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Reaching out: Is It Critical for Learner Success?

A recent study by the American Psychological Association explored the value of reaching out to others. The results showed that contact initiators significantly underestimated their communication’s value to the recipient. The study also found that when the outreach was unexpected, the recipient’s feelings of surprise yielded an even greater appreciation for the contact.

This got me thinking about how this principle could be applied to address key challenges adult learners face.

Challenges for Adult Learners

Adult learners face a number of challenges that traditional students might not, including:

  • Competing Priorities: Many are juggling school with work, family and other life responsibilities. Education may not be their top priority.

  • Adjusting Being Back to School: Some may be returning after a significant time away from traditional education. They may feel a bit rusty and out of place and needing to figure out new habits for learning.

  • Imposter Syndrome: Some may have dropped out or have been unsuccessful in prior attempts towards a degree or certificate program so this makes trying later in life that much harder.

With so many headwinds, adult learners may actually need more support and outreach than the typical full-time student. And yet, they typically receive the least.

Adult learners don't have natural champions like parents or teachers regularly providing that encouragement nor do they have peer groups with similar ambitions and circumstances. This can make for a very lonely experience.

Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that most college dropouts are between the ages of 35 and 64 years old (, 2022).

On the flipside, educators and program staff who genuinely want to help their learners succeed face their own challenges. In an effort to provide more affordable and flexible programs, many classes have moved online and increased class sizes. Without the right tools, it’s very difficult to identify learners' needs and provide them with the resources and interventions they need in a timely fashion.

With all the challenges adult learners and their educators face, some different solutions are definitely needed. Solutions that connect with adult learners in meaningful, personalized ways while harnessing “the element of surprise” to add exponential value to reaching out.

So, how might we accomplish this?

Ideas for Supporting Adult Learners

Here are some ideas to help those serving adult learners really connect with their students and support their academic success.

Forge real connections and keep notes

During initial meetings or lectures, take the time to get to know some of the personal details about your learners. Who are they? What are their educational goals? What are their kids' names? Keep a log of this information and, even if it's once a week, send a short note to a handful of students based on an observation from class or a milestone they've reached. You could also keep a file with birthdays and send a quick birthday greeting to help them know they’re important and valued.

Need some ideas about how to have those initial “get to know you” calls with students? Check out our blog on How to have a kickoff call to learn more.

Assign one anchor relationship for each learner

When possible, have one person at the institution be the anchor relationship. It can be the instructor, a student success coach, or another designated school staff member. Regardless, that consistent one-to-one interaction that really builds the connection with the learner is tremendously valuable.

As an additional resource, here’s some good research on the importance and value of building strong social capital.

Leverage data and software

While technology can't replace real connections, it can support your team in reducing the administrative workload. And with real-time data insights and streamlined outreach, you can create more of those surprising moments that delight and show your learners you care.


Interested in a technology solution to support your adult learners at scale? Ribbon is a student relationship management platform built specifically for online learning institutions to streamline operations and scale student success. See it in action.


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