Learning environments and adult learners - How to support conceptual change and metacognitive processes in adult education?

Adult learners seem to have similar kinds of misconceptions to young learners and therefore need to be supported through effective learning environments. We consider a learning environment a system which consists of a student, a teacher, a curriculum, learning materials, instructional activities implying more or less interaction (individual work, group work etc.), and forms of evaluation. The essential question in designing these learning environments was “how do they improve students’ metacognition?” — as based on their metaconceptual awareness.

An adult student has acquired much more expertise which often seems to work in everyday practice. To some extent adult students can be more resistant to changing their conceptions, especially if their learning goals do not fit or are incongruent with the goals of teaching (Penttinen et al., 2013). Conceptual change processes are intentional, and students have to first experience dissatisfaction with their existing models to be then replaced with more fruitful and intelligible ones opening new theoretical perspectives or supporting practical problem solving (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). Moreover, learners can direct their metacognitive monitoring to support their prior personal assumptions which can inhibit their conceptual change processes (see Hofer, 2004).

The role of the teacher in adult education, as in all formal settings, is very important. The teacher has to have effective metacognition, metaconceptual awareness and learning strategies in order to model expert learning. For example, students do not necessarily use metacognition in action, although they are reported to have high levels of metacognitive knowledge and regulation (De Backer, Van Keer, & Valcke,

2012). They may have metacognitive knowledge of strategies, but they are not necessarily able to use this knowledge in learning situations. Thus, learners need to be supported in using metacognition in their learning as well as in socialisation to develop scientific practices in the discipline. This means that learners should learn metacognitive procedures for learning and using information in addition to theoretical knowledge of the subject, to which these procedures are applied (see Sternberg, 1998).

In designing a curriculum, a strict analysis of theoretical core concepts is needed. The amount of knowledge is exponentially increasing and so the selection of theoretically fruitful conceptual contents is needed. Also, the structure of the curriculum should be hierarchically organised and the logic behind the organisation must be visible to the learner.

Meta-teaching (Fisher, 1998), previously conceptualised in interventions for young learners, can also be an important procedure for adults so as to illustrate the learning goals and display how we teach for metacognition, scaffolding and modelling scientific practices in interaction, and through communication. This kind of meta-teaching can also be used in socialising adult learners to academic studies. Metaconceptual teaching that explicitly makes the differences between conceptualisations in science and everyday life visible has particular potential for future interventions (see Wiser & Amin, 2001) on all levels (cognitive, metacognitive, epistemological) according to Kitchener’s model (1983). Hence, thinking can be seen to develop as systemic, metasystemic, and epistemic cognition (see Demetriou & Efldides, 1985).

The beginning of the study programme seems to be an important phase for all students, but also for the modelling of the cognitive conflicts and possible solutions of these conflicts. In designing instructional activities, adult students also need scaffolding in higher education studies. It can be suggested that many adults are not autonomous learners, but are a heterogeneous group who can have difficulties studying on their own. Also, in adult education, metacognitive thinking can be seen as a goal, but not a starting point. Yet, the academic learning culture should be in line with the characteristics of the specific discipline to be studied. In the beginning of the studies, the teacher’s role is to be a kind of translator and facilitator between everyday language and scientific language. Hence, interaction with the teacher and advanced students would be profitable (see Vygotsky, 1994).

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