Composition and the Adult Learner: Heroic Journeys and Big Ideas as Paths to Engagement

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A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2012

Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana

Composition and the Adult Learner

While Kaplan University has roots as a traditional brick and mortar university, the university now primarily provides online learning for adults. These students may not have access to traditional universities due to time or transportation constraints, and they require practical, student-centered education in order to support their personal and career goals. The online learning environment fails the adult learner when it simply replicates the hegemonic teaching and learning model presented by most traditional universities and colleges. If, however, online course designers and instructors embrace the challenges and needs of the growing adult learner population, these learners can thrive. Creating introductory composition courses that engage adult learners, providing them with the academic and personal foundation they need in order to succeed in college and their careers, is crucial.

Even more so than traditional students, adult learners are often frustrated about taking courses they feel are not part of their career path, and the college composition sequence often prompts “why do I need this” queries to their advisors. Lynna J. Ausburn’s study of adult learners reinforced that they desired “personal relevance in what they learn, participation in setting their learning outcomes based on their real-world needs, self-direction of their learning resources and pathways, and establishment of an active learning community” (2004, p. 335). To make these courses more applicable to students’ lives as well as to emphasize analytical and critical thinking skills, Kaplan’s composition department revised the traditional composition sequence to ensure that course outcomes and assignments meet the needs of these adult learners.

As Blaire and Hoy (2006) have noted, the virtual learning environment presents different challenges and prospects for the adult learner versus the traditional student learner, along with an extension and complication of the “virtual community.” Moreover, because of the changing demographic from traditional to adult students, this change also fosters a change in the relationship between teachers and students. As a result, successful online instruction must include a range of interactions between students and instructors that extend the more public concept of community, the better to acknowledge the importance of personal, private interaction. The redesigned courses thus placed greater emphasis upon the learning community itself. While traditional writing courses may still embrace the “Teacher as Writing Guru” model, these classes emphasize the importance of learning from and through each other. Instructor presence is central to student success, but students often have the most productive learning moments when they learn from and teach each other in the weekly live seminars and asynchronous discussions.

The first course uses Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “hero’s journey” as a unifying framework and encourages students to explore the challenges they have faced getting to this stage in their lives and the challenges they will face in developing their “voice.” The subsequent course requires students to come up with a “big idea” to solve a problem in their communities. Inspired by the CNBC series The Big Idea, the new curriculum draws on themes of invention and innovation, motivating adult learners to write about subjects that truly matter to them and to learn that their voices contribute to a larger conversation and can instigate change.

Often times, adult learners come to first year writing courses with fear and trepidation. Many of them identify themselves as poor, inexperienced writers with few skills, despite the fact that they may have had years of experience in the work environment writing emails and reports. Building their self-esteem and writing confidence is one of the most important things that a course designer and instructor can do for the online adult learner. The first term writing course meets this need through the course theme itself; CM107 introduces the writing process through Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” Each unit focuses on the stages within Campbell’s journey of the hero: embracing the call to action, identifying the people and resources they need to succeed as writers, identifying their heroic action, and creating a plan for how to achieve their quest for writing excellence. As simple as this analogy may be, it empowers these adult learners by building their writing confidence and strength. One student with strong research skills may help another student to work through the research process, offering tips for finding the right key word in a library research assignment. To borrow from Campbell’s metaphor, they become each other’s “Helpers.” Instructors often have a hard time letting go of the need to be the content expert with all the answers, but the best facilitators in an adult learning environment know when to allow the students themselves to achieve self-discovery and know that often times what they say to students may have less impact than what their fellow classmates may say to them.

The discussions and projects teach students the importance of audience and purpose and levels of formality for each writing situation. Their first graded assignment actually asks them to write about someone they know who is courageous, so they begin with writing confidence, since they have expertise on their subject matter. At the same time, they are building distance and objectivity in their writing because they write to an audience that is facing similar personal challenges, for the purpose of showing that audience that challenges can be met and thresholds (again borrowing from Campbell) can be crossed. Their next writing assignment also asks them to select a topic important to them personally, a problem within their field of study that affects them personally and that they know something about. For example, a future teacher may want to write about students with ADHD because as an adult parent who also happens to be studying to become a teacher, she has a child diagnosed with ADHD. The exercises in the units move them from an expression of why this subject is important to them personally to the more formal academic process of finding an audience and purpose.

