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Teaching older adults in university courses

October 20, 2021 — 

The age-friendly university (AFU) movement encourages universities to engage older people in all aspects of university life. As an AFU, the University of Manitoba (UM) looks to foster opportunities for lifelong learning and intergenerational engagement. The idea is to create space for meaningful exchanges of information, perspectives and learning between older and younger students. One way to do this is through ongoing for-credit courses.

The Centre on Aging will host a workshop open to UM faculty and instructors on November 9 to share information on teaching older adults in the classroom. With many older adults attending these courses already and more will come as the UM’s reputation as an AFU increases. Faculty from UM and Brandon University will share their perspectives on teaching older adults in university courses at the workshop.

What are the benefits and challenges of teaching classes of multi-age students?

Among other benefits, the lived experiences and diverse perspectives of older adults can enrich learning by complementing an instructor’s expertise and introducing different ideas that advance in-depth learning. As well, older adult participation can allay negative age-related attitudes by bringing older and younger students together to discuss topics of common interest. On the other hand, there are recognized challenges related to participation of older adults such as when they offer strong opinions and possibly dominate class discussion, and come with sensory, mobility and technology accessibility issues. Younger students may feel intimidated by the breadth of knowledge of older adult students and their influence on class discussions. Older adults can feel like imposters or members of an age-based minority to the point of experiencing age discrimination.

What does this mean for instructors teaching classes of multi-age students?

Along with creating a welcoming, comfortable, safe space for older adults at the university, it is important to recognize that older adults attend university for different reasons than typical university-age students. Generally, older adults are looking to expand their knowledge for the purpose of personal growth and intellectual stimulation, rather than to equip themselves with skills to begin a new vocation, job or career. It can be useful for instructors to inquire of all students, especially older adult students, their reasons for taking a course.

Related to the classroom, pedagogy/instructor teaching style are significant to the participation of older adults and engagement between multi-age learners. Evidence suggests that in-class discussion, sharing, and small group work support establishing rapport between students of all ages. Specifically, techniques like putting older and younger adults into groups to share perspectives advances intergenerational learning. This approach can extend to lecture-based classes with instructional designs that offers questions and discussion around content of mutual interest. Also suggested is that instructors take advantage of older adults as ‘allies’ to provide reference points or give examples in class. Further, instructors should be cognizant of accommodations that recognize sensory, mobility and technology access issues of older adult students. These could be in form of voice/sound projection, seating arrangements and classroom location.

Interested in learning more?

Register to attend the workshop:

November 9 | 9:30 to 11 a.m.
Register via WebEx for the November 9 workshop:

For more information email the Centre on Aging: coaman [at] umanitoba [dot] ca 

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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