Roger Hiemstra




A background paper developed for ERIC (ED 193 529)








The Problem




Problems in Practice


A Teaching and Learning


Instructional Guidelines


Case Studies




The Older Adult as Learner


Older Adults Can Learn!


Learning Activity and Ability


Learning Needs and Obstacles


Teacher as Facilitator


Self-Directed Learning


Teaching Techniques and Strategies




Models, Stages, and Theories


Memory and Intellect


Organizational Abilities


Associational Abilities


Speed and Pacing












Instructional Procedures


Educational Background of Learners






Future Research Needs
















It will be no surprise to readers of this paper that the growth in the elderly population of the united states has been accelerating rapidly in the past two decades. That growth rate has been exceeded only by the interest of many people in the elderly population. A variety of human services practitioners have the older person as the very focus of their professional activities. Numerous volunteers spend considerable time each week with senior citizens. Educational specialists of various types are concerned with providing learning experiences for the older person. As Sheppard (1979) shows, educational opportunities for older people are on the increase. Numerous governmental employees direct their efforts toward seniors. Finally, researchers from both the physical and the social sciences continue the wide-ranging study of aging, the aged, and how to work with the aged.


It is this latter group that provides the base of information for this paper. However, it is no easy task interpreting the abundance of available research that is related in some way to working with and teaching the older person. Those research findings often are disparate in nature and frequently disagreement is found between researchers working on similar problems. Difficult, too, is the job of culling from the literature concrete implications for practice because new findings replace older knowledge almost daily.


Thus, it is the purpose of this paper to present a picture of existing knowledge regarding how one teaches the older person. By no means will it be possible to cover everything of importance to the teaching and learning process. Furthermore, the intended primary audience for this paper is the human services practitioner. Admittedly, this is a broad-based term designed to cover a variety of people such as social workers, extension specialists, librarians,


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leisure service providers, volunteer workers, counselors, and aging network employees. However, it is assumed that many such individuals will not have had much, and in many instances, any, professional training in working with the older person as a teacher or manager of educational experiences. Subsequently, a special effort will be made to outline in practical terms what can be suggested from the research and from available knowledge regarding the design and implementation of effective education. Hopefully, enough synthesis, knowledge, and resources will be provided to stimulate many primary audience readers toward further study, behavioral change in their practice, and creative thinking regarding how to work effectively with older persons.


Secondary audiences, such as adult educators, educational gerontologists, and a variety of researchers also should find the information helpful in providing a review, synthesis, and interpretational base related to the state of the art. Such an audience can further the knowledge base by challenging, substantiating, and improving on points made throughout the paper. The stimulation of some useful dialogue and some subsequent research will be a pleasant bonus.




The major problem facing many people who deal with older persons is how to promote the learning, coping, and adjusting necessary for or related to age-associated change. Yet, inadequate preparation for such promotion or teaching tasks, individual differences among older people in terms of learning needs or skills, and an abundance of stereotypes regarding older adult learning abilities serve as barriers to successful teaching interventions.


Fortunately, a great deal is known about educational needs, teaching strategies, and learning abilities. Thus, the first major section of this paper


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will describe various approaches, techniques, and suggestions related to teaching, learning, and the older person. The information will be presented first in a general narrative that describes, some of the problems and questions facing the teacher of older adults. This will be followed by a description of a teaching and learning process that has been synthesized from the literature. Included in table format are several suggested implications for both the design of the learning experience and for the teacher to consider in developing personal instructional modes. Several case studies and exemplary programs will be described to highlight some of the important points and application efforts.


The second major section will present a review of the literature undergirding the first section. The topics of focus include the older adult as learner, cognitive capacities of older adults, and non-cognitive factors associated with older adult learning. The review is provided as a stimulus for the further study of interested readers.


Two smaller sections conclude the paper. One describes some of the future research needed if a more complete understanding of how to teach older adults is to be accomplished. The second presents a summary, some conclusions, and some final thoughts. The appendix includes a description of several important resources for the interested reader.


A word needs to be said about the procedures used in developing information for this paper. Obviously, the ERIC collection of materials related to the topic served as an initial guide. In addition, the computer searching capabilities of the ERIC Clearinghouse provided an abundance of periodic literature citations which, in turn, spawned numerous supporting citations. In addition, the author had access to a number of additional sources that proved useful. Both the “References” and the “Selected Bibliography” sections of this paper should provide the reader with further study assistance.


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Finally, a brief mention needs to be made about who is the older adult that serves as a focal point for discussion. This is not intended as a definition of the term nor will the reader find a definition of terms in this paper. There are almost as many definitions of the terms found throughout this paper as there are authors writing about the terms. However, it is important to point out that the healthy older adult, the biggest percentage of all people over some magical age like 65, is primarily what the author has in mind when making suggestions about teaching. Frail adults, institutionalized adults, and handicapped adults obviously serve as research subjects in many instances but special care, expertise, or problems often confound any needed teaching and learning interaction. Thus, the assumption is made that older adults are capable of learning, are willing to learn under the right conditions, and will benefit from good teaching and learning situations.






Many practitioners who find themselves in a situation of wanting or needing to organize some sort of learning activity for older persons have had no formal preparation for teaching, especially teaching the adult as learner. Thus, directing a pre-retirement planning program, teaching nutrition information at a congregate meal site, or instructing a group of elderly on how to fill out some governmental forms often must be done by instinct, by trial and error, or by modeling from past experiences as a learner.


Another problem often centers around how best to organize and present necessary information to insure maximum learning. Questions about appropriate teaching techniques, how to structure the learning experience, concerns toward


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learner needs and learning inhibitors, and how to evaluate progress are some of those undergirding this problem.


A third major problem facing most people who attempt to conduct learning experiences centers around the role of the learner. Most authorities suggest that adult learners should take a large and active role in the entire teaching and learning process. This role, quite different from the role most learners assumed during their formal education as a youth, includes active participation in such activities as assessing needs, planning content, securing or serving as learning resources, and being involved in the implementation activities. The result of such active involvement is the development of personal ownership of and responsibility for the learning. Older adults appear to thrive on such involvement as well as younger adults (Hiemstra, 1975, 1976a, 1976c).


A related factor supporting this active involvement is the fact that most people have a tremendous ability in and desire for learning that is se1f-directed in nature (Hiemstra, 1975, Knowles, 1975, Tough, 1979). Knowles (1970), for example, describes several assumptions basic to what he calls the "andragogical" mode1, including the need for problem-centered learning, learning based on internal incentives, and learning that can be tied to one's own personal experiences. Kidd (1976) supports this notion as he talks about relevancy, relatedness, and responsibility in terms of individual or self needs. McClusky (1964), too, suggests that the adult student is autonomous and independent and that learning activity should facilitate active participation, be problem-centered in nature, and be highly meaningful.


Another question area facing many practitioners is just what should be the role of the teacher in the whole learning process? Historic expectations, often stemming from what such practitioners have seen mode1ed, in the main have focused on the belief that the dispensing of knowledge from an expert to a


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learner-receptor is the standard role. However, most authorities suggest that the successful teacher of adults utilizes facilitator techniques in managing the instructional process. facilitator concept. The next sub-section of this paper details this facilitator concept.


Thus, what is being advocated in this paper is that the person who wishes to be a successful instructor of older adults must become a specialist on the learning process and his or her own role in that process. Expertise on some content area often takes on secondary importance. Following are some of the specific duties related to this facilitating notion:


·        serving as one of several possible resources on a certain content area

·        locating appropriate resources or new information as warranted by student needs

·        arranging for and managing the successful employment of a variety of learning resources needed to accomplish certain goals

·        stimulating learners' interest in and motivation toward certain topics

·        helping learners develop positive attitudes toward learning and fostering independence

·        promoting discussion, questioning, and self-directed inquiry

·        serving as both evaluator for learner progress and stimulating learners’ self-evaluation


Success with such an approach will depend on the potential instructor's attitude and willingness to carry out some of the suggested duties. Assuming that the primary reader of this paper desires such success, a variety of ideas, techniques, and research findings will be presented that either relate directly to the facilitator notion or that help to explain some of the teaching and the adult as learner. Obviously, a great deal of literature exists related to However, the majority of information presented will learning requirements focus specifically on the older adult.


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It would be helpful to most readers of this paper if a tried and true theory of adult teaching and learning could be presented at this point. Unfortunately, such a theory is still being researched and developed. However, some important pieces of that theory are in existence and several important sources describing the current state of the art are described in Appendix A.


