The goal of the Research To Practice Initiative is to find achievable solutions to the nagging problems in adult education. COABE’s Adult Educator Resources platform was created to be a tool for discussing and sharing of solutions. Let’s put the concept of crowdsourcing to work and together find the ways and means to help adult learners make change in their lives.
I believe that advanced technology can offer solutions to many of these problems. But technology alone is not going to keep students coming to class and staying long enough to complete their degree or career pathway. It will take other innovations, and many I suspect are being practiced right now in adult education classrooms. Please accept this call to action to focus on the things that matter most to us. I believe that together we can solve a great many of the challenges in adult education. Watch the video.

How To Teach More In Less Time

by Michael Ormsby



The adult ed curriculum is increasing in size and complexity, but the time allocated by students to reach their educational goals has stayed the same, or in many cases has decreased. Students are in a hurry to make change in their lives.  This is one of the essential challenges with IET (Integrated Education and Training).  There is no question about the benefits of teaching workforce readiness skills to adult learners, but teachers struggle to find enough time in the class period to teach all the things that need to be taught.  One of the comments in the COABE Research to Practice survey best describes the problem: “How to cram 5000 lbs of stuff into a 6 hr a week class.”  

IET is defined by WIOA as. . . “a service approach that provides adult education and literacy activities concurrently and contextually with workforce preparation activities and workforce training for a specific occupation or occupational cluster for the purpose of educational and career advancement.”  This CLASP diagram shows the relationship between IET and various programs in adult education.  

WIOA mandates the blending or contextualizing adult education and literacy instruction with workforce preparation. The core problem for adult educators is how to teach more in less time, or how to cram 5000 pounds of content into an already full curriculum.  Advanced learning technology and innovative teaching practices can make this seemingly impossible task more possible.

There are three strategies that have been found effective.  One is augmenting classroom instruction with adaptive learning software which is designed to accelerate the rate of learning.  A second is using better diagnostic tools to give the teacher the ability to pinpoint the needs of each learner.  And a third is to use instructional strategies like the flipped classroom model to increase study time for the student.  We will look at how each of these strategies will allow the teacher to expand the curriculum.  And then we will look at how the type of workforce readiness instruction affects student acquisition of soft skills.  

Accelerating Learning 

Is it possible to accelerate learning for adult learners?  At first glance it would seem impossible for a person to retain more by implementing a new teaching style because it is often assumed that the limits of retention are dependent on the learner’s aptitude.  But that is not the case.  Research done by Benjamin Bloome on mastery learning found that learning was not a function of aptitude and intelligence.  He and his researchers discovered that when they combined elements of personal one-on-one tutoring with classroom instruction, 85% of the learners excelled and mastered the material.  What are the factors that can influence the speed and retention of adult learning?   And how can these be used to accelerate learning in the adult ed classroom? 

Adaptive Learning 

K-12 education has seen the emergence of a range of advanced learning technologies  that provide pinpoint diagnostics to identify the optimal learning path for each student.  K-12 teachers have the ability to not only identify skills and knowledge gaps but to know how each student learns best.  This advanced learning technology uses sophisticated adaptive learning algorithms to make teachers’ jobs easier and to make them effective.  

What is adaptive learning, and how can it benefit adult education instruction?  Adaptive learning is a computer-based educational system that modifies the presentation of material in response to student performance.  It maps a unique learning path for each student based on their performance of target competencies.

The best way to understand what adaptive learning can do for the student is to compare it to how a personal tutor works with a student.  What makes one-on-one tutoring effective is the ability of the tutor to react to what the learner needs when they need it.   When the tutor sees that their student has mastered the concept, he or she can quickly shift gears to something the student has not yet mastered.  And when the student is struggling with a concept, the tutor can re-explain it in another way until the student understands it.  

It is easy to think of computer learning as impersonal, void of feeling, and uncaring. And most software in adult education feels like this.  But adaptive learning software is none of these things, especially if it is coupled with process feedback loops that help the student understand exactly where they are on their learning curve, where they need to go, and how they are going to get there.  Instead of feeling cold and impersonal, the learning experience is rich in the things that motivate student success.   By personalizing learning, the student can move quickly and cover more material instead of being tied to whole-class progress. The experience is more fulfilling to the student and gives the teacher an opportunity to expand the curriculum to at least some of that 5,000 pounds.                                          

Learning That Works                    

Adaptive learning technology accelerates learning in two important ways. First, it customizes the learning path to exactly what the student needs to be successful.  Just as a personal tutor would, an adaptive learning system identifies gaps in the student’s knowledge and then serves up the prerequisite foundation lessons to support more complex understanding.  The student moves faster through material because they are not confused by material that is too complex for their current understanding.

Secondly, a good adaptive learning system can couple with sophisticated process feedback systems which replicate the experience of a personal tutor.  Combining powerful adaptive learning technology with classroom instruction gives the teacher the ability to truly differentiate instruction for each student and use their class time to do effective targeted instruction for students who need it most. This allows the teacher to cover more curriculum and to target each student’s learning and career goals with lessons and texts.  

