Meeting Different Generational Needs For A Strong Adult Learner Experience

Last updated on: April 3, 2020

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Adult learners can and do cross generational lines, creating particular challenges for higher education institutions serving them. Recruiters, support staff, and faculty members need to be able to communicate effectively with members of several different generations — everyone from baby boomers to Generation X to millennials, all with different needs, expectations, and motivations. Here are some tips for meeting the multigenerational needs of the adult learner population, regardless of birth year.

Understand the Generational Delineations at Your Institution

Generations are defined by cultural, economic, and technological influences, which help shape a group of people and provide them with similar touchstones and experiences growing up. While the majority of adult learners are likely to be millennials (students born between 1981 and 1996), adult learners can come from several different generations, including baby boomers and Generation X. These students might also be in learning environments with traditional-aged students (now considered Generation Z), meaning students from four different generations might be learning together.

In an accelerated learning environment, such as adult learner programs or many online learning programs, the differences between generations can greatly impact learning experiences. Each generation will want to be engaged in learning in a slightly different way. The following differences in attitudes between generational demographics can prove useful to relationship-building with adult learners.

Baby Boomers

Boomers are a highly educated generation and tend to respect accomplishments and credentials in those they work with or learn from. They tend to prioritize learning and consider themselves lifelong learners. Baby boomers are eager to learn from professors as well as other highly credentialed individuals, and that may play a part in where they decide to study. While baby boomers prefer to attend courses in a traditional physical classroom, they’re open to using new technology after supervised one-on-one training, but worry about “breaking” it.

Generation X

This generation develops respect for others through observing character traits and building relationships. Generation Xers typically grew up with working parents and spent a lot of time on their own as a child, so micromanaging styles from professors or in coursework will be off-putting. In the learning environment, Generation X students are looking for information and practice rather than theory, and they want to know immediately how the information will benefit their career. Generation X students aren’t intimidated by using technology in the classroom and consider devices and software tools for efficiency.


Millennials respect authority figures who help them, a result of the generation’s upbringing with helicopter parents. Family is extremely important to this generation, and that might be a consideration for recruitment, as this generation is more likely to rely on familial input for decisions. They have a short attention span, which may help explain why they are highly responsive to gamification and prefer their learning to be interactive and dynamic. They also are looking for social media to be incorporated in their learning environment. Millennial students expect to use technology in the classroom—they’ve always used it and consider it a tool for connection. While it may seem like this generation wants to learn only through technology, they do value some face-to-face contact. Finally, similar to Generation X students, they want to know how information is going to help them in their lives.

Generation Z

Generation Z students came of age during the 2008 economic recession and saw firsthand the importance of being useful to the marketplace to have a successful career. Generation Z students will respect educators who can help them move toward developing a sustainable career. These students are also very wary of making higher education decisions that will plunge them into debt. It’s important to align learning with industry standards and, as with Generation X and millennials, show them how what they’re learning is going to be applicable to their career. With an even shorter attention span than millennial students, this is also the generation most likely to turn to YouTube for answers. Therefore, when possible, incorporate videos or dynamic learning opportunities into lessons. In a brick-and-mortar environment, Generation Z students thrive in designated learning spaces, with adequate well-lit spaces to study.

Being aware of different generational learning styles and preferences can help educators design programs and services in ways that engage and serve individuals of all different ages. These considerations can also be applied to marketing and recruitment materials. For example, making some changes and additions to the institution’s website can increase its appeal to potential learners of various generations. To better engage adult learners across a range of ages with their website, institutions should:

  • Map out a career path. While this is less useful for baby boomers, it can be helpful for other adult learners to see how courses or degree paths translate to either a new career or an upward move in a profession.
  • Be responsive. If there’s a chat box on the website, make sure recruitment managers respond to it in a timely manner. Prospective students who don’t receive a quick answer will move on and probably won’t return.
  • Advertise accessible resources. Many adult learners want access to university resources—such as academic advising and career planning—during the weekend or after work, or even by text. Institutions should highlight this if it is an option.
  • Change up your website on a regular basis. Instead of a static homepage, update the content regularly. For example, feature different videos or highlight new stories, especially those about student or alumni successes.

These insights and suggestions can help your institution recruit and serve adult learners of all ages more effectively. Read the full article from Enrollment Management Report here.

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