A Paper Presented at the Conference Entitled

"The Enduring Spirit: Woman as They Age"

held on April 1-3, 1993

University of Nebraska at Omaha

Omaha, Nebraska

Roger Hiemstra

Professor and Chair, Adult Education

Elmira College, Elmira, NY


The first part of this chapter's title, "Older Women's Ways of Learning," is an important topic and part of the growing interest in all aspects of women and the aging process that this book represents. However, I have added to that title what I believe is an important concept, "Tapping the Full Potential," with the intent of providing some ideas or models for practice that may be useful in the future development of related policy, programs, and research. Actually, many readers of this book will be aware of the growth in numbers of elderly participating in learning activities. Coinciding with this growth has been an increasing amount of research on older adults as learners. Just as an example, Adult Education Quarterly, Adult Learning, Educational Gerontology, the Gerontologist, the International Journal of Aging and Human Behavior, and the Journal of Gerontology are only some of the journals in the United States that regularly report on such research or related implications.

Some of this inquiry has focussed on psychological and physiological problems adults face as they age, how information is processed, short and long term memory, types of intelligence, and the implications for learning or providing educational programs. Other research areas have included cognitive styles, learning to learn, learning needs and activities of older people, and life satisfaction. For example, three of my students have completed dissertations related to the life satisfaction of older adult learners; they found the anticipated positive correlations between active learning and life satisfaction measures (Brockett, 1982; Estrin, 1985; Henry, 1989). Unfortunately, overall there has been little research concentrating just on older women as learners.

Thus, the purpose of this paper is to provide some background information on older adults as learners, briefly describe some research on older women as learners, and summarize some instructional implications. In addition, some policy and implementation strategies are included with the intent of stimulating some subsequent thought, dialogue, and scholarship.


An understanding that older adults can learn has been clearly established for some time. However, one thing quite clear is that individual differences among older learners exist. Older adults cannot be examined or thought of as a single group. They are heterogeneous, multi-dimensional in characteristics, and varied in terms of their needs and abilities. Several researchers and program planners have shown how successful older adults, male and female, can be in their educational pursuits. Fisher (1986), Galbraith and James (1984), and Peterson (1983) are only a few doing such work. In my own research (Brockett & Hiemstra, 1991; Hiemstra, 1975, 1976, 1977-78, 1985, 1987, 1992) I have found that most adults in the 65-75 year old range will spend 325 hours or more each year engaged in what a Canadian research, Allen Tough, calls learning projects (Tough, 1979). In a longitudinal study of Nebraska people than I conducted from 1975 to 1988, I determined that many adults kept very involved with learning activities into their 80's and 90's (Hiemstra, 1982). Programs like Elderhostel (Kinney, 1989; Knowlton, 1977), SeniorNet and other computer-related efforts (Fuchs, 1987-88; Hiemstra, 1987; Hoot & Hayslip, 1983; Why We Use Computers, 1990), the University of Kentucky's annual writing workshop for older people (James, 1991; Kidd, 1989), and various other educational endeavors (American Association of Retired Persons, 1990; Courtenay, 1989, 1990; Hiemstra, 1994; Institute of Lifetime Learning, 1989; Waskel, 1982) demonstrate the viability of older adults as learners.

My own research during the past decade or so has begun to focus on some practical implications related to this heavy involvement of adults in learning, including older women. For example, I have developed some procedures for helping practitioners teach older adults (Hiemstra, 1980). A colleague and I also have been working on some new approaches for teaching adults and have developed various corresponding instructional procedures that have potential (Hiemstra & Sisco, 1990). It has been our experience that what we call an individualizing instructional process works well with older adult learners, including older women.

There also are various obstacles faced by older adults you should consider in any future policy and program development efforts, regardless of the instructional process being used. Although some problems specific to locations or groups exist, typical obstacles include inadequate transportation, time limitations, cost barriers, low self-concept, negative stereotypes regarding the elderly and learning, and lack of awareness of various learning opportunities. Health-related problems and declines in overall health status also can impact on learning ability or activity, including such problems as fatigue, reduced mobility, and declines in hearing or visual acuity.