A person who has brought perhaps the most attention to the teaching of adults is Knowles (1970). His development of a beginning theoretical framework for the teaching and learning process, andragogy, has aided many researchers in focusing their study efforts. The planning and design elements central to his framework will serve as a foundation for the process to be described in this paper. In addition, the notion described earlier that adults of all ages have been found to prefer themselves as the primary planner or director of and resource for learning will be incorporated into the process (Hiemstra, 1975, 1976c, Tough, 1979).


Table 1 outlines the basic process elements suggested for human services practitioners in planning educational activities for older adults. The process rests on five basic assumptions about the human condition and is adapted from Knowles' (1970) work:


  1. Self-Concept. As a person matures, individual self-concept evolves from one of dependency toward that of independence and self-direction.
  2. Experience. A person accumulates a huge reservoir of knowledge and experience during the maturation process that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to Learn. During the aging process a person's readiness for learning becomes oriented increasingly to various developmental tasks and social role expectations.
  4. Time Perspective. In maturity a person is most motivated to learn when immediate application is needed or can be seen.
  5. Learning Needs. During aging a person's orientation toward learning appears to shift from subject-centered awareness to problem-centered and coping needs.


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Table 1. Planning Elements and Methodological Implications of A Suggested Teaching and Learning Process for Adults




A. Establishing a Learning Environment

1. Encourage informality and a spirit of mutuality

2. Create a non-threatening setting and work to reduce any initial anxiety that may exist

3. Arrange for comfortable seating, an attractive setting, and the maximization of adequate sight and sound qualities

4. Facilitate learners getting acquainted with each other through introductions, name tags, circle seating, etc.

B. Develop a Planning Mechanism

1. Use mutual planning techniques:

  • Form small planning and discussion groups
  • Encourage cooperative efforts in the planning process

2. Provide for adequate input by learners in the planning effort to promote feelings of personal ownership

C. Diagnose Learning Needs and Interests

1. Provide some initial focus and guidance in determining basic or potential learning parameters

2. Facilitate some initial self-diagnosis by learners through self-rating forms for personal interviews

3. Help to refine the majority needs through small group discussions, Delphi decision-making techniques, or facilitator-student dialogues

4. Establish a mechanism for continuous diagnosis or re-diagnosis

  • Develop periodic feedback devices
  • Encourage students to reexamine periodically their progress in relationship to need

D. Formulate Student and Group Objectives Based on Determined Needs

1. Provide a tentative outline of group objectives based on the needs assessed above and stated in measurable terms

  • Discuss the objectives in a large group setting or facilitate small group discussion of them
  • Revise the objectives as necessary

2. Facilitate the development of individual learner objectives in relation to the group objectives for maximum learner growth

  • Use a performance (learning) contract process (Knowles, 1975)
  • Obtain a personal commitment toward and ownership of the learning necessary to meet objectives

E. Design and Implement the Learning Experience

1. Promote the utilization of a wide variety of learning resources

  • Make available instructor-developed and instructor-located materials
  • Use outside content specialists to meet any unique needs
  • Encourage learners to locate and provide learning resources to their peers

2. Promote self-directed inquiry and the use of resources outside the traditional learning environment

3. Help learners design appropriate experiences according to need and ability

4. Encourage the utilization of a variety of self-directed learning activities

F. Evaluate the Learning Experience

1. Encourage individually determined evaluation techniques

  • Use peer group validation
  • Use evaluations by outside experts
  • Ask students to rediagnose their learning needs in terms of growth or change

2. If feasible, use mutually determined evaluations by student and instructor (through the learning contract)

3. Where feasible, do non-graded or anonymous testing procedures

4. Provide continuous feedback on learner progress

Adapted from Knowles (1970)


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Note, too, that the process assumes that most learning endeavors will involve people primarily in group settings. However, the self-directed learner can be helped to utilize portions of the process in planning and guiding his or her own learning. Furthermore, it is anticipated that the process or most portions of it can be adapted to almost any type of setting. The case study information presented later in this section will highlight some of the application possibilities.


The planning elements in Table 1 outline a logical flow of events in preparing for, planning, and carrying out a learning experience. The first four elements call for an active involvement of the learner in determining relevant needs and personal goals. In a two or three hour session as much as one hour might be invested in this preparatory stage; in a several session course or workshop the first one or two sessions might be utilized. However, the commitment toward and feeling of ownership for the subsequent learning builds a meaningfulness into subsequent activities that more than make up for any "lost" time. Note, however, that traditional, instructor roles of dispensing knowledge through lecture or some other means are greatly altered. Knowles (1970, 1975) and Meyer (1977) provide helpful discussion of related planning ideas, corresponding techniques, and underlying assumptions.




The teaching and learning process described above suggests that the successful instructor of older adults must be a facilitator and manager of


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the learning environment. Greatly altering the more traditional mode of dispensing information and sometimes evaluating the level of acquisition or comprehension through testing procedures has fairly wide-spread literature support.


Unfortunately, there is not uniform agreement in terms of what makes up instructional interactions. Several sources in the appendix provide considerable help. What is possible in a review of the literature is the derivation of several suggestions to guide the instructor in developing personal approaches or styles.


Table 2 provides a synthesis of the various sources providing suggestions. Those sources cited in general have been, themselves, synthesis efforts where authors utilize accumulated knowledge and research findings to derive recommendations for practice. The interested reader can refer to the review of literature section for more specific details.


The table is organized around seven broad categories related to elements of instructional awareness or organizational need. The summary suggestions are provided to guide the beginning or concerned instructor in examining beliefs about and approaches to working with older persons. It is assumed that a human services practitioner who desires to be an effective instructor of older adults can employ the planning process outlined in Table 1 and the application suggestions shown in Table 2 to develop a personal teaching process. Obviously, trial and error, practice, and allowances for individual preferences or unique teaching situations will be required. The case studies and examples that follow may provide additional guidance and clarification.


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Table 2. Suggestions From the Literature Toward Guiding the Older Adult Learner





Personal Approach of the Instructor

Gounard and Hulicka (1977); Hixon (1968); Jones (1980); Knox (1977); Mullan and Gorman (1972); Wass and West (1977)

1. Be positive, supportive, and helpful

2. Work to make the learner feel welcome

3. Maintain an environment of informality and levity

4. Help to promote learner confidence and self-respect

5. Treat the older learner with dignity

Sensitivity to Human Needs

Arenberg (1976, 1977); Gordon, R. D. (1974); Gounard and Hulicka (1977); Haase (1979); Jones (1980); Merriam (1977); State University (1973)

1. Pay attention to the physical environment

  • Reduce distractions
  • Insure comfortable seating, proper heating, and proper ventilation exists

2. Be sensitive to declining vision difficulties for some learners

  • Insure that lots of light is available
  • Use high contrast on visuals and handouts
  • Reduce glare or direct sunlight
  • Use large, bold print or type
  • Allow time for adjustment when going from light to dark or vice versa (showing a video, for example)

3. Be sensitive to declining hearing problems for some learners

  • Use extra voice or media amplification
  • Be prepared to help some learners move closer to sound sources

4. Be sensitive to the manner of the presentation

  • Read material aloud where possible
  • Use combined auditory and visual presentation modes

Relate to the Needs and Experiences of learners

Glynn and Muth (1979); Gordon, R. D. (1974); Gounard and Hulicka (1977); Lersten (1974); State University (1973)

1. Base the learning activities on the needs and interests of the learners

2. Help learners to relate new knowledge to past experiences

3. If text material is utilized, help learners tie the information to knowledge they already possess

4. Be flexible in terms of differing needs, interests, and abilities that may exist

Attention to the Pace of Learning

Fruend and Witte (1976); Gounard and Hulicka (1977); Jones (1980); Knox (1977); Lersten (1974); Mullan and Gorman (1972); Okun (1977); State University (1973)

1. Allow more time for all aspects of the educational activity

2. Keep sessions shorter, the subject matter discussion time shorter, and present small amounts of information at any one time

3. Keep the pressure of time at a minimum

4. Allow for longer periods of time between stimuli, for responding to questions, and for group discussions

5. Avoid sudden surprises or changes

6. Permit and promote self-pacing

7. Promote certainty, confidence, and success by moving from easy material to difficult (build on earlier successes)

Involve the Learner in the Learning Process

Gordon, R. D. (1974); Hiemstra (1975, 1976a); Knox (1977); Mullan and Gorman (1972); Tough (1979); Wass and West (1977)

