the literature review was tasked with setting the stage for the Framework project’s primary research, it has offered valuable insight of its own. While extant research goes back decades, Sean notes that it is not as robust as you might think, at least from a holistic perspective. “There hasn't been a lot of synthesis of the adult learner-related research that's out there,” he said. At the same time, given the widespread and sudden changes impacting adult learning, recency was a quality Sean and Barry favored as they established a jumping-off point for their primary research work.

An early finding from the literature review was a validation of the process itself. It was clear that it would require the assembly of many disparate pieces of research to create a picture that frames adult learning. “Many of the academic publications on adult learners ended up being from scholars who come at it not as specialists, but grounded in a theme like financial aid, or retention, or technology and happen to produce an article or two focused on adult learners in the process,” Sean said. 

Because the Framework concept is rooted in categorizing, assessing, and promulgating best practices, Sean and Barry looked beyond scholarly disquisitions. They also examined business communications like case studies, white papers, and blogs, all platforms where the latest best practices and other trends often take center stage. 

Unsurprisingly, much of the findings reinforced longstanding imperatives of adult learning. But they also highlighted shifting priorities within them. Institutional flexibility is a well-known differentiator for time-constrained adult learners, with the literature confirming family obligations and child care access are increasing challenges. However, employer and managerial support also emerged as  commanding factors associated with adult learner persistence and success. Learning that is integrated with real-world work, hands-on experience, and the value of employer-provided education benefits is a consistent theme - not only as adults balance work and learning but also as they enjoy the advantages created by their synergistic alignment. 

Career outcomes, developing work-relevant competencies, affordability, efficient degree pathways, and blended modalities were also near the top of the list. The existing research literature also attested to the importance of guided pathways that seamlessly connect education and employment. And it confirmed the value of credit transfer, credit for prior learning (CPL), and the potential of stackable credentials.

Another key finding in the research literature was the preponderant importance of institutional and wraparound support. Several studies indicated that even when controlling for other variables present, it had the single most powerful influence on persistence, even trumping curricula offerings and workforce alignment. This highlights the impact faculty and administrators who effectively engage with adult learners can have upon their success.

For example, a recurring theme was that adult learners want institutions to recognize the experience they bring to class. Supporting credit for prior learning (CPL) offers literal recognition of adult learners’ experiences, along with well-established persistence and completion benefits. But mindfulness about affirming adult learners should persist throughout the everyday delivery of curriculum content. “You might have a situation where there's a program where adult learners are mixed in with traditional-aged students who don’t have that life and work experience, and it’s important to acknowledge those job-related connections and to honor and build on the adult learner experience,” Sean said.

The literature review underscored the diversity of that experience. While we might take for granted that online learning equates to an unequivocal improvement in access, scheduling flexibility remains important, especially with cohorts that span continents. “When you're trying to bring 20 minds together across the country, someone may be dealing with child care, someone may still be working,” Barry said. “Be mindful that you’re not measuring the success of your student engagement strictly through synchronous activities.”

Asynchronous learning can offer additional advantages for adult learners, some of them perhaps counterintuitive. Another prevalent assumption about online learning is that it’s universally prized as an accelerator that shortens degree paths. But Barry and Sean also found perspectives that valued online learning for its ability to slow the pace — or at least make it adjustable. “One of the voices we’re seeing emerge,” Barry said, “isn’t just asking, ‘How fast can I go?’ It’s also asking, ‘What if my kids get sick? Can you meet me at my pace so I don’t fall behind?’”  

In fact, he often hears from faculty and staff that adult learners are most active during holidays, when there are fewer nonacademic obligations competing for their time. “A major challenge for institutions around this will be staffing and capacity, especially from the instructor point of view,” he said. “If students want to complete work on different schedules, how do you forecast that demand so students don't have to wait too long between assessments and get quality, clear, and meaningful feedback from their instructors?”

The new Framework for adult learner success aims to help answer these and the many other questions that weigh heavily in whether institutions will succeed in delivering positive outcomes for students. For Sean, that means going beyond the familiar adult learning playbook. 

“Many institutional leaders and policymakers will declare there are tens of millions of adults without a degree, which is very true, but often they aren’t able to dig into that next level of what are the next steps and solutions and effective approaches. The Framework project is designed to help them do that,” he said, noting that for decades, there were relatively straightforward features institutional leadership could install within programs to make them more adult learner-friendly. “A president, provost, or dean would decide to offer some evening courses, part-time options, and online content and the adult learners were going to come, because they were the ‘new majority.’” 

The lines between learning and work are blurring to the point of reciprocity. Work-relevant learning enabled by industry-validated curricula is complemented by “education-relevant work” made possible by CPL and education benefit programs. The interplay among these factors is complex and pivotal. Building programs that rise to that next level requires actively listening to adult learners, Barry says. He urges institutions to hold diverse focus groups that discuss program relevance for specific industries and what options they offer around time and financial commitments. “Like marketing anything else, if you want to fill seats with adult learners, you have to know your audience,” he said. “Shop your program a little bit, get opinions, and ask, ‘What would it take for you to enroll in this program?’”

With the literature review completed, the Framework project has entered its primary research phase, gathering a wealth of historical and contemporary data from institutions that excel in adult learning. It features a qualitative component as well, including interviews with institutional staff and adult learners themselves. The project team will then synthesize all its research findings to form the Framework. 

What does all of this mean for the Ten Principles? While the best practices associated with the principles may change, there will always be foundational cornerstones. Look for the Student Support Systems and Transitions Principles to command much of the Framework’s emphasis, Barry says. 

He also anticipates an unbundling of concepts as linchpin practices rise to the surface. “The principles will focus in a very holistic way on enrollment, persistence, completion, equity, diversity, and inclusion, all of which determine both academic success and post-completion outcomes,” he said. “They will guide institutions on establishing mainstays that support and sustain adult learners throughout their postsecondary journey, regardless of its pace.” 

“Ultimately, student support has to be integrated throughout the entire student experience; this is not a discrete arm, yet it’s often siloed within higher education structures,” he added. “At the end of the day, institutions need to help individuals navigate all of the various systems to support their personal transformation and success across a continuum of sub-identities that could include learner, worker, student, parent, and, hopefully, alumni.” 

For more information about the Framework project, visit www.cael.org/lp/framework.

Dr. Sean Gallagher is founder and Executive Director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, and Executive Professor of Educational Policy. You can find him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/srgallagher/ 

Barry Nickerson is CAEL's senior director of higher education initiatives. You can find him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/bnicks/

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