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Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Crossing the Age Gap with Adult Learners

Working with adults returning to school for either their bachelor’s or graduate degrees has helped me develop my skills as a consultant and peer tutor. Consultations with adult students have a different atmosphere about them than do traditional, young students; they are usually able to better articulate their problems and explain their concerns. When the age difference is significant enough, challenges can inhibit the client gaining trust in the tutor. To overcome them, we have to look at different ways of thinking about what being a peer tutor means.

The broadest definition of “peer” is someone who belongs in the same group as you, and most commonly this refers to age. Peers can just as easily be people with similar abilities, qualifications, and other statuses, but age is the first impression. Most of the consultants at our Writing Center and the students who come in are undergraduates and graduate students within the same age range. Before any words are exchanged, this automatically establishes some common ground between them upon which trust builds. Students immediately see that they will be working with someone similar to them, someone in the same boat.

Adult learners, though, do not have this instant connection with younger consultants, so we have to rely on different approaches to being a peer tutor. It may seem too obvious, but we have to show that we share common goals in addressing concerns and improving the paper as well as the writer. We do this while keeping in mind that adult learners tend to have specific concerns about their work and focus more on higher-order issues like content and synthesis of ideas. By acknowledging how adult learners approach discourse about their work, tutors can rely on the different meanings of “peer” to go beyond the age gap.

Of course, every consultation is unique, and each poses different challenges for both tutor and client. However, from a number of encounters with adult students I have had, they tended to bring in more personal works, such as reflection papers and autobiographies, and often their subject matter revolves around their families or hardships from growing up and other sensitive, intimate content. As an undergraduate, I realize they have more life experience than I have, which can contribute to them feeling uncomfortable working with a younger peer tutor, even to the point that they feel they are not working with a peer at all. Certainly, the age difference comes into play, so we show empathy and genuine interest in their concerns and work to establish common ground and trust to overcome the gap.

I had a consultation with an adult student who came in to work on her response paper to a guest speaker who came to her Psychology of Women class to talk about gender discrimination in the workplace. She had written about how the guest speaker’s perspective was more privileged than other women’s, and my student was concerned with expressing ideas concisely. She had already written pages and pages of material that included many personal experiences as examples, but her assignment could only be two pages long. Recognizing the need to find some common ground because of the age difference, I mentioned that, as a psychology major, I had taken that class a few semesters prior. She slightly raised an eyebrow and said, “Really? Okay.” While this seemed to actually backfire a bit, it encouraged me more to help her build trust in me, so before we began reading through her paper we discussed her own opinions on the speaker’s lecture. The subject matter was personal, naturally, especially when she gave examples of how she herself faced gender discrimination as an adult in the workplace before coming back to university. After this, we were able to identify her major points and figure out how to express them in her paper within the requirements. Even if I had not taken the same class before, our discussion still would have been very possible and just as helpful. The open discourse between us about her opinions helped fill the age gap and establish trust between her and me as a peer tutor in the sense that we shared concern about her ideas and worked toward a common goal.

It would be unjust to limit “peer” as someone in the same age group, especially in the context of a peer tutor. However, we must account for age being the most widely accepted connotation for it, and address this concern when working with adult learners. Trust is more readily established between students and consultants of the same peer group, whereas we must go beyond superficial similarities and look for common ground to share. Genuine, open discussion about the student’s concerns and writing help to establish that trust and alleviate reservations previously held, and commit to the consultation. Then, the consultant and adult student can transcend the age rift and collaborate as academic equals, as peers sharing the same goals.

2 comments:

  1. This is an excellent post. I think that something critical for writing center administrators to learn as well is that we should be actively recruiting and hiring return-to-college students on our staff. I've learned more from my fellow staff members who were RTC folks about how to be an excellent tutor for their demographic more than anywhere else!

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  2. Excellent write. As an adult educator i found out my self that the stats are growing on semester basis when it comes to adult learning.

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