1. Facilitate the learner’s active involvement in all aspects of the learning process

2. Facilitate self-directed learning

  • Encourage self-directed determination of learning goals, approaches, and resources
  • Reduce learner dependency on the instructor and increase self-responsibility
  • Enhance the development of a positive self-concept

3. Promote self-motivation and learning efficiency

4. Utilize discovery techniques

Organization and Meaningfulness of Learning Material

Craik (1977); Glynn and Muth (1979); Gordon, R. D. (1974); Hultsch (1975); Jones (1980); Knox (1977); Lersten (1974); Mullan and Gorman (1972); Norman (1973); Okun (1977); Okun, Glynn, and Elias (1977); Robertson-Tschabo, Hausman, and Arenberg (1976)

1. Be highly organized

  • Instructional objectives can help to focus and orient
  • Use pre-testing, outlines, study guides, and other forms of advanced organizing techniques

2. Help learners organize and reorganize their learning

  • Stress over learning, differences between concepts, tying concepts together, and relevancy of information as opposed to just memory work
  • Encourage learners and show them how to take notes or make outlines
  • Have organizing the material be part of the learning process
  • Encourage practicing techniques
  • Instruct learners on how to use specific encoding procedures

3. Utilize various cuing devices

  • Use headings, summaries, and review techniques
  • Encourage learners to develop various mediators or mnemonics (visual images, rhymes, acronyms, self-designed coding schemes, etc.)
  • Seek cues that are familiar or that can be tied to past knowledge

4. Utilize materials and information that will have real meaning to the learner

  • Use a highly stimulating approach that will appeal to several senses
  • Use concrete examples based on past experiences of the learners when possible

Evaluation Related to the Learning Effort

Gordon, R. D. (1974); Gounard and Hulicka (1977); Hixon (1968); Hulicka and Grossman (1967); Jones (1980); Mullan and Gorman (1972); Okun and Siegler (1977)

1. Use recognition techniques as opposed to more traditional recall methods

  • Multiple choice testing instead of essay
  • Minimize the chance of failure or the impact of making errors (test-retest, pass-retake; non-grading errors, etc.)

2. Provide regular feedback on progress

  • Utilize positive feedback techniques
  • Use review strategies
  • Use peer group feedback/evaluation techniques

3. Reduce or eliminate required homework and graded testing procedure


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How to Fail without Really Trying!


The following is an example of an actual situation described to me by the person in the case example after she had taken one of my graduate courses.


Alice Freeman, social worker for the Antello County Welfare Department, was asked to make a presentation on changes in the food stamp procedures to a group of congregate meal participants. She was a-little uncertain about the subject matter so she carefully outlined her talk.


She arrived early enough to set up a podium at the opposite end of the room away from the serving line. Precisely at 12:15 p.m. she began her talk. She finished reading her material and looked up to see a hand in the air from a person sitting at the table nearest her. She said she would answer questions individually after she moved to a table and sat down.


On the way home she mused to herself, "I thought that I would have more than two people come up with questions."


A Class on Recreational Leadership


A few years ago the author was asked to teach a group of senior center volunteers how to organize recreational and physical fitness activities for center participants. All volunteers were themselves retired, mostly from white collar or homemaker roles, and in good health.


I pre-designed a variety of potential learning activities and put together a booklet of resource materials. I arrived at the designated classroom for the first session about an hour early. After discovering I had been assigned a large room where movies were shown and that had rows of chairs lined up, I preceded to commandeer the staff conference room. I quickly arranged tables in a square with chairs around the outside edge. Turning on all the lights, opening some curtains along a set of north windows, and bringing in the coffee pot from the other room completed my initial preparation.


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As the participants drifted in I introduced myself, got coffee for those who wanted it, and had each person pin on a name tag so I could begin memorizing names. After all had assembled I began an informal discussion of my background, why I had been asked to help, and some of the potential topics for study. Participants slowly began to join in the discussion and we spent about 30 minutes sharing perceptions of recreation needs they might want to respond to in the future.


I then asked them to work in three small groups of five each for the purpose of further discussing potential study areas, adding new ideas, and prioritizing what we should work on during our sessions together. I provided each group with sheets outlining several possible study areas and asked them to select a moderator or recorder for purposes of sharing their results with the other groups. I floated among the groups clarifying points and answering questions.


After about 45 minutes of discussion, each leader shared the group's resu1ts. I recorded them with a large, black magic marker on some white newsprint taped to the walls. We all discussed the three group reports, merged needs or topics of concern together where possible, agreed on an agenda of activity for the next five weeks, and committed ourselves to building a notebook of ideas, resources, and other notes of personal meaning as a supplement for the resources notebook I then provided.


I concluded the session by involving them all in learning some physical fitness and stretching activities that could be used with older persons and suggested some public library material available for them if they were interested. During that next week I organized the remaining five sessions, secured a film on recreation and leisure for a session, made arrangements for a 4-H folk dance team and a CPR (cardio-pu1monary resuscitation) team from a local hospital to put on demonstrations during two sessions (these last two needs had emerged as extra interests during the group discussions), and outlined these on


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a class planning sheet. I also boned up on several of the recreational activities I wanted to demonstrate during the remaining sessions.


The second and third sessions proceeded nicely with the two demonstrations being given, with my leading the participants in several activities, and with a positive group rapport being developed. The second session had started with a brief discussion of the plan for the remaining sessions, a general confirmation of the plan, and my promise that we would take stock of where we were and how we were doing periodically. Each three hour session was broken down into 50 minute units with breaks in between and a concluding fifteen minute discussion of topics covered and ideas for their resource notebook. I summarized main points by writing them on a chalkboard and then distributing a summary of what was covered at the beginning of the next session. By the third session participants began freely sharing with each other ideas, resources, and material. One person typed a summary of several books she had read during the two weeks and distributed it to the others. I attempted throughout not to go too fast, to make sure each activity was well understood, to speak clearly and loudly, and to tie all points or information on activities back to their own experiences and knowledge.


At the conclusion of the third session I also asked each participant to complete an open-ended assessment sheet which called for feelings about the progress of the training effort, suggestions for new topics to be covered, and any other concerns. In reading the forms I noted that five of the participants expressed in some way the concern of still not having the confidence to actually lead others in the various activities they were learning. Subsequently, I reorganized the fourth and fifth sessions to include a lot more of participants planning activities and leading others, to facilitate their getting up in front of the group, and to allow time for talking about factors associated with aging that may affect learning or involvement.


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At the beginning of the fourth session I shared my observations about this new need and obtained general agreement that we should spend more time on developing leadership skills and building general awareness of the aging process. We proceeded to do this and although a lot fewer activities were learned, each participant had a chance to lead an activity. During the fifth session a commitment was made by ten of the participants to organize and direct a recreational session at a senior center within the next week.


The sixth class period was devoted, to a discussion of the teaching experiences of the eight who had actually directed sessions, a sharing of the resource booklets developed by each participant, and a general answering of questions. A self-evaluation of progress and learnings was asked of each person through an open ended form; participants also completed a form that evaluated the instructor. A discussion of further needs and learning interests concluded the experience.


Serving as a Conference Resource Person


The author frequently is asked to serve as a resource person for a conference or workshop. Although not specifically related to the older learner, this next situation about an in-service training activity will illustrate some concepts related to the topic of this paper.


Last year I was asked to serve as resource leader for a session on program planning during an in-service training program at a community college. Initially, they had wanted me to run two back to back one hour sessions for rotating groups on the same subject. I negotiated a two hour session for a single group. I also asked for a room large enough to seat all participants in a circle (64 people showed up), a chalk board, a newsprint pad and stand, adequate sound amplification (I wore a lapel mike with a long enough cord that I could walk around the inside of the circle), and an overhead projector with screen.


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I developed a topical sheet outlining possible topics for discussion and study based on my perceptions of what the probable participants did and feedback from a phone conversation with a former student who now worked as a teacher in a community college. I also put together sets of transparencies on various topics related to program planning, developed a couple of summary handouts on several of what I felt were crucial areas, and put together an annotated bibliography on various books, journals, and other material on program planning.


As the session began the evening of the in-service program, I had participants in turn around the room introduce themselves and describe briefly their positions. I then described what I believed to be some skills crucial for effective program planning. I handed out the sheet of potential topics and asked them to quickly pull their chairs into new circles of about ten people each. They were asked to discuss the topics in light of their most important needs and to be prepared for sharing the group's three most important needs (this required negotiation and prioritizing) in a report back to the larger group.


