Adult and traditional learning settings compared

Teaching and learning are interrelated.  Adults draw upon their experiences when they become students. Teachers draw upon their past as well. Unfortunately, all students and teachers have been in a classroom of ineffective teaching, and though they may recognize the failures; they may not be able to fix it. Adult learners make up a large number of students today and yet teaching methods may not have evolved to include andragogical teaching. Many of the “tried and true” teaching strategies of the past continue to be employed for the adult learner. Students in their 20s and beyond bring a level of experience to their schooling that requires a different approach to successful learning. I will compare and contrast an ineffective learning method from my past that used traditional theories of teaching with concepts and ideas that would improve upon the ineffective teaching.
I took a course in graduate school at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine. In 1980, I was a student of a PhD program in pharmacology and nutrition. The course was one that pharmacology students took with second-year medical students. It was a traditional setting, with a classroom-type teaching. Four professors rotated through this course as the lecturers and instructors, each one speaking and teaching his specialty within the study of pharmacology. The class met every day with a weekly three-hour lab. I was one of four students from our department enrolled in the course, the rest were medical students. Women were not readily acknowledged as serious students by all the professors in our department. One in particular asked me if I was planning to hang my diploma in the nursery. At first I was a little confused, thinking of a nursery of plants and trees. But then I realized he was talking about babies and children, which was presumptuous since I was not pregnant or talking about family. I was 25 years old. The class was taught in a lecture hall, theater style, with the professor standing up front, lecturing to the class for the entire period. Everyone took notes rapidly. The medical students had more camaraderie, and for every lecture one student would take notes to share with his classmates to improve the dissemination of information. There was no camaraderie with the four pharmacology students. However, I did manage to get copies of all these additional notes. Some professors used a chalkboard for emphasis of material being presented, but good note taking fell upon each student and was paramount to getting a good grade.  The teaching method employed by the professors for this course was lecture and the textbook, which was to be read and studied by the students. The teaching methods were based on pedagogy theory. We were the learners; they were the teachers dispensing the material to be learned. Questions were not asked during the lectures. Learners were there to listen, be serious and pass the exams. There were two exams, a mid-term and a final. Questions were multiple choice, no essay, more of a pedagogical theory. There were no questions that required thought or discussion. While pharmacology has many areas of learning where only one answer will do, there is still some learning that requires discoursing and discovering. This was not addressed. One professor had difficulty speaking English and consequently taking notes in his class presented an additional challenge. Although we were amused by his description of illnesses that caused “cheers and feva,” I often could not follow his lectures without a visual component.
The lab was focused on learning about drugs and their effects. The methods of learning were hands-on and based on discovering for yourself the effects of pharmaceuticals on live rabbits. After some of the labs, we administered potassium chloride, which would induce death. It was visual, it was real, and it was memorable. I would say the labs were effective. Since this was a class for medical students, it was deemed necessary by the teachers for students to have hands-on experience with life and death situations and study the effect of drugs on living creatures. Of course, it was better to try this out on rabbits than people. Perhaps, learners would have a sense of respect for life, seeing a rabbit in pain. But it may have made some students more callous. It would have been a good time to teach about the sanctity of life before the labs and encourage students to have respect for the animals who are giving their lives for science.  As an adult learner, experience in this case reflects a deeper respect for life.
There were several things that made this teaching situation not conducive to my preference of learning. First, the lectures were not visual. I am not a good auditory-only learner. This might have been fine if the textbook had some visual explanations, but it was the traditional pharmacology book that had been used for years. I learned by myself, studying the text, reading my notes and writing out the information I had learned. I had a strong desire to do well, which is andragogical. In a sense, I had some input into how I learned. I found I could understand the material if I taught it to myself, as if I was the teacher. My methods of study were based on my experience of what worked in college the previous four years. However, the teachers did not take into account various learning styles, this was left for each student to do on his own, but then that does reflect the adult learner. The cooperative learning climate was more amongst the medical students, and to a much lesser degree with the pharmacology students. We did not meet together and discuss the lectures or share the notes, as did the medical students. This was a disconnect. I did not feel that I belonged to either group. The med students were stronger in force, combining their efforts to tackle the courses. Consequently, I found a study partner that was a medical student, where we could direct our learning in an efficient andragogical manner. I took charge of my learning. The professors were not available to students for having any discussions. This reflects the pedagogical nature of teaching in the 1980s. Professors were not inclined to see students as equal in intelligence, at least not while they were still students.  
Changes I would make include adding visual to lectures through slides or handouts. Today there are many sources that were not available in the 1980s. DNA molecules that are animated, drugs that are broken down into their molecule structure, to show the chemical reactions that take place at the cellular level would provide additional sensory learning that would improve learning. Even back then, illustrations could have been utilized to explain the simple concepts as well as the more complicated ones. But today, three-dimensional visuals are available that would greatly enhance learning for both pedagogy and andragogy. Another change I would make is to include more trial and error learning in a lab setting and add an additional virtual lab. Andragogical theory provides learners with the ability to choose pathways. A traditional lab offers a student to act on his own thinking. Unfortunately, too many times students already know the answers that they are to discover in the lab. This often puts students under pressure to get the “right” answer for the high grade. There is often a fear of not doing well, or getting the wrong answer. This reflects the pedagogical theory. The teacher dispenses the correct answer. Adult learners understand that wrong answers bring understanding in a laboratory setting. It is the trial and error method of learning (Oblinger, 2003).  Virtual labs such as those being used at MIT, enable students to go online at any time of the day and experiment with solving problems and visually seeing the results (Oblinger, 2003).  Virtual labs are also highly interactive, do not cost as much, since the materials are all virtual, and allow students to perform the lab a number of times without wasting expensive chemicals or rabbits. Virtual labs enable a student to experiment in the safety of his own computer setting and take the time to figure it out and make mistakes.
A change in atmosphere would be another improvement in the learning experiences of this USC course. According to Knowles, adult students do better in an andragogical setting of mutual trust and collaborative efforts, instead of the pedagogical methods that produce a tense, authority driven climate, where students are highly competitive and professors very formal and aloof (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2007). Years of being the pedagog unnecessarily puts a student ill at ease with teachers. There was always the wrong answer, which made the climate uncomfortable and judgmental. This is something that comes into play in the younger grades, and too often sets the tone for the future. Students become afraid to question, to raise their hands. In my experiences, there were only three professors in college that were available and encouraged dialogue. Yet, it is important for students to make the leap to andragogical methods of learning when they reach higher institutions and leave behind the pedagogical approach. When teachers are open to learning from the students as well as the students from the teachers, the atmosphere will be more andragogical and everyone will benefit. Perhaps it is going back to what  “the Greeks invented -- what we now call the Socratic dialogue, in which the leader or a group member poses a question or dilemma and the group members pool their thinking and experience to seek an answer or solution” (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2007).  Too often, the professors that taught the material in our USC course seemed bored with the subject and bored with the delivery. Perhaps if there was an open learning process, the teacher and the student would be learning something together in what Knowles called shared authority (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2007).

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (2005) The Adult Learner, New York, New York: McGraw Hill, 1-34.
Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millenials: Understanding the new students. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erm0342.pdf

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