Perhaps the most important difference between adult learners and traditional students is that adult learners need to see that what they are studying, whether it is grammar or any other topic, is relevant to their lives and their careers, and this is certainly an important component of the redesigned CM107 course. Because they are each living very busy, complicated lives, juggling everything from parenthood to established careers to unemployment to divorce to losing a home, these students have added stresses that traditional students may not have. This not only adds pressure to succeed but also increases performance and success anxiety, which means that they do need to see more relevance in every course task. Each unit in CM107 emphasizes what the knowledge they learn can “do” for them and how it can translate to career success. Students research what specific writing skills are needed for success in their fields, and their writing assignments are linked back to their career goals. Something as simple as replacing the term “essay” with “work report” may, for example, allow students to embrace an assignment since this is a skill they will indeed be using in their careers.

Students continue to create forms of writing beyond the traditional essay in CM220, the second course in the composition sequence. This course requires students to select a problem in their community to solve, practice several persuasive forms of writing, and consider different audience concerns as they construct their messages. Early projects ask them to pitch their big idea to a specific audience and conduct research that will identify potential roadblocks and provide evidence to support their big idea. They are encouraged to interview an expert, and the process of generating interview questions encourages them to consider what their audience needs to know about their topic. The draft includes their thesis statement, references to sources, and support for their argument in paragraph form. They are encouraged to use an appropriately academic style for this project, which is then revised and expanded for the final project portfolio. The weekly discussions, called “Invention Labs,” provide opportunities to draft their thesis statement, introduction and conclusion, and main ideas so they can receive feedback from the instructor and classmates and make improvements.

Most importantly, the course challenges students to imagine how they can circulate their idea to a wider audience, one beyond the classroom. The final project is an “appeal for change” that presents their big idea in a number of formats and offers a plan for implementation, and they also respond to reflection questions about the writing process. One component of the final is a multi-modal presentation that can disseminate their idea to a wide audience. This multimodal presentation could be a podcast, Animoto video, website, or blog that can reach a large audience. A 2009 report from the National Council of Teachers of English on writing in the twenty-first century emphasizes the need to take advantage of digital technologies. As Kathleen Yancey notes in the report, educators are “developing new models of composing, designing a new curriculum supporting those models, and creating new pedagogies enacting that curriculum” (2009, p. 8). In particular, technology impacts how people communicate and make meaning, and this course represents a step in this evolution; this not only teaches adult learners a skill they can use in the workplace–it also helps them to think about how they can communicate their ideas to the world at large.

The most successful course projects are those that connect to a student’s own life experiences. An ABA therapist argued that insurance companies should cover behavioral therapy for autistic children, while a New Orleans resident who worked with at-risk kids envisioned a shelter that would cater to homeless teens in her community. She was inspired by a fire in an abandoned building that killed eight homeless teens, and after completing this project, she founded the New Orleans chapter of Stand Up For Kids, a “nationwide nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of homeless teens” (“BackPack of Hope Provides Essentials to Homeless High School Students,” 2012). If the journey of writing and creating begins with issues that truly matter to students, they may be more willing to take risks and challenge themselves to become better writers so that they can communicate their ideas and advocate for change.

Christian R. Weisser describes the transition into “public writing” in composition theory, a shift in emphasis from the individual writer to “social notions of how knowledge is generated” that relocate “the work of composition as a democratic enterprise” (2002, p. 90). He goes on to note that the relationship between the composition classroom and the public sphere creates a “point of contact . . . that distinguishes composition from many other academic disciplines” and “allows students to produce meaningful discourse that has the potential to change their lives and the lives of others” (2002, p. 91). A composition course that encourages students to join a public debate, to contribute their voice to a subject that influences their lives, aims to make students both better writers and citizens.

Thanks to the revisions in these courses, the department has seen fewer students failing and dropping the classes; in CM107, the “U rate,” which includes failures and withdrawals, improved by nearly 30%. The change in CM220 was less dramatic, but the U rate did improve in these classes as well despite being a more challenging course than the earlier version. Providing adult learners with what they need to succeed, not to mention creating a class that challenges and satisfies them, is a daunting task, especially in composition courses where traditional models of learning and instruction have long prevailed. Nonetheless, these changes in curriculum design and instruction better meet the needs of Kaplan’s adult learners and ensure that faculty serve these students in such a way that they not only have a positive writing experience but also build self-confidence and recognize the transferrable importance of the subject to their lives and careers.


Ausburn, L. J. (2004). Course design elements most valued by adult learners in blended online education environments: An American perspective. Educational Media International, 41(4), 327-337. doi: 10.1080/0952398042000314820

Backpack of hope provides essentials to homeless high school students. (2012, July 18). The Times-Picayune. Retrieved from

Blaire, K. & Hoy, C. (2006). Paying attention to adult learners online: The pedagogy and politics of community. Computers and Composition, 23(1), 32-48.

Weisser, C. R. (2002). Moving beyond academic discourse: Composition studies and the public sphere. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Yancey, K. (2009). Writing in the 21st century (Report from the National Council of Teachers of English). National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from

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Spring 2013: New Faces, New Expectations