During the group reports I summarized on newsprint the prioritized topics, merging or seeking clarity where appropriate, and, finally, obtaining consent to present information on six topics. Approximately 50 minutes were required for the above activities.


As participants took a ten minute coffee break I quickly pulled out of my box of resource materials the various sets of transparencies and notes relating to the prioritized topics. During the second hour I introduced concepts using the transparencies as stimulators and summarized: points made during the questioning and sharing I encouraged along the way. The third topic was one for which I was unprepared so I encouraged some sharing and contributions on the topic from the participants.


We only were able to get through four of the topics because of some excellent large group interactions, so during the last ten minutes I encouraged


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each person to seek information on their own, to continue their dialogue in small groups on the job, and to ask their supervisors to provide additional in-service training opportunities. I distributed the summary sheets, the annotated bibliography, and a single sheet containing a few open-ended evaluation questions. The majority filled out the evaluation forms and I engaged in dialogue with several who stayed awhile after the two-hour period ended. I later summarized the evaluation sheets and added some perceptions regarding future training needs in a report sent to the community college administrative staff.


Developing A Mediator/Acronym


One day some colleagues and I were discussing a way of remembering the names and order of five components in a model for learning they had been working on: differentiating, structuring, integrating, abstracting, and generalizing. I pushed the pencil around for awhile and came up with a sentence using the first letter from each word in order: Dear sir, I am good! It took, it works, and now my colleagues and I often refer to the dear-sir-I-am good model in our normal conversation.


Remembering Cues


A colleague works as a volunteer in a senior citizens center. She uses a neat trick for helping a person or a group of people remember some name that is on the tip of the tongue but not quite out yet. She has the person or the group go through the alphabet, letter by letter, and throw out a bunch of names beginning with each letter. Very frequently it results in the remembered name, usually to the delight and amazement of all.


Night and Day


During a research project on successful aging determinants, I interviewed several people in nursing homes. One person, in his nineties, was an early agricultural specialist in Iowa. He has always remained active, writes, carries


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out research, and is perceived by all who know him or work around him to be mentally active, alive, and vigorous. He permeates this aura while in a state of decreasing health, existing primarily in a small room, and with mobility painful and possible only through the use of a walker.


The same day I interviewed him I noticed a person slumping in an outer reception room chair. He was in a fairly disheveled state, clothing awry, drool dribbling from the edge of his mouth, and not noticing anything around him. I asked a nurse about his condition and she said he was having senility problems but enjoyed sitting in the lobby to watch the people go by. I approached him, got his attention, and eventually started a conversation. After some initial difficult starts I got him talking about himself. It turned out he was 76, his wife had been dead for five years, and his children were all living on the West Coast. He, too, had been an agricultural specialist in Iowa for the USDA until his retirement ten years prior. We talked about his experiences, his grandchildren, and his views on today's agriculture. During the hour long conversation he transformed before my eyes into the twin image of my other interviewee. He slowly straightened up in his chair, became animated, straightened up his clothing, ran his hand through his hair, and wiped the drool from his mouth. He smiled, he talked wisely, he wished for the future, and he became alive!


I had to leave then for another interview and wished him well. Two hours later I walked by again on my way home. An untouched tray of food lie on a table next to him, he was slumped down in his chair, glassy eyed, his clothing again crumpled, and saliva dripping from his lips. It was a long time before I could think about much of anything else.


Maudlin? Perhaps! But what is that almost mysterious quality called human potential? What is our role as educators in enhancing that potential? What should we be doing that we are not?


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A year ago the Iowa State University Alumni Foundation funded a project called Eldercollege. The goal of the project was to provide college-level education to older persons. Following is an outline of the sequential activities in that project. It is provided to give the reader a sense of how the staff attempted to employ what we could from the literature and theory on providing educational opportunities to older adults.


1. Proposal conceptualized - 3 months, May to July


  • Ideas discussed with colleagues
  • Literature reviewed
  • Trip to Kentucky and Washington, D.C. to review similar programs and to seek advice
  • Draft of proposal written
  • Draft discussed with chief administrators
  • Final draft completed


2. Proposal submitted to funding source - I month, August


  • Initial proposal was designed to be the development of a prototype program and the funding source was alerted in the initial stages of the development effort that the proposal would be coming
  • The planner, a potential staff member, and a chief administrator met with the funding source administrator to discuss the proposal
  • An initial favorable response facilitated the bureaucratic machinery to be initiated


3. Funding approval received - 1 month, September


  • Office established
  • Staff hired and oriented
  • Master Gantt chart (calendar of events) developed
  • Project started


4. Data collection phase - 3 months, October to December


  • Advisory council consisting of representatives of potential clientele was formed and met with twice
  • Master mailing list begun to be compiled from various sources
  • Additional literature reviewed (ERIC and various other sources)
  • Informational letters seeking advice written to similar projects around the country
  • Progress-assessment report written
  • Instrument development initiated
  • Advisory council and panel of experts judge instrument for content validity
  • Instrument pilot tested with ten people
  • Outside evaluator reviews pilot test data and meets with the staff
  • A second draft of the instrument is developed and reviewed by the staff
  • A final draft is developed
  • The instrument is mailed to a sample of 600 (the initial mailing, two follow-up mailings, and some phone calling resulted in a 65% return)

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5. Data analysis phase - 2 months, January to February


  • Twelve random telephone validations completed
  • Data coded
  • Data computer analyzed and compared with existing theory
  • Staff put the data through various decision making screens (institutional, philosophical, pre-retirement counseling office, and available resources)
  • Initial report of need developed
  • Staff, chief administrators, and outside evaluator react to report
  • Progress report provided to funding source
  • Final report developed


6. Program planning and prototype development - 1 month, March


  • Two highest ranked needs selected
  • Objectives for a program were developed (measurable)
  • Advisory council reacts
  • Initial program outlined (two courses)
  • Staff evaluates initial plans, checks Gantt chart, and makes appropriate modifications
  • Instructional staff identified (ten different instructors)
  • Training materials on how to teach older people were developed
  • Instructors were trained.
  • Support material needed for the courses were identified
  • Library and media resources were obtained
  • Parking permits for students arranged
  • Coffee and snacking arrangement made
  • Necessary fees for course established and payment arrangements made
  • Publicity outlined and developed including brochures for mailing, newspaper advertising, and literature for offices dealing with older people
  • Evaluation techniques and procedures developed including a progress assessment completed by the outside evaluator
  • Registration procedures developed
  • Accounting procedures developed
  • Room arrangements finalized


7. Assessment of commitment to proceed - 1 month, March


  • One course did not have enough students to warrant it beginning
  • Those students all agreed to enter the other course
  • The staff determined that time of day (any evening) just would not fill with elderly even though initial needs information showed that they would


8. Program (course) initiated - 2 months, April and May


  • Students enrolled
  • Course monitored


9. End of course evaluation - 1 month, May


  • Course content evaluation form developed
  • Instructor evaluation forms developed
  • Future needs and interests form developed
  • Outside evaluator consulted
  • Instruments administered


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10. End of course banquet held - May


  • Administrators, funding agency people, staff, and students (100 attended)
  • Deemed a huge success


11. Overall evaluation completed by staff and outside evaluation completed - June


12. Funding for enlargement and continuation being sought


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As was stated earlier, literature that in some way focuses on the older adult as learner is abundant, diverse, and ever-changing in nature. Attempting to keep up with it is an almost impossible task because of all the specialty or content areas involved. The earlier section was an effort to synthesize from this literature that information basic to an instructional foundation.


This section provides a more comprehensive and specific discussion of the state of the art. It is included to give the interested reader guidance in follow-up and knowledge expansion efforts.


There are three major sub-sections in the review. The first reviews some of the literature regarding the nature of the older adult as learner. The second includes a discussion of research about the cognitive capacities of older adults. The final part contains information about non-cognitive factors which impinge on intellectual and learning abilities. Each sub-section contains various categories to capture some of the specific nature of the research. Some of the interrelationships among the various areas are contained in a later summary.




Older Adults Can Learn!


The history of knowledge about adult learning capacity reads like the pioneering efforts that have been basic to the Western world for centuries: the frontiers keep getting pushed further and further out all the time. Thorndike's pioneering efforts in 1928 resulted in a frontier that pointed with optimism to only a gradual decline in learning ability until the age 45 at which time sharp decline could be expected. More comfort was found in Jones and Conrad's (1933) famous Army Alpha Test research. They showed that the gradual decline continued until age 60. Finally, in the 1950's some longitudinal


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research reports began to show adult ability in a much improved light. Terman and Oden (1959), for example, were able to demonstrate actual gains with age on some cognitive measures.