There are ways of accommodating such limitations. Following are two examples (Hiemstra, 1992):

Condition Change Pattern Instructional Requirement
Sclerosis or a yellowing of the lens Causes light to become somewhat scattered; slow decline after 50 Reduce any glare; don't use color coding; ensure proper illumination
Visual ability and distinctness; visual acuity Sharp decline usually starts in the 50s Be sensitive to various visual needs; help learners move closer

Such problems can create barriers to learning or instructional success. However, an instructor using the individualizing process I described above will employ various teaching approaches to accommodate losses, such as removing any competition or time barriers, limiting the possibility for learners to make errors, reducing high risk situations, or understanding how to create an optimal learning environment (Hiemstra, 1991). Appendix A summarizes what the research related to several broad instructional requirements or conditions has revealed.


I begin this section by saying that I consider myself a feminist and an enthusiastic supporter of feminist values, causes, and initiatives. My awareness of several limitations in my own teaching approaches and a beginning understanding of some implications for women as learners was heightened about five years ago when I began to read some of the literature related to "women's ways of knowing." As a consequence, I have begun to incorporate some information and approaches that relate to this literature into my own ways of working with adult learners.

I also have begun reanalyzing much of my research and the research of some of my former students to examine aspects of older women as learners that I had overlooked earlier. I have looked "across" several different studies using an intuitive comparative analysis to induce some new understanding.

Here are some of my preliminary findings, although I recognize that not all older women will fit the patterns noted (Appendix B presents some images of older women from several researchers):

1. Older women learners (55 and older) differ from older men as learners.

2. Older women (55 and older) appear different from younger women as learners.

3. Older women (55 and older) can do the following:


Another intent of this chapter is to think through the development of policy applicable for older women as learners, interested educators, and educational, community, or governmental agencies. This is a difficult and complicated activity. It requires accumulating considerable knowledge about learners. It also necessitates recognizing the complex nature of most human or societal problems. The application of personal and institutional philosophies to building policies also can be a crucial step. Finally, incorporating policy recommendations into practice activities requires much care, dedication, and patience. Appendix C summarizes some information about the development of policy statements.

I have developed a group of policy statements initially in concert with one group of adult education colleagues and later refined by my own efforts and with several other adult education colleagues' assistance. I define a policy as a recommended course of action for achieving some goal or meeting some need, such as creating new educational services for older learners. Further, I believe the purpose of a policy is to serve as a framework for decision- making rather than as a dogmatic rule or administrative directive. In the case of this conference, it is my hope that some of the policy suggestions I and others make may help set an agenda for the future in terms of assisting older women to tap their potential through learning. Here is an example with a suggestion on how it can be used to develop some learning or instructional strategies.

Policy Area Policy Recommendation Implementation Strategies
Older women as learners Encourage older women to examine personal strengths and weaknesses in light of their educative potential Assist older women to complete self-inventories or self-concept measures

Appendix D provides several similar policy and implementation ideas in the hope they will be useful as you take ideas from this conference and attempt to make use of them in your own community. In the brief time remaining and after this conference I look forward to engaging in some dialogue with any of you regarding some of the ideas I have shared today.


American Association of Retired Persons. (1990). Directory of centers for older learners (recently updated by AARP). Washington, DC: Institute of Lifetime Learning, American Association of Retired Persons.

Brockett, R. G. (1982). Self-directed learning readiness and life satisfaction among older adults. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY.

Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice. London, UK: Routledge.

Courtenay, B. C. (1989). Education for older adults. In S. B. Merriam & P. M. Cunningham (Eds.), Handbook of adult and continuing education (pp. 525-536). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Courtenay, B. (1990). Community education for older adults. In M. W. Galbraith (Ed.), Education through community organizations (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 47, pp. 37-44). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Estrin, H. R. (1985). Life satisfaction and participation in learning activities among widows. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY.

