Peer Review

What Adult Learners Can Teach Us about All Learners: A Conversation with L. Lee Knefelkamp

L. Lee Knefelkamp is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a senior scholar at AAC&U. Her career has included research and teaching about intellectual, ethical, identity, and intercultural development; curriculum transformation; issues of race, ethnicity, and gender; campus climate assessment; and the psychology of organizational change. Knefelkamp is currently codirector of the Eisenhower Leader Development Program, a master’s program for Army officers conducted jointly by Teachers College and the United States Military Academy at West Point, and she also helped develop Teachers College’s new Executive Master’s Degree Program in Change Leadership, a program for midcareer adult learners.

Here, Knefelkamp talks about how working with adult students can inform our interactions with students of all ages, what tradeoffs come with new educational technology, and why K. Patricia Cross’s research on adult learners from the 1980s is still extraordinarily relevant today.

What are the critical challenges that higher education must consider with respect to adult learners?
One critical issue is that we still write about college in most of our texts with the assumption that the students are eighteen to twenty-two years old. Troy Duster of NYU and I were once coteaching an intercultural learning class. He went to the blackboard and wrote, “95 percent minority”—about the population of Los Angeles public schools—and asked “What’s wrong here?” Of course, it’s that 95 percent isn’t a minority at all. You could see people really thinking about that. We need to have in our heads a similar image of adult learners. The vast majority of learners in higher education are not eighteen to twenty-two. The minority is now the majority. We are still focusing a great deal of our research on what used to be the traditional. What was traditional is now the nontraditional. That is truly a seismic shift.

Second, we haven’t realized all the different ways we can use scheduling, technology, and communication to be responsive to adult learning. The structure is still mired in the assumptions of traditional and residential. Finally, one thing that K. Patricia Cross did, decades ago, was to focus on understanding the unique capabilities of the student. You need to design curriculum that is responsive. But what Cross was able to do in the American mind, long before population statistics changed, was to say, We have a variety of learners and nontraditional-aged learners need to be taken into account. Any individual differences—first-generation students, adult students, new learners, etc.—cause us to think about all learners. The challenge for the faculty is taking into account the vast experience of adult learners, and putting ourselves into a more dialogic teaching mode. We can’t just assume that we’re delivering knowledge in one direction. The students are not vessels to be filled. We’re not the font of knowledge—the real challenge is in the interplay. It needs to make the academy not less learned, but more humble and more open to the exchange.

How can faculty members be responsive in their teaching of adult students?
We need to treat adult students as colearners, and we need to do that for traditional-aged students, too. One of the great notions of John Dewey is that learning is meaningful to the degree that we can connect it to the concrete experiences of our student’s lives. So adult learners bring a rich array of life learning and life experiences to the classroom. And good teaching for adult learners needs to first assess who they are and then needs to connect the classroom material to that rich archive of their life learning. There’s a triad of adult learning: Who the students are—their knowledge and background and situation; what we have to offer them—the knowledge base; and what they are going to use the knowledge for—the job they’re going to do.

The adult learner helps remind us that any learner brings something to the table. And we need to see how we can assess who that learner is and what they’ve experienced and how they learn, and put that into dialogue with what we need to teach and how we teach it. The adult learner is almost the classic example of how we need to match what we’re teaching to students’ needs.

What has teaching military officers at West Point taught you about working with adult learners in general?
I codirect the Eisenhower Leader Development Program, a program jointly offered at Teachers College and West Point. We’re training Army officers to be mentors to West Point cadets. It has been the most amazing experience of my career. The students in the Eisenhower program study traditional college student theory and also adult learning theory. They’re reflecting on their own lives and experiences and projecting onto being mentors. These students have been leaders in combat and have had multiple deployments. Recently, we were talking about spiritual development, looking at the theory and national research. The question I asked was, What are the kinds of questions that came up when you were leading your platoon? We’re not talking isolated, interesting parables—we’re talking unbelievable real stuff. That’s the magic of adult learning. If we can harness and respect that and pull it out, there is nothing that matches their life experience in terms of relevance. What adult learners demand of us is that we take into account real experiences, and we try to match the knowledge base we have with the context of their real experience. We must refuse the dichotomy between intellectual learning and real life. That’s really the core—for all students.

How has the explosion in distance learning affected adult education?
One thing I often think about in this area is the work AAC&U has done with its surveys of what employers want from college graduates, and what employers rely on as accurate assessment. They all rely on significant degrees of engagement. They said test scores were of low importance, and supervised experiential learning opportunities were at the top of their lists. Online universities and non-credit-granting online training programs don’t provide the engaged high-impact practices that really matter. There’s a difference between having a certificate that reflects a number of hours and a degree or a program that reflects engaged, process-reflective learning. The best programs for adults do that.

One of the challenges in higher education is asking what it means to be thirty-eight and coming back to school. It means asking the fundamental question of who is the student. Answering that question demands changes in pedagogy, scheduling, and other areas—instrumental changes that need to happen on the part of the academy. Here’s my fear: Traditional education has been slow in its response, so the online universities have stepped in. They’re seemingly filling access gaps, but they have not provided any of the intellectual or academic high-impact practices. We haven’t been responsive, and these organizations are appearing to be responsive—but are not providing education. It’s incredibly frustrating. I live every day seeing what it’s like to design programs for adult learners and how effective they are. It’s just not true that you can get a university degree in your pajamas.

You’ve mentioned K. Patricia Cross’s work. A search of the research on adult learning brings up her name most frequently. Why is her writing on adult learning—much of it from the 1970s and 1980s—still so relevant?
It has staying power because she was the first to look at these issues. That’s a hallmark of her career. The first thing she did was call our attention to adult students in a literal way. Almost all the literature about college student development was written about traditional-age students. But Pat said, You know, there are some other folks on campus. The second thing is that she wrote so cogently and clearly about who these students were. It made you go, yes! The third thing is that every one of her books has implications for practice, so beyond describing populations, there were implications for responses. She was unbelievably intellectually deft, and incredibly practical. You can’t beat the combination. She did this for first-generation learners and assessment too. She zeroed in on critical issues and made those issues accessible to the larger higher education community in a way that allowed us to understand. She has always been ahead of the field.

What do you see as the future of adult education? What’s coming next?
One of the key upcoming issues in adult learning is tailored programs. There is a proliferation of specially designed degree programs. Traditional degree completers might want to simply finish what they started, but the new horizon is tailored degrees for people who want education in something like intercultural issues or leadership. This is happening at all levels—undergraduate, graduate, professional. Increasingly, adult learning in America has to do with people seeking specific professional degrees. Teachers College has been designing an executive degree program in leadership and learning. We’re looking for people who have ten to fifteen years experience in their organizations to come get an advanced degree with the adaptation for twenty-first-century educational outcomes.


Cross, K. Patricia. 1981. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Laura Donnelly-Smith is a staff writer and associate editor at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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