It was about at this time, the early 60's, when the explosion in interest toward and research about the older adult began. Most of the earlier research and some of this research in the 60's was tied to stimulus-response notions regarding human behavior or what Hultsch (1977) calls the "associative" model. In this model learning and memory were believed tied to responses to learning stimuli and differences in age group were associated with various types of interferences.


The next evolutionary change began to emerge in the early to mid 60's where notions about the human organism were inserted into the older S-R model. McClusky (1971) describes this S-O-R formula as the key that unlocked the door to communicating and interacting with learners during teaching efforts. Hultsch (1977) refers to this as the information processing model. Thus, based on notions about learning as the intake of information through our senses, the sorting and processing of that information in short term memory, and the transfer and storage of relevant items into long term memory (Craik, 1977), very positive support for lifelong learning potential began to emerge. Individual differences began to be accounted for, many explanations for intellectual declines were found to be tied to both cognitive and non-cognitive factors, and compensatory, corrective, or adult-specific teaching techniques were developed.


Currently, there appears to be evolving a next stage in the understanding of adult learning throughout the life span. Labouvie-Vief (1977) suggests that much of our past research had built in biases because many study subjects were born in historical eras that did not include rapid change. Certainly the current wide-spread interest in lifelong learning (Gross, 1977; Hiemstra, 1976a;


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Peterson and Associates, 1979) is tied to some fast moving changes and the emerging human needs tied to change-related factors. The importance of developmental stages (Havighurst, 1976), interest in life-span education (Birren & Woodruff, 1973; March, Hooper, & Baum, 1977; Schaie, 1977-78), and research on cognitive development (Bolton, 1978; Wilson, 1980) or cognitive style differences (Cross, 1975; Witkin et al., 1962, 1977), are all related events. Arenberg (1976), in fact, urges his colleagues to be more realistic in both recognizing and dealing with existing learning declines.


It may be this newest stage and the paying attention to ways of optimizing cognitive development that will offer the teacher of older adults the most future help. Hultsch (1977) has offered a name for this stage, contextual, and suggests that the total context (social, psychological, etc.) of the learning event, i.e., what the individual experiences, is what is important. Thus, learning becomes a by-product of the transaction between each individual and his or her restructuring of personal knowledge in light of new learnings. Hopefully, the lack of focused and sustained research (Boshier & Pickard, 1979) necessary to build a teaching technology is being replaced by research focusing on learning processes and a foundational knowledge of the human condition (Wilson et al., 1980).


Learning Activity and Ability


Even given the situation of a continuously evolving knowledge base regarding how to effectively teach older persons, increased participation in learning is taking place (Peterson, 1976). Hiemstra (1975, 1976c) discovered that older adults spend some 300 or more hours each year in learning endeavors. Birren and Woodruff (1973) and McMahon (1979) suggest that the rapidity of social change, changing career patterns, and changing attitudes toward education are some of the reasons for this high participation in learning. Amount of


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education (Hiemstra, 1975, 1976c; Holcomb, 1979), amount of social activity (Jackson, 1974), and occupational status (Jarvik, 1975) also appear to associate with participation.


However, perhaps of most importance to the person wishing to be a successful teacher is the fact that even given increasing participation rates and the knowledge of apparent causal relationships, individual differences among older adults exist (Jones, 1979; McClusky, 1973). In other words the elderly cannot be treated as a single group but should be seen as heterogeneous, multidimensional in characteristics, and quite varied in terms of needs and abilities (Baltes & Barton, 1977; Bengston et al., 1977; Butler, 1975; Hasse et al., 1979). Elderly often appear as victims of stereotyping regarding ability (Kasworm, 1978), but some 70 year olds will do as well or better than many younger people (Arenberg and Robertson-Tchabo, 1977). Therefore, the teacher must become familiar with learning needs, be alert for debilitating obstacles, and utilize appropriate instructional techniques.


Learning Needs and Obstacles


A knowledge of needs is crucial to the successful facilitation of adult learning. Ecklund (1969), Hiemstra (1972), Knowles (1970), Londoner (1971, 1978), McClusky (1974), Marcus (1972), and Peterson (1975, 1976) all stress the importance of understanding the needs and interests of older persons. Goodrow, (1974, 1975), Havighurst (1976), Hiemstra (1975, 1976b, 1977-78) and Marcus (1976, 1978) also have suggested a classification scheme (instrumental vs. expressive) related to educational needs and utility expectations. Hiemstra and Long (1974) and Londoner (1978) also describe the complexities involved in how needs are assessed and in using expert advice regarding needs.


It also is important to understand some of the potential obstacles facing older adult learners. Although there may be problems specific to a location,


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economic group, or clientele group, the literature suggests common obstacles. Lack of transportation, dislike of evening programs, lack of time or energy, costs, personal responsibilities, failing health, lack of confidence, personal feeling of being too old, and lack of knowledge about educational possibilities are frequently cited as some of the most plaguing barriers (Cross, Valley, & Associates, 1975; DeCrow, n.d.; Graney & Hays, 1976; Hiemstra, 1972, 1975; Lersten, 1974; State University, 1973).


Teacher As Facilitator


There has been fairly consistent support in the past two decades of the notion that a process of facilitating learning is required for success with the adult learner. Knowles' (1970) introduction of the notion of andragogy and the corresponding teaching and learning process provided a comprehensive explanation of the facilitator role. Lebel (1978) and Meyer (1977) have discussed the concept of andragogy in terms of the older adult.


There are certain crucial elements of the facilitator notion. One of these is the active involvement of the learner in the entire educational activity. This includes assessing needs, setting objectives, identifying resources, participating in the learning activities, and helping to evaluate the experience. Alpaugh, Renner, and Birren (1976) suggest that teachers help learners form their own learning strategies. Mullan and Gorman (1972) encourages the use of peer group both for learning activities and for providing feedback on progress to each other. Knox (1977) encourages the establishment of a climate which permits the learner freedom for individual exploration. Several authors emphasize the need for good interaction and communication between teacher and learner as an important part of the process (Gordon, R. D., 1974); Kasworm, 1978; Norman, 1973; and State University, 1973). This requires the teacher to understand the aging process (Alpaugh, Renner, & Birren, 1976;


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Kasworm, 1978), the nature of learning (Gordon, R. D., 1974). and his or her own attitudes toward teaching (Dullaert, 1977). Another aspect of the facilitator notion that is gaining increasing usage in terms of helping learners guide their own learning is the learning contract (Knowles, 1975; Cross, 1977). Research on the effectiveness of learning contracts with older adults is still necessary but the prospective teacher may wish to explore their utility. A final facilitator element important to the success of teaching and learning is the evaluation of learner progress. Several researchers caution against the use of traditional testing procedures (Bolton, 1978; Eysenck, 1975; Witte & Freund, 1976). Recognition rather than recall techniques, frequent feedback on learner progress, and self or peer evaluation are alternative suggestions (Arenberg & Robertson, n.d.; Eysenck, 1975; Knowles, 1970; Mullan & Gorman, 1972; Witte & Freund, 1976).


Self-Directed Learning


Perhaps one of the most exciting breakthroughs related to adult learning has been the discovery that adults prefer themselves as the primary planner and director of their own learning (Hiemstra, 1976a; Penland, 1979; Tough, 1978, 1979). The selection of “self” as primary planner also held true in some research on the older adult learner (Hiemstra, 1975, 1976c).


Although a great deal more needs to be known about the implications of such research for facilitators of older adult learning, several authors offer some potentially useful advice. Gordon (R. D., 1974), for example, suggests that efficiency and creative self-direction can be taught. Bolton (1978) indicates that "discovery" teaching methods can overcome various barriers. Knowles (State University, 1973) urges educators to help people learn self-directed skills.


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Jones (1980) says that facilitators should base learning on self-derived interests as opposed to teacher-generated assignments. A variety of non-traditional, self-directed learning modes and techniques with older adults are no doubt possible; they await our discovery and assessment.


Teaching Techniques and Strategies


A variety of books, articles, and other material are available that describe what research says about the type of technique to use and when. Knox (1978), for example, describes and provides literature citations to support such topics as selecting appropriate learning activities, selecting resources, and picking techniques for the particular setting in which the learning will take place. Knowles (1970) suggest a variety of methods and procedures that can be used with adults. Dickinson (1973) describes how to relate goals and objectives to teaching techniques.