Fisher, J. C. (1986). Participation in educational activities by active older adults. Adult Education Quarterly, 36, 202- 210.

Fuchs, B. (1987-88). Teaching elders to be computer-friendly. Generations, 12(2), 57.

Galbraith, M. W., & James, W. B. (1984). Assessment of dominant perceptual learning styles of older adults. Educational Gerontology, 10, 449-458.

Henry, N. J. (1989). A qualitative study about perceptions of lifestyle and life satisfaction among older adults. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY.

Hiemstra, R. (1975). The older adult and learning. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 117 371).

Hiemstra, R. (1976). The older adult's learning projects. Educational Gerontology, 1, 331-341.

Hiemstra, R. (1977-78). Instrumental and expressive learning: Some comparisons. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 8, 161-168.

Hiemstra, R. (1980). Preparing human service practitioners to teach older adults (Information Series No. 209). Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, ERIC Clearinghouse for Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 193 529).

Hiemstra, R. (1982). The elderly learner: A naturalistic inquiry. Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Adult Education Research Conference (pp. 103-107). Adult and Continuing Education, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Hiemstra, R. (1985). The older adult's learning projects. In D. B. Lumsden (Ed.), The older adult as learner (pp. 165-196). Washington, DC: Hemisphere Publishing.

Hiemstra, R. (1987). Older people master personal computer use. Perspectives on Aging, 16(1), 19.

Hiemstra, R. (Ed.). (1991). Creating environments for effective adult learning (New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, Number 50). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Hiemstra, R. (1992). Aging and learning: An agenda for the future. In A. Tuijnman & M. van der Kamp (Eds.), Learning across the lifespan: Theories, research, policies (pp. 53-70). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Hiemstra, R. (1994). Lifelong education and personal growth (pp. 525-550). In A. Monk (Ed.), The Columbia retirement handbook. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B. (1990). Individualizing instruction: Making learning personal, empowering, and successful. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hoot, J. L., & Hayslip, B., Jr. (1983). Microcomputers and the elderly: New directions for self-sufficiency and life-long learning. Educational Gerontology, 9, 493-499.

Institute of Lifetime Learning. (ca. 1989). Learning opportunities for older persons (Pamphlet LL 0135 1187 D 171). Washington, DC: American Association of Retired Persons.

James, R. H. (Ed.). (1991). Second spring (Volume 22, Number 1). Lexington, KY: Donovan Scholars Program, University of Kentucky.

Kidd, R., Jr. (1989). Donovan program draws seniors from other states. Donovan Scholars 25th Anniversary. Lexington, KY: Donovan Scholars Program, University of Kentucky.

Kinney, M. B. (1989). Elderhostel: Can it work at your institution? Adult Learning, 1(3), 21-24.

Knowlton, M. P. (1977). Liberal arts: The elderhostel plan for survival. Educational Gerontology, 2, 87-94.

Peterson, D. A. (1983). Facilitating education for older learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tough, A. M. (1979). The adult's learning projects: A fresh approach to theory and practice in adult learning (2nd ed.). Austin, Texas: Learning Concepts.

Waskel, S. (1982). Scope of educational programs for older adults. In M. A. Okun (Ed.), Programs for older adults (New Directions for Continuing Education, Number 14, pp. 25-34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Why we use computers. (1990). Seniornet Newsline, Fall, 4.



Learners' Needs and Experiences

Involving Learners in Instruction

Personalizing the Instructor's Approach

The Learning Pace

Assessment and Evaluation

Learning Activity Organization and Meaningfulness

Recognize Barriers, Obstacles, and Physiological Needs


Adapted and updated from Hiemstra & Sisco (1990).



