Helping the Adult Learner Succeed: How Community College Libraries in Massachusetts are Serving this Growing Population.

Author:Turcotte, Katherine A.

INTRODUCTION: Adults choosing to return to college is rising. Cannady et al. points out that, "The number of adult learners in institutions of higher education is increasing, and these students' reasons for attending, ways of learning, challenges, and methods for overcoming challenges often differ from those of traditional-age students (2012, p. 156). Similarly, Cooke writes, "Adult learners are becoming a much larger demographic at colleges and universities around the world, and the specific needs, characteristics, and anxieties of adult learners are often overlooked" (2010, p.208). Adult learners are faced with many unique problems and challenges to overcome, such as library anxiety or apprehension to technology (Cooke, 2010, p. 210). With these difficulties in mind, this study aims to determine what community college libraries in Massachusetts are doing to help these students succeed, as well as look at what areas could be enhanced or improved.

Adults who return to college after being away from the classroom often encounter several obstacles different from those facing the traditional college student. These issues include challenges with technology, time management, undeveloped study habits, and anxiety due to a changing environment and surroundings (Cooke, 2010, p. 213). While the traditional-age student may also encounter troubles in these areas, adult learners experience these issues differently. For instance, a student entering college directly out of high school may struggle with time management in terms of managing school work and social activities, while an adult learner is often attempting to manage not only schoolwork, but also hold down a job and support a family. Although both groups encounter time management issues, the circumstances of each are very different. Similarly, undeveloped study habits in a traditional student may be caused by inexperience or lack of motivation due to uncertainty of goals, while an adult learner may have undeveloped study habits because they've been away from the classroom for a period of time, which can still be considered inexperience, but in a different way than that of the traditional student. Both populations of students also experience anxiety due to a changing environment differently. Unlike students who enter college right out of high school, many adult learners suffer from anxiety because of "perceived competition with younger, traditional undergraduate students" (Cooke, 2010, p. 213). Many times adult learners also feel anxious because they are unfamiliar with the workings of the library or because they are not yet comfortable with the advancing technology around them, things that many traditional students have grown up with. There are also several physical barriers that stand in the way of many adult learners which are far less likely to be seen in traditional students. These include "visual, aural, or mobility issues," all of which could affect the success of adult learners (Cooke, 2010, p. 213).

In an attempt to mitigate these obstacles and to help adult learners cope with the stress of returning to school, libraries should provide resources aimed directly at the adult learner. These resources could include library instruction, basic computing classes, open forums, lectures, or providing information or group sessions on time management or other identified areas of concern. Campus libraries often act as a safe haven or communal meeting place for college students. This includes students entering college right out of high school, as well as those who have been away from the school setting for several years. The goal of the library is to be a welcoming place where students can feel comfortable, ask questions, and get work accomplished. All students, regardless of their age or education experience, deserve a space where they can relax, work, socialize, research, and receive assistance without apprehension. Although the library is for all to use equally, because adult learners have many unique needs, libraries must reach out to this population and provide them with services specifically tailored to their needs. While many campuses cater towards the college student who enters directly after high school (age 18-24), often by providing orientation sessions or first year writing classes, it is unclear what is being done to assist the adult learner (age 25+) returning to school. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the average age of a community college student is 29 years old ("Students at Community Colleges," n.d.). With the average age of the college student rising, what are community colleges in Massachusetts, and more specifically, their libraries, doing to help adult learners? Through a survey given to reference librarians at community colleges across the state, this study aims to reveal what community college libraries are doing to support this population both academically at school, as well as in preparation for the workplace.

LITERATURE REVIEW: Rachel E. Cannady, Stephanie B. King, and Jack G. Blendinger, of Mississippi State University, recognized that adult learners are enrolling in college in increasing numbers, and "these students' reasons for attending, ways of learning, challenges, and methods for overcoming challenges often differ from those of traditional-age students" (2012, p. 156). Because of their different needs, adult learners often get overlooked or lost in the sea of traditional-age students. For this reason, special attention must be paid to this population and these students' needs must be addressed directly. Cannady et al. discovered that adult learners have many life experiences that play into their education experience that traditional-age students don't possess. "These experiences are a resource for learning and a foundation to which the adult learner can connect new learning. When instructors use adult learners' experiences, they demonstrate acceptance and respect for the learners by using their experiences as a resource for learning" (Cannady, King, & Blendinger, 2012, p. 158). Cannady et al. also determined what obstacles stood in the way of adult learners and what struggles they face. The adult learner often has difficulty "with research and using library resources. Their struggles may be related to their location away from campus, unfamiliarity with technology, lack of basic research skills, feelings of anxiety, and lack of knowledge about resources available in the library" (Cannady, King, & Blendinger, 2012, p. 158). The researchers in this study looked at what resources were being offered to adult learners in an effort to minimize these stressors as well as to increase their success rate. By doing this, it also helped in determining what else could be done to support this group of students. Cannady et al. concluded that collaboration between the library, department heads, faculty, and the student is an exceptionally important aspect to the success of adult learners. Likewise, "proactive outreach strategies to enhance library and research skills can be tailored to fit the needs of adult learners. By providing a variety of options for communication and instruction, including chat, e-mail, telephone, and LibGuides pages, students can select the means they are most comfortable using" (Cannady, King, & Blendinger, 2012, p. 166). By collaborating with all involved in the students learning experience as well as by proactively reaching out to the student, librarians and...

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