Unfortunately, not a great deal of research on selecting techniques and strategies specific to the older adult has been carried out. White and Hansen (1976) suggest that 5-20 people is the optimal small group size with 7-10 the best number for good interaction and communication. They also suggest that students face one another and the use of discussion groups for optimal interaction. Some experts urge the use of combined auditory and visual techniques (Arenberg, 1968, 1977; Gounard & Hulicka, 1977). Hulicka and Grossman (1967) suggest using review strategies as a regular part of a learning activity. Norman (1973) urges that older learners be involved in organizing the! content or material during the learning process. Techniques that


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employ concrete stimuli (Witte and Freund, 1976), but that reduce stimulus discriminability, and that avoid competition or too much complexity (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977) are also recommended.


Obviously, future research in this area is a real necessity, especially if some of the relationships of proper choice of techniques to enhancing cognitive growth and stimulation are to be found.




Models, Stages, and Theories


A variety of literature exists that relates in some manner to stages or theories about how adult learning takes place. It often is difficult to determine exactly how the older adult fits into these discussions or how each author is referring to the learning process in relationship to other authors who may also be describing learning activity or memory. As a matter of fact, there appears to be considerable disagreement in terms of capabilities, limitations, or the exact nature of learning.


Gordon (R. D., 1974) traces the nature and purpose of a theory in an attempt to build a foundation for understanding various theoretical descriptions. She then describes several classic approaches, stages, and theories. Craik (1977) describes a classic processing model of sensory intake to short term stages to long term memory. As described earlier in this paper, much of the current thinking revolves around the interaction of each individual with new information in light of past knowledge (Hultsch, 1977; Schaie, 1977-78; Wilson et a1., 1980). Developmental stages (Havighurst, 1976), adaptive strategies (Olbrick & Thomae, 1978), and distinct dimensions of intelligence (Baltes & Schaie, 1974) are additional means found in the literature for describing cognitive capacity.


There also have been some earlier beliefs or theories about older adults as


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learners that have been proven wrong or that have evolved in nature through additional knowledge and longitudinal research. Disengagement theory or the increasing separation from activity with age was a popular notion during the 50's and 60's (Cumming & Henry, 1961; Cumming, 1963). As Moody (1976) suggests, that approach characterized the social services era of "fixing" problems largely through the intervention of public policy and transfer payments. A better understanding of older adults has led to a fairly wide-spread dismissal of the disengaging notion and replaced it with notions about compensating, adapting, and activity abilities (Gordon, R. D., 1974; Labouvie-Vief, 1977; Olbrick & Thomae, 1978; Palmore, 1970).


Another popular theory for explaining intellectual detriments in later years is that of fluid versus crystallized intelligence (Baltes & Schaie, 1974; Cattell, 1965; Horn & Cattell, 1966, 1967; Horn & Donaldson, 1976). Fluid intelligence is believed tied to normal neurological, maturation and biological breakdown while crystallized intelligence is believed to represent more stability or compensating ability through life experiences and knowledge accumulation. However, the jury is still out on this dichotomous means for depicting intellectual change. As Labouvie-Vief (1976, 1977) points out, recent research, competing theories, and measuring refinements only tend to point out the need for better theories and understanding of cognitive capacity throughout the life span.


Memory and Intellect


Many studies regarding the intelligence of the older person report a slow decline in intelligence with age (Jones, 1979). The WAIS test (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) has been used by a1ot of these researchers. The test does utilize verbal response answers based on accumulated knowledge and vocabulary, but the older person is probably penalized because of built in time constraints (Levine, 1971).


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Thus, once the speed factor is removed, many researchers believe that intelligence change is not age related (Bolton, 1978). Some studies have shown, as a matter of fact, little loss and some actual gain in related tests of vocabulary, general information, verbal reasoning, experience, and judgment with age (Jones, 1979). Highly mentally active adults tend to stay that way throughout their life (Botwinick, 1977) given good health and, as McClusky (1973) reminds us, individual differences exist among people regardless of age. Thus, later life intelligence is better characterized by plasticity or flexibility rather than by universal decline (Labouvie-Vief, 1976).


In terms of memory ability, the jury is still out. Botwinick (1967) and Catino et al. (1977) found some short term memory loss with age but Raymond (1971) even found no deterioration in recall efforts from short term storage. Aiken (1978), Birren (1968), and Schaie and Strother (1968) have suggested that taking everything into consideration, there appears to be memory associated intellectual deficits. However, Arenberg (1976) and Arenberg and Robertson (n.d.) believe there are problems and declines and that we must deal with them.


Many researchers suggest that the issue is not really memory problems but other factors. Norman (1973) suggests that older learners simply don't understand certain concepts or cues for a number of reasons. Haase (1979) says rusty thinking might be the reason for apparent intelligence or memory difficulties, an unwieldy amount of information to be processed may be a culprit (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977), and discriminating, coding discrete information, or note-taking abilities may be weaker (Botwinick, 1978; Craik & Masini, 1975; Kaus1er & Kleim, 1978; Schoenfie1d et al., 1972).


Birren (1969) provides an optimistic note upon which to conclude: The elderly become aware of inherent limitations during the aging process and attempt to compensate in various ways. Hopefully, the current research thrust


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to understand thinking and intellectual change in light of the context of life itself (Hultsch, 1977) will help to provide new information.


Organizational Abilities


The literature is quite conclusive that older people have more difficulties than younger people in maintaining organizational effectiveness in terms of learning (Aiello & Rogers, 1976; Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977; Okun, 1977; Taub, 1977; Woodruff & Walsh, 1975). A hesitancy to organize by learners (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977), the specificity or ordering required (Taub, 1977), and the amount of pressure put on by teachers (Woodruff & Walsh, 1975) are some of the related issues.


Generally, then, many experts recommend that a variety of advanced organizing techniques are essential for efficient learning. Reviewing or visual analogies (Jones, 1980; Robertson-Tchabo et al., 1976), instructor assistance in helping learners to integrate new information with old knowledge (Groteleuschen, 1972; Norman, 1973), and encouraging practice techniques (Calhoun & Gounard, 1979; Keitz & Gounard, 1976) are also important organizing means. A plethora of advanced organizers and cuing devices are suggested: They include the use of outlines, abstracts, and summaries (Ausubel, 1963), pre-questioning techniques (Knox, 1977), instructional objectives (Okun et al., 1977), and pictures or other visual (Keitz & Gounard, 1976).


Associational Abilities


Closely related to organizational deficiencies are the wide-spread findings that older people have difficulties in generating mediators or associational relationships between inputs and outputs (Hulicka & Grossman, 1967; Robertson­-Tchabo et al., 1976). Catino et al. (1977) found that the older person often requires more time to form such mediators and may not want to use symbolic or


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novel forms of mediation. Gordon (S. K., 1975) did find that verbal mediators seemed to be used the most.


Several researchers recommend using verbal, visual, or image-related mediators (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977; Canestrari, 1968; Robertson-Tchabo et al., 1976; Treat & Reese, 1976). The instructor of older adults can assist by constructing acronyms, rhymes, mental images, lists, tables, and pictures.


Speed and Pacing


The instructor's role also is important in terms of the speed of presenting information or expectations toward speed of response (Freund & Witte, 1976). Most authorities suggest that there is a natural slowing that occurs with age but the relationship to cognitive capacity is not completely understood (Gounard & Hulicka, 1977). Slowing is most likely associated with several factors which relate in some way to learning (Lersten, 1974), such as perceptual deficits (Rabbitt, 1965, 1968), response time (Monge & Hultsch, 1971), processing time (Simon & Pouraghabagher, 1978), and remembering time (Fozard & Popkin, 1978).


However, several steps can be taken by the teacher of older adults in relation to speed problems. For example, the time allowed for tests (Keitz & Gounard, 1976; Hulicka & Wheeler, 1976) or for responses to queries (Birren, 1968, 1970) can be made flexible. Facilitating self-paced learning wherever possible also is important (Calhoun & Gounard, 1979). Finally, speed can be controlled in most instances involving older adults as learners by using appropriate pacing procedures (Arenberg and Robertson-Tchabo, 1977; Labouvie-Vief, 1976).




There is some difficulty when reading the literature in distinguishing between cognitive and non-cognitive factors associated with adult learning.


