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Symposium Aims to Reduce Barriers for Adult Students

SAALT participants chat in a small group session.

Dr. Tom Tobin’s message was simple: When instructors meet the needs of adult students, all students benefit. 

For people watching his keynote address for USM’s annual Summer Academy of Adult Learning and Teaching (SAALT), it affirmed everything they already felt.

“It bears repeating. Everything he’s talking about, about the Universal Design for Learning, even if you know that, it bears repeating so you’ll remember to keep doing it or to start doing it,” said Dr. Susan Noyes, USM Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy and one of nearly 30 participants selected to attend SAALT this year. 

USM has hosted the symposium since 2017, bringing together educators from every university in the University of Maine System. Participants apply to attend and, once selected, spend four days in small group discussions, attending panels, and participating in workshops geared toward improving teaching for adult students. 

This year’s symposium was held July 18-21, with two days virtual and two days in person. Tobin, an author, speaker, and education consultant, delivered the keynote address via Zoom on the first day. While the rest of SAALT is reserved for its selected participants, the keynote is open to the public. About 100 people attended. 

Tobin spent his 90-minute talk advocating for Universal Design for Learning, or UDL, an inclusive teaching approach that tries to make learning more accessible to all students and offers flexibility both in the way information is presented and in the way students prove they understand the material. UDL can be particularly helpful for adult college students who face myriad barriers to an education, including multiple job and family commitments, limited study time, and a lack of reliable childcare.

If done well, Tobin said, UDL can increase student retention, demonstrate quality, and reduce instructors’ effort, frustration, and anxiety. 

“UDL does not ask you to change what you teach or how you teach it. It is an overlay. It is a set of principles, not specific practices,” Tobin said. “You’re going to hear some of your colleagues say, ‘Well, isn’t that dumbing things down? Isn’t that watering down the curriculum for students?’ And I say, yeah, it kind of is — if you’re doing it wrong.”

He suggested a number of ways instructors could immediately incorporate aspects of UDL into their classes, including offering time estimates for assignments so students can more easily plan and schedule homework, allowing a variety of ways for students to prove what they know, and allowing students to freely access class materials anytime so they can get what they need whenever it works best for them.  

“Don’t try to do everything. Don’t try to make everything perfect,” Tobin advised his audience. “Take one action that lowers a barrier, test it out with your learners, and where things work well, keep doing stuff like that. If they don’t respond well or it’s not helping them, don’t do it.” 

The keynote kicked off the symposium, but it wasn’t the only highlight. Participants also attended a panel discussion with current adult learners in the University of Maine System. 

“To truly hear the experience of students, I think it drove home some of the messages around what we have to do,” said Dr. Jennifer Crittenden, Assistant Professor of Social Work and Associate Director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. 

Even before the symposium was done, she was considering how to do more with asynchronous learning and better make the connection between classroom content and real-world applications. 

“We’re already teaching adult learners and they’re going to be the future consumers of our work. We know the demographics of college students are changing,” Crittenden said. “I really think it’s really important  that all faculty members really dig into understanding how they can really reach this group effectively.”

Noyes tried for three years to get a seat at SAALT. Teaching conflicts stymied her every year — until this one. 

“All of my graduate education is in adult education, adult learning. It’s a passion of mine to begin with and I’m thinking any place that is talking about adult learners, I want to be in on that,” she said. 

From the keynote speech to the adult student panel to the small group sessions, Noyes wasn’t disappointed.

“When you find this group of like-minded people, I want to talk with them all summer,” Noyes said.