Author Year Guiding Framework Methods Sample Basic Findings
Brockett,  R.G. 1982 Is life satisfaction associated with self-directed learning  readiness Interviews and self-directed learning readiness and life satisfaction scales 15 males and 49 females; average age equals 78.44 Positive correlations for women between self-directed learning readiness and life satisfaction
Estrin, H.A. 1985 Is a widow's life satisfaction associated with learning involvement Interviews and life satisfaction scale 54 widows and 33 non-widows; average age equals 72.50 Widows showed a significant positive correlation between overall life satisfaction and learning involvement
Hiemstra, R. 1975 Can older people learn and will they have self-directed learning preferences Interviews with the learning project's protocol 105 males and 151 females; average age equals 68.11 Older women have more expressive needs and more self-directed preferences
Hiemstra, R. 1982 Why are some older people so heavily engaged in learning Extensive interviews in case study format 12 males and 18 females; average age equals 76.13 Older women more heavily involved in learning than men, have traveled more, and read more
Hiemstra, R. 1987 Can older people learn computer skills Descriptive case study 10 women 62 and older All successfully learned computer skills and subsequently taught them to elementary school children



Policies need to be written in clear, concise language, using as few words as possible. I suggest the following as criteria for examining any policy statements you write in terms of clarity and conciseness:

Comprehensiveness. What is the degree of comprehensiveness of the issue being addressed? Can each policy statement be reasonably linked to other factors or issues within and outside the educational domain?

Temporality. Will the problem or situation being addressed by a policy statement go away or become greater if not addressed? Does the situation possess long-term consequences?

Political Relevance. Is the issue being addressed of current political concern and, if so, to whom? Will a developed policy statement have political ramifications?

Comprehensibility. Can the existing situation or problem be made comprehensible and understandable to most educators? Will the derived policy statement be understandable and can it be implemented at various levels or within different educational organizations?

Priority. Are the particular issues under examination more important than other issues? How should issues be prioritized in terms of potential change and importance?

Available Resources. What resources and personnel needs will exist to implement a derived policy? What will be any long range requirements?



In developing the policy portrayed in Appendix D, I used a consequence analysis process to determine potential obstacles, enhancing situations, and implementation strategies in deriving the policies. In addition, a force field analysis was employed where obstacles and enhancers were compared to determine appropriate language for the policy and implementation statements.

POLICY NUMBER ONE. Older women should be acknowledged as having unlimited learning potential and given respect as self-directed learners.

Implementation Strategies

1. Use small group discussion or create learning networks, including electronic networks, for assisting older women to discover personal talents.

2. Provide opportunities for older women to discover their own individual strengths.

3. Make educational resources broadly available that teach about personal potential, learning skills, and using learning materials.

4. Assist teachers and trainers to understand their role in promoting individualized, self-directed learning.

POLICY NUMBER TWO. Older women should be encouraged to examine personal strengths and weaknesses.

Implementation Strategies

1. Assist older women to complete self inventories or self-concept measures.

2. Ensure that teachers and counselors have skill in discussing self inventory information with older women.

POLICY NUMBER THREE. Older women should be helped to develop or strengthen internal reinforcement mechanisms.

Implementation Strategies

1. Promote skill in using various reinforcement resources (meditation techniques, diary writing processes, and critical thinking techniques).

2. Train teachers to assist older women in strengthening personal growth skills.

3. Secure learning resources that assist older women with internal reinforcement.

POLICY NUMBER FOUR. Older women should be helped to understand personal learning or cognitive style and use such information in their educational efforts.

Implementation Strategies

1. Assist older women in completing learning and cognitive style measures.

2. Train teachers and counselors to interpret and use learning style information in helping older women with their planning.

POLICY NUMBER FIVE. Older women should be encouraged to form autonomous learning and support groups.

Implementation Strategies

1. Create learner information sources in libraries, universities, and senior centers.

2. Develop learning exchange or support networks in various settings.

3. Develop peer support groups related to various content areas.

POLICY NUMBER SIX. Older women should be provided with opportunities for taking individual responsibility for their own learning.

Implementation Strategies

1. Create necessary administrative support to facilitate individual adult initiative (convenient scheduling, adequate resources, transportation support, adult counseling, etc.).

2. Facilitate workshops or learning materials to develop learning skills in time management and planning.

POLICY NUMBER SEVEN. Older women should be provided with opportunities to assume leadership roles in educational organizations.