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Overlaps exist naturally between the. two areas and some authors appear to refer to only one of the areas but actually talk about both. Okun does an admirable job in the Charles (1980) source described in Appendix A of building adequate categories for outlining non-cognitive factors.


In this section a brief review of two broad areas is provided to acquaint the reader with much of the related terminology in the literature. The first area, motivational-related problems, includes discussions of personal interference features, aspects of meaningfulness, and hesitancy problems. The second area, environmental factors, includes discussion about health problems, instruction-related features, and educational background.




There are a variety of factors which interfere with the ability of older learners to undertake effective learning. For example, Schaie and Strother (1968) suggest that any number of distractions in a person's life or in the learning situation can cause debilitating anxiety. Several authors have found that a lack of self-confidence is a real problem (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977; Carpenter, 1967; Kuhlen, 1970). In many instances, women have been found to be more anxious or to have lower self-concepts than men (State University, 1973). Researchers also have found that a propensity not to answer test questions (omission errors) among elderly is an interference or negative motivator (Baltes & Labouvie, 1973).


Problems still exist, however, in interpreting or making practical use of these findings. Goulet (1970), for example, suggests that we don't really know how interference is manifested. Research also is being carried out to better understand what test anxiety really means. Bolton (1978) perhaps gives the most useful advice. She urges that teachers of older adults do everything they can to reduce environmental distractions, personal fears, and anxiety producing


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requirements in the learning setting.




There has been earlier discussion in this paper regarding the importance of ensuring that learning has meaning to older people. Hu1tsch (1971) found that meaningfulness helped in remembering and recalling activities. Alpaugh et a1. (1976) found a preference for clarity among older subjects. Speed of recognition is also tied to this concept (Eysenck, 1975). Grote1ueschen (1972) suggests that meaningful items help in the anchoring of new information to existing ideas and Calhoun and Gounard (1979) report that meaningfulness promotes increased overall learning. Taub (1977) indicates that apparently meaningful word possibilities facilitate the improvement of memory storage.


Interpreting from some related research by Witte and Freund (1976) and discussions by Winn et a1. (1976), a suggestion can be made to the teacher of older adults to use concrete learning stimuli and techniques which facilitate matching or associating related ideas or concepts. However, it should be pointed out that not all authors support these concerns with meaningful stimu1i. Eisdorfer et a1. (1970) and Winn et a1. (1976) found that meaningfulness was not an important component of age differences in learning. Obviously, additiona1 research is required to understand more fully this area of inquiry.




Hesitancy, cautiousness, and reluctance to risk making errors are discussed by a variety of authors. Okun (1977) and Okun and DiVesta (1976) suggest that cautiousness tendencies in older learners are direct motivation inhibitors. Risk taking and a concern for accuracy are also thought to be learning ob stac1es (Botwinick, 1973; Canestrari, 1963, 1968). Such situations, a learner's attitudes, and self-concept perceptions may have as much affect as age on learning abilities (Jones, 1979).


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Obviously, the teacher of older adults needs to utilize those methods or approaches that minimize the possibility of making errors or entering perceived high risk situations (Okun & Siegler, 1977). However, Palmore (1970) suggests that the normal aging person tends to find ways of compensating for losses in one area by increases in other areas. Those guiding the learning of older adults need to find ways of facilitating such compensating abilities.




A variety of health-related factors and a person's overall health status affect learning ability and activity. Fatigue, for example, can be a problem (Gounard & Hu1icka, 1977). Perceptions by older persons of dec1ining energy or health as a barrier have been reported (Hiemstra, 1972, 1975). Agruso (1978), Knox (1977, 1978), and Verner and Davison (1971) are among those who describe the effects of declining vision and hearing capabilities on learning. Wilkie and Eisdorfer (1971) mention hypertension as a possible inhibitor.


It is important, therefore, that teachers understand the relationship of good health to the learning endeavors of older persons (Hu1icka, 1967; McC1usky, 1973). McClusky (1973) even theorizes that people have certain reserves or margins of power available to overcome loads they encounter; however, the skillful teacher needs to be sensitive to when such loads become critical or too great. Birren (1969) suggests that the elderly often recognize their needs to conserve energy and maintain supportive levels of health, but Bolton (1978) points out the need for more and the problems with existing research about health.


Instructional Procedures


A variety of instructional procedures are available in working with the older adult as learner. However, limitations to be aware of can be derived from various research findings. For example, complicated experimental instructions have resulted in task misconceptions (Arenberg and Robertson-Tchabo,


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1977). Perhaps complicated assignments or task instructions from the teacher will create the same problem in the classroom. The ways in which information is presented also appears to impact on cognitive performance (Arenberg, 1976).


Earlier discussions were presented regarding speed as a factor in learning. If a teacher allows for adequate response time, for example, research suggests that the elderly will perform about as well as younger people (Eisdorfer, 1965). The reverse of inadequate time affecting older adult learning can be inferred from such findings. Thus, current and potential teachers of older persons should examine how they pace the learning activities, how they design learning materials, and how they obtain feedback on their own effect in the classroom.


Educational Background of Learners


The old adage that education begets education has relevance for teachers of older persons. Educational background may be as important as age with regard to cognitive performance (Arenberg & Robertson-Tchabo, 1977). In regard to actual learning activity, Hiemstra (1975, 1976c) found a trend of higher educational levels associating with higher educational activity in older per­sons. Jarvik (1975) found that an education-related factor, social activity, also related to intellectual achievement.


The fact that educational backgrounds are so varied in today's elderly creates some complexities for educators. An environment permitting flexibility usually will be required. In addition, future older adult learners are likely to have increasingly higher levels of educational background. Thus, practitioners working with seniors in a teaching capacity will need to stay abreast of future research on the effects of education and all of the other factors described in this paper if they are to maximize their effectiveness.


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It should be obvious that there exists a great deal of research interest in the older person. Of less interest is the study of older adults in terms of learning activity, needs, and potential but such study appears to be on the increase. This section will discuss some of the problems associated with research on older adult learning and suggest various future research needs.




One of the biggest problems is that much of the research on older adults' learning capacity has been cross-sectional in nature. Thus, we have a fair understanding of generational and demographic differences but no real comprehension of change over time. Those few longitudinal studies analyzed to date often have demonstrated a dimension of knowledge about learning activity and ability quite different from cross-sectional findings. Therefore, it seems imperative that considerable resources be invested into long term efforts.


A related situation is the fact that much of what we do know even from cross-sectional research comes from the study of just the "old" old, such at the retired, those involved with senior programs, and the institutionalized. Thus, middle-aged and younger adults as learners need to be studied in light of current ability, preparation for later life learning, and changing need patterns.


Another problem has been the frequently unknown effect of researchers, themselves, on study results. The types of testing procedures, the very definition of the problem in relation to existing theory, and the halo effect experienced by subjects in being a part of a research effort all have potential bearing on results. Certainly there is a need for strategies and methodologies specifically designed for research on the older person. Perhaps the most positive sign of our growth in understanding how to be successful in guiding the older adult learner is the merging between adult


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education and gerontology that has taken place primarily in the last decade. Researchers trained in both areas are now engaged in study, many practitioners are receiving training based on much of the research reviewed in this paper, and educational gerontology as a field of study is gaining popularity.




A variety of suggestions can be gleaned from the literature reviewed in this paper for those interested in research. Several are provided here as stimulators for such people with the added hope that many more suggestions will be generated by readers.


    1. There is a need for the development of teaching techniques specific to older adults. Research on such topics as effectiveness, timing, pacing, and sequencing will help in such development.
    2. A related need is to understand how to teach the teachers to become adept at utilizing various techniques. Especially important is the need to understand how human service practitioners who receive much of their training through in-service activities can be helped to be more effective.
    3. Current research about learning mode preferences suggests that many older people select themselves as the primary planner and director for the majority of their learning. Thus, we need to know more about factors of success associated with self-directed learning, how resources are acquired or developed, and how self-directed learning can be facilitated by institutionally-sponsored people.
    4. Although considerable is already known about the learning needs and interests of older persons, more research is required to stay abreast of changing needs, to better understand such dichotomous categories as instrumental versus expressive, and to determine how program planning can be tied to needs assessment efforts.


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    1. The literature revealed that a great deal is already known about the learning capacity and problems of older people. However, there also exists conflicting findings and many suggestions regarding what still needs to be known. Therefore, additional research on memory, learning detriments, non-cognitive factors associated with learning, and many related topics still is required.
    2. The contextual model described earlier appears to be an evolving area of understanding regarding how adults learn. Thus, an exciting area of future study will be to determine how the older person interacts with and integrates new knowledge in light of current knowledge.


