Lecturers' Perceptions of Mature Students in Institutes of Technology

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  • Educational Research Centre

    Lecturers' Perceptions of Mature Students in Institutes of TechnologyAuthor(s): Marie KellySource: The Irish Journal of Education / Iris Eireannach an Oideachais, Vol. 35 (2004), pp. 45-57Published by: Educational Research CentreStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30077494 .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:47

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  • The Irish Journal of Education, 2004, xxxv, pp. 45-57.


    Marie Kelly Letterkenny Institute of Technology

    While lecturers in Institutes of Technology have traditionally designed courses, and employed teaching approaches and strategies and methods of assessment for students who are 18 years of age and have just completed the Leaving Certificate, they are now having to cater for increasing numbers of mature students whose approaches to learning and pedagogical needs are quite distinct from the mainstream student. A study in Institutes of Technology, using semi-structured interviews, was undertaken to ascertain the level of understanding and insight lecturers have of mature students and how their pedagogical approach may have been extended to include them in the learning environment. While respondents revealed a high level of awareness of the needs of mature students, reflecting many of the theories and approaches expounded by educational theorists, the growing number of such students in mainstream classes was found to have presented many unprecedented challenges for which little or no provision had been made in terms of staff development.

    Mature students have traditionally been under-represented in Irish colleges and universities. Citing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Education (OECD figures, the white paper on adult education, Learning for Life (2000), noted that just over 19 of new entrants to degree level programmes in all OECD countries in 1995 were aged 26 or over, compared to the Irish figure of 2 percent. With regard to Certificate and Diploma Level programmes, the OECD average was almost 37 compared to an Irish figure of just 1 %' (p.138).

    Various efforts have been made to address this situation. The Commission on the Points System (1999 stated that by 2006, third-level institutions should set aside a quota of 15 for mature students, which should rise to 25 by 2015. Skilbeck (2000 and The Report of The Action Group on Access to Third Level Education (2001 argued, however, that a decline in birth rate had caused some alarm in third-level colleges. In the Institutes of Technology, for example, over 90 of students were aged between 17 and 19 years (Clancy, 2001). The institutes may see a reduction in this traditional cohort by one-third over the next decade. The increase in mature students may simply be an attempt to offset the fall in student numbers and to achieve goals of national development and renewal. Such an approach is very different from one espoused by Dewey (1916), who believed that progressive education should play a role in correcting unfair

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    privilege, rather than in perpetrating it. Almost a century later, Lynch (1997 and McMahon (2000 stress this point in relation to mature students, claiming that improved access should ensure social justice and democracy and be considered a right, not a privilege.

    There is the implicit danger that ifmature students are perceived as objects of government policies, the central issue of their pedagogical experiences in colleges may not be given due consideration. If the panacea for the fall in student numbers is to be found in initiatives to combat social exclusion and disadvantage, then an unfortunate mismatch is occurring. This can have implications not only for general institute strategy, but may also filter down to the lecture hall where this new cohort of students, bringing with them their own particular needs, will be seen merely as replacing what went before.

    There is evidence that mature students can face a range of challenges both academically and personally when returning to education (e.g., Crogan, 1995; Heslop, 1996; Lynch, 1997; McGivney, 1990; McNamara, Mulcahy & O'Hara, 2001; Rogers, 2002; Squires, 1994; Woodbyrne & Young 1998). These include poor coping skills, unrecognized learning difficulties, financial problems, difficulty with juggling time commitments, and less confidence in their ability to learn vis a vis mainstream students. Snyder and Swann. (1978 and Wlodkowski (1998 believe that adult learners can return to education with a fixed notion of what learning is, what education is, what intelligence is, and where they rate themselves on this elusive ladder. While it has been shown that non-completion in adult students is normally due to personal or financial factors rather than to academic failure (Richardson & King, 1998), societal influences, stereotypes, and expectations can play a part in the often negative perception of the intellectual abilities of the adult student. Age can become a divisive factor in many ways. Adults can experience a sense of alienation, of being outsiders and not owning' higher education. As students progress in their studies, they may also experience a distancing from significant others who do not share the same study experience. They may also suffer acutely from exam pressure, an accreditation process which, Skilbeck (2001 argues, has focused on competition, individualism, and a limited range of intelligence.

    The Report of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education (2001 states that education makes a fundamentally important contribution to the quality and well-being of society' (p.13). O' Riordan (1999 points out, however, that it can be a highly subsidized engine of social inequality as full-time third level education is, in many ways, the preserve of students who come from a particular socioeconomic background with a modal age of 18 years. Jordan (1997 and IBEC (2001 believe that challenges arise for adult learners as the

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    administration, resource allocation and, most importantly teaching, are primarily focused on younger students. Several commentators support this view by arguing that the education of adults can often challenge the limits of standardization and conventional education and that colleges need to adapt to the needs of adult learners, rather than allow a situation to develop where adults have to adapt to a system that was primarily designed for people of school-leaving age (Knowles, 1994; McNamara et al., 2001; Rogers, 2002; Young, 2000).

    Many institutes offer excellent facilities, student support, and state of the art technology. However, even in the face of rapid technological advances, few would dispute the centrality of the teacher's role (Skilbeck, 2001). While stressing that teaching lies at the heart of the educational process, Jarvis (1996 has noted that many of the positive impacts of peripheral supports can be greatly reduced if the mature student's pedagogical experience is not properly considered. This is especially true when teaching adults. McNamara et al. (2001 and the green paper, Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning (1998), state that it is the learner, and not the tutor, who is at the centre of the learning process, and that much of the success of students centres on the ability of staff to recognize the needs of the adult learner. Teaching strategies, approaches, and methods of assessment in the Institutes of Technology have, however, traditionally focused on the 18-year old student.

    The white paper, Learning for Life (2000), maintains that many tutors who teach adults are recruited on the basis of a business, trade, or second-level teaching qualification, and lack expertise in the delivery of programmes to adult learners. This is supported by commentators who argue that little or no progress has been made in the development of qualifications in this field (e.g., Bassett, Brady, Fleming, & Inglis, 1989; Brady, 2001; McNamara et al., 2001; Wlodkowski, 1998). In fact, adult education may be viewed as a semi profession in the very early stages of professionalisation' (Jarvis, 1995, p.187). The Qualifications Education and Training Act (1999 stressed that the theory and practice of teaching and learning would grow in importance in the future, which reflects McNamara et al's (2001 finding that over 90