Implementation Strategies

1. Establish necessary administrative support to enable and support older women as they develop their leadership skills and become more empowered.

2. Develop mechanisms for more social interaction and networking among older women in leadership roles.

3. Create advisory council of older women who can support organizations and providers in their efforts to meet older women's learning needs.

4. Provide opportunities for older minority women to assume leadership roles.

POLICY NUMBER EIGHT. Continue the research necessary to understand various aspects of individualized, self-directed learning.

Implementation Strategies

1. Determine learning techniques and skills necessary for learners and teachers.

2. Determine means for enhancing learners' problem-solving skills.

3. Study reasons why some older women are reluctant to utilize self-directed approaches.

4. Examine the relationship between life stages and individualized, self-direction learning approaches.

POLICY NUMBER NINE. Educators and providers should be helped to become aware that older women possess unique strengths, skills, and experiences that have relevance for educational programs and instructional approaches.

Implementation Strategies

1. Provide opportunities for older women to identify their strengths, skills, and experiences.

2. Facilitate older women to share their self-knowledge about strengths, skills and experiences with other older women.

3. Utilize the inherent nurturing characteristics of older women to facilitate positive lifelong learning experiences.

POLICY NUMBER TEN. Educators of adults should be provided with training in utilizing theories and practices related to adult learning.

Implementation Strategies

1. Students in formal adult education or educational gerontology training programs need an understanding of adult learning concepts and approaches, including aspects related specifically to older women.

2. Develop in-service training programs on older adult women as learners for the many educators of adults who have not received any related formal training.

POLICY NUMBER ELEVEN. Organizations serving older adults should be helped to incorporate concepts of individualized, self-directed learning into normal operating procedures.

Implementation Strategies

1. Develop individualized resources, create self-study materials, and establish appropriate learning settings.

2. Carry out learner needs assessments to determine possibilities for individualized, self-directed learning and provide the information to administrators.

3. Help organizations coordinate the delivery of necessary resources and services related to individualized, self-directed learning.

POLICY NUMBER TWELVE. Organizations or providers working with older women as learners need to provide opportunities for administrators, faculty, and staff to become knowledgeable about older adult learning.

Implementation Strategies

1. Promote an awareness of research and literature pertaining to older adult learning.

2. Provide workshops, in-service training, and resource material related to older adult learning to employees.

3. Support additional university credit courses for employees so they can study adult learning knowledge in a more formal manner.

POLICY NUMBER THIRTEEN. Organizations or providers working with older women as learners should develop and maintain various measures or criteria for accountability and evaluation.

Implementation Strategies

1. Create reporting systems that accommodate non-traditional data collection and reporting mechanisms (learning contracts, internship reports, credit for work experiences, etc.).

2. Try innovative evaluation methods (interviewing, networking assessments, validation via outside experts, etc.).

POLICY NUMBER FOURTEEN. Organizations or providers working with older women as learners should seek national legislation and funding to promote and facilitate adult learning at all levels.

Implementation Strategies

1. Provide learning resources and study opportunity information to a multitude of community agencies.

2. Influence legislation through professional associations.

POLICY NUMBER FIFTEEN. Organizations or providers working with older women as learners should be helped to provide support services that facilitate those desiring to be more self-directed in their learning efforts.

Implementation Strategies

1. Create centers or special locations within agency settings where older women as learners can gather, obtain learning resources, and support each other.

2. Ensure that personnel have the expertise to counsel with and help older women make effective use of self-directed learning skills.

POLICY NUMBER SIXTEEN. Organizations or providers working with older women as learners should be helped to provide learning environments that accommodate learning.

Implementation Strategies

1. Examine the learning environment in terms of physical, emotional, and social issues and make any necessary changes.

2. Maintain on-site specialists on learning environments who can work with educators and learners to design appropriate learning conditions.


Adapted and updated from Brockett & Hiemstra (1991).

Please return me to the first page

I would like to return to the learning and instruction section