Better Diagnostics

Another way adaptive learning software can accelerate learning is to make the teacher more effective.  The adult ed teacher has to be part educator, social worker, motivational speaker, and family counselor.   And this role is made even more challenging because of the complexity of academic needs of the adult learner.   Each student not only learns at different speeds and modalities, but comes to the classroom with a range of academic gaps in their understanding of basic skills.  The adult ed classroom is not a homogeneous group of students at a particular academic level like a high school classroom.  A primary academic challenge for the adult ed teacher is to craft the optimal learning path for each student, not only through the course they are teaching, but to the overall career and educational goal they are trying to achieve.  

For the teacher, the key benefit of using adaptive learning technology is the precise data they get on where the student is and needs to go. Concise reports tell the teacher the exact skills the student and whole class has mastered and which ones they still need work on.  With adaptive learning technology, the teacher can plan lessons to match the needs of groups of students as well as map out specific instructional strategies for one-on-one time with students.  It is the difference between using a one-size-fits-none approach to a highly interactive and motivating classroom environment where each learner is getting what they need when they need it.  

More Study Time

Another way to accelerate learning and thereby increase the content of instruction is to use the flipped classroom approach.  A flipped classroom is an instructional strategy and a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom. It moves activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, into the classroom.

In the traditional model of classroom instruction, the teacher is typically the central focus of a lesson and the primary disseminator of information during the class period. Student engagement in the traditional model may be limited to activities in which students work independently or in small groups on an application task designed by the teacher. Class discussions are typically centered on the teacher, who controls the flow of the conversation. Typically, this pattern of teaching also involves giving students the task of reading from a textbook or practicing a concept by working on a problem set, for example, outside school.

The flipped classroom intentionally shifts instruction to a learner-centered model in which class time explores topics in greater depth and creates meaningful learning opportunities, while advanced learning technologies like adaptive learning are used to deliver content outside of the classroom.  

Flipped classrooms also redefine in-class activities. In-class lessons accompanying flipped classrooms may include activity learning or more traditional homework problems, among other practices, to engage students in the content. Because these types of active learning exercises allow for highly differentiated instruction, more time can be spent in class on higher-order thinking skills such as problem-finding, collaboration, design and problem solving. Students tackle difficult problems, work in groups, research, and construct knowledge with the help of their teacher and peers. Outside content and in-class content can be tailored to students or groups of students to cover workplace-related goals in a meaningful way.

How is the flipped classroom model used to infuse workforce readiness skills into an ABE, ESL, or HSE curriculum?  One strategy that adult ed teachers use is to assign online lessons to students to use outside of the classroom.   But this is where the quality of the online learning makes a big difference.  Text Driven software that relies on the student to self-direct their learning and to stay engaged in text heavy instruction is generally not effective in flipped classroom strategies.   Simulation Learning software on the other hand, is much more effective because it contextualizes instruction into situations that are meaningful in adult learners life.  Simulation Learning lessons have the ability to engage and teach the student in the same way as a personal one-on-one session with a teacher.  

Blending Workforce Readiness Into Adult Ed Programs

Advanced learning technology such as adaptive learning software and teaching practices like the flipped classroom structure can accelerate learning for most adults.  But how does the teacher blend the skills needed for the workplace with basic academic skills in ABE, ESL, and HSE instruction?  

Most adult learners are enrolled because they want to get a better job and gain financial security for themselves and their families.  Achieving these goals is dependent on not only obtaining the credentials and certifications for a career, but also gaining the workplace skills that today’s employers demand.  There are two strategies that teachers use to increase the breadth and depth of their curricula by adding critical workforce readiness content.  

One is to contextualize their content into situations of the workplace and job clusters.  In an inspiring COABE presentation, Lennox McLendon talked about Career-Infused Adult Education.   Mr. McLendon gave examples of how to contextualize instruction around high demand jobs, and then, how to infuse soft (Job Readiness) skills into the existing curriculum.  Software solutions that teach core job readiness skills can easily be woven into existing curriculum because they connect to the reason why the student is there: to get a job.  It may feel to some teachers that combining core academic subjects with workforce skills such as digital literacy or workplace communication and teamwork dilutes the effectiveness of the core academic curriculum. However, to the student these additional skills enrich learning because they allows students to connect to the things that are most important for them: getting and keeping a good job.  

It is helpful to think of the student’s progress through adult education as a lattice rather a stairway.  Very often adults change the direction of their career goal.  A student may start out pursuing a career in transportation, but then due to a problem, self-discovery, or investigation of career opportunities, shift to manufacturing, business, or design. Along this winding path, education needs to support the student. The richer the curriculum is for the learner, the more useful it will be for them as goals, needs, and opportunities shift. Finding ways to infuse the adult ed curriculum with the soft skills that learners need to be successful not only makes their education more valuable in the long term, but more interesting and engaging in the short term.  And using innovative learning practices and software will increase the engagement and accelerate learning.