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University of Wyoming

Case Study

Characteristics of Adult Learners

written by

Millie Sparks and Pam Dupin

Context | Incident | Questions

Context (Background):

Debbie and Jake Fastpace are two hard-working adult parents. Debbie and Jake were married when they were both in their early twenties. They decided to have children immediately and within four (4) years of marriage they had two (2) children. Now in their mid thirties, they have decided to matriculate at the Community College. Both have full-time jobs, Debbie as a clerical assistant and Jake as a welder. With two growing, active children, both Debbie and Jake want to improve their skills for more job satisfaction and more income.

Jake and Debbie alternate the nights that they attend classes. This allows the children to have at least one parent's supervision. This arrangement also saves money for a baby-sitter. Jake is improving his welding skills at classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 5:00 p.m., as well as a Saturday morning class from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. They are both very excited and proud of the arrangements they have made to take care of the children, improve their skills, and more importantly to improve their chances of promotion.

They are on track to receive their two year degrees (Welding Apprentice II and Computer Specialist) on June 15, 2003. They are planning a big celebration with their children and families for that special day in June.


On a cold night in December, Debbie rushes to the school library, to meet with a group of her classmates. The group is putting the "finishing touches" on a course project they have been working on all semester. The project is to be presented as a group in class in less than an hour. The librarian interrupts the group and explains that there is an emergency phone call for Debbie Fastpace. Jake was calling from the hospital.

Theresa, their 10-year old daughter, had slipped on an ice-covered sidewalk at school and had been rushed to the hospital, with a possible head wound. Debbie frantically apologizes to her classmates as she races out of the library. Upon arriving at the hospital, Debbie finds out that Theresa had been stabilized and is recovering from a mild concussion. The next morning, Jake calls his instructor, to ask about his final, scheduled for later that evening. Jake's instructor gave him permission to take the final at a later date, when Theresa was feeling better.

Debbie then called her instructor to apologize for missing class. The instructor notifies Debbie that she has just failed the course, "students who are not in class to present their project, will not receive credit." Debbie explains that she has been working on the group project all semester and the only thing she missed was the group presentation. The instructor implies that she is making up the story because of an irrational fear to speak in front of a large group. Frustrated and near tears, Debbie hangs up the phone and returns to the hospital room to be with her family.

Items to Consider:

  1. What characteristics do adult learners possess?
  2. Did Jake display any of these characteristics?
  3. Did Debbie display any of these characteristics?
  4. What implications do these specific characteristics have on the learning process?
  5. As an Adult Educator, do you believe Debbie and Jake's instructors were aware of and responsive to the characteristics of adult learners?