Although these few suggestions are quite broad in nature, they provide some awareness of what lies ahead as we strive to better understand how to guide the older adult learner. Even if the reader does not personally engage in some of the required research, it is the hope of the author that she or he will be stimulated to stay abreast of such research, to think critically about the reported findings, and to challenge those doing research to produce knowledge both practical and sound.




This has been an attempt to synthesize from the abundance of re search related to older adults some guidance primarily for the practitioner who is in the position of teaching the elderly. A great deal is known to guide the potential instructor in planning, implementing, and assessing learning activities. The biggest problem may be in learning how to integrate all the available knowledge into a personal teaching approach or style.


Certainly there are a great deal of limitations facing the older adult learner about which the teacher should be aware. Sensory declines, the slowing of certain cognitive processes, declining health, changing motivational


Page 46


states, societal stereotypes, and numerous social pressures are only some of those discussed in the literature.


  However, knowledge for the teacher on how to cope with such limitations is growing at a fairly rapid rate. In addition, the unparalleled capacity of the aging person to cope, to compensate, and to build on the philosophy and experience of a lifetime of living is a marvel to see. We are only beginning to obtain a glimpse of that potential but it is the author's expectation that there are unlimited dimensions to human capabilities.


  Page 47




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Riegel, K. F., Riegel, R. M., & Meyer, G. A. (1968). A study of the drop-out rates in longitudinal research on aging and the prediction of death. In B. L. Neugarten (Ed.), Middle age and aging: A reader in social psychology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Schonfield, D. & Wenger, L. (1975). Age limitation of perceptual span.. Nature, 253, 377-378.


Taub, H. A. & Kline, G. E. (1976). Modality effects and memory in the aged. Educational Gerontology, 1, 53-59.


Tesing, D. J., Newman, E. S., & Brockett, R. G. (1978). Basic adult services: A model curriculum. Albany: State University of New York at Albany, Adult Services, Continuing Education Project, School of Social Welfare, [ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 158 198].


Wasserman, I. M. (1976). The educational interests of the elderly: A case study. Educational Gerontology, 1, 323-330.


Welford, A. T. (1958). Aging and human skill. London: Oxford University Press.


Wilkie, F. L. & Eisdorfer, C. (1977). Sex, verbal ability, and pacing differences in serial learning Journal of Gerontology, 32, 63-67.


Woodruff, D. S. & Birren, J. E. (1972). Biofeedback conditioning of the EEG alpha rhythm in young and old subjects.  Proceedings of the 80th Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, 673-674.


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Books, Journal Articles, and other Published Materials


Several of the sources cited in the References and Selected Bibliography sections should be especially helpful to the reader in terms of their practical application features.




Agruso (1978)

Charles (1980)

Bolton (1978)

Gentile and McMillan (1979)

Gordon (R.D., 1974)

Grabowski and Mason (n.d.)

Gounard and Hulicka (1977)

Griffith and McClusky (1980)

Hixson (1968)

Knox (1979)

Hultsch (1977)

Long, Hiemstra, and Associates (1980)

Jones (1979)


Knox (1977)


McClusky (1973, 1974)


Merriam (1977)


Norman (1973)


Okun (1977)


Sheppard (1979)


Sherron and Lumsden (Londoner, 1978)


Symposium (1973)





[Note: Because of this resource’s original publication date, the following information most likely is out of date and should be checked thoroughly using Web and library resources.]


As can be seen from reading through the citations used in this paper, numerous journals include articles related in some way to the topic of education or learning and the older person. However, certain journals are more likely to contain articles of direct interest to the primary reader of this paper than others.


Adult Education. Published quarterly by the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.. A research-oriented journal that frequently contains reports of studies or theoretical pieces related to education of the elderly.

Adult Education

Studies in Adult Education

101 Gabel Hall

Northern Illinois University

De Kalb, Illinois 60115


Aging. Published bi-monthly by the federal Administration on Aging. This journal, the official publication of the U.S. Administration on Aging, reports on programs for, by, and with the elderly. It has occasional articles of interest to readers of this paper.


Superintendent of Documents Government Printing Office

Washington, D.C. 20402


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Educational Gerontology. An International Quarterly. Published quarterly by Hemisphere Publishing. A combination practitioner and research journal that includes a wide variety of information related to all aspects of working with the elderly.

Hemisphere Publishing Corporation

1025 Vermont Ave., N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20005

(This company also publishes Death Education.)


50 Plus. Published monthly by the Retirement Living Publishing Company. This periodical occasionally includes articles of interest to educators of older adults.

50 Plus

99 Garden St.

Marion, Ohio 43302


The Gerontologist. Published bi-monthly by the Gerontological Society. This journal is aimed at the professional practitioner in the field of gerontology and has a variety of articles of possible interest to readers of this paper.

The Gerontologist

Gerontological Society

One Dupont Circle

Washington, D.C. 20036


International Journal of Aging and Human Development. Published quarterly by the Baywood Publishing Company. Included are psychological and sociological studies of aging and the aged. Occasional articles relate to such topics as educational needs and educational programs of the elderly.

Baywood Publishing Company, Inc.

120 Marine St.

P .0. Box D ..

Farmingdale, New York 11735


Journal of Gerontology. Published bi-monthly by the Gerontological Society. This periodical includes a variety of articles written primarily for the professional researcher in gerontology.

Journal of Gerontology

Gerontological Society

One Dupont Circle

Washington, D.C. 20036


Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years. Published ten times per year by the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.. It is directed toward the professional adult education practitioner. There usually is at least one article per issue related in some way to working with the elderly.

Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years

Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.

810 Eighteenth St., N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20006


Modern Maturity. Published bi-monthly by the American Association of Retired People. This periodical occasionally contains articles related to the teaching of elderly or to the elderly as teachers.

Modern Maturity

American Association of Retired People

1909 K St., N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20049


Professional Associations


There are several professional associations available for those who in some capacity work with the older person.


Adult Education Association of the U.S.A. (AEA). This association sponsors an annual conference, publishes Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: The Adult Years, and makes available to members and others a wide variety of publications related to the adult education field. One of the central sub-groups within the association is the Commission on Education for Aging that puts on meetings and publishes a newsletter. The association also has a Washington, D. C. office and serves as a voice for the adult education field.

Adult Education Association of the U.S.A.

810 Eighteenth St., N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20006.


Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE). This association sponsors an annual meeting, publishes a newsletter and other materials, and serves as a voice for educational gerontology professionals in higher education through its Washington, D.C.  office.

Association for Gerontology in Higher Education

One Dupont Circle

Suite 520

Washington, D.C. 20036


Gerontological Society. This association publishes The Gerontologist and the Journal of Gerontology and a variety of other materials. It also sponsors an annual conference, has a Washington office, and serves as a voice for a wide variety of gerontology professionals.

Gerontological Society

One Dupont Circle

Suite 520 .

Washington, D.C. 20036


Other Associations. Many regional and state associations exist that are related either to gerontology or adult education. They often sponsor conferences, publish newsletters or other materials, and serve as local or regional voices for the field.


Political Groups

            There are a wide variety of political or other power groups that have been formed in the past decade or so for the purpose of providing assistance to the elderly or those working in the field of aging.


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Select Committee on Aging. This committee has a staff that publishes materials, carries out special studies, and generally represents the interests of the elderly in the House. They publish regular reports and newsletters that are distribute to those on their mailing list.

Select Committee on Aging

U.S. House of Representatives

Room 712

House Office Building Annex 1

300 New Jersey Ave., S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20515


Special Committee on Aging. This committee also has a staff and publishes materials, carries out special studies, and generally represents in the Senate the interests of the elderly. They publish, too, regular reports and newsletters and distribute them to those on their mailing list.

Special Committee on Aging

United States Senate

Room G-233 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20510


Other Political Groups. Most states have State Commissions on Aging and local or Area Agencies on Aging exist throughout the country to provide materials, to assist the practitioner, and to serve as a local or regional voice for the elderly


Professional Training Opportunities


One or more graduate or undergraduate training programs on either gerontology, educational gerontology, or adult education exist in about every state. Check your nearby university’s college catalogue, your State Department of Education, or your State Commission on Aging for more information. In addition, the federal Administration on Aging has helped to form training centers and educational consortia throughout the country. Check with them for a listing of where such centers exist. 



February, 2005


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