The foundation of NCU’s education model is the one-to-one engagement between doctoral faculty and a graduate student. We believe how faculty-student engagement is structured makes a significant difference. Most theories of adult learning have, as one of their tenets, the concept of adults as independent learners. The Andragogy theory (Knowles) specifically references "self-direction.” The Transformational Learning Theory (Mezirow) recognizes the independence of the learner, after a faculty member makes them “curious” about the course content. The Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb) advocates, as a core characteristic of its pedagogy, "learning by doing,” and in the context for adults, largely on their own.
Clearly inherent in adult (and perhaps all) learning are self-guided learning experiences. However, it is our experience that graduate education is most successful in achieving learning outcomes and culminating in graduation, if some structure is included to facilitate "independent learning.”
We studied over 240 of our doctoral students, while in the dissertation process, to determine best practices. Our observation of these students, specifically, and graduate education over the past eight years, in general, indicates three key characteristics, of an effective adult-oriented, graduate education model.
Each course should be structured with measurable milestones to be completed within the course. This is a significant departure from the traditional model experienced by many doctoral students of "go write your dissertation.”
A clear structure should be based on a specific and mutually agreeable timeline for deliverables. The structure can, but need not, be a formal learning contract. It does need to promote learner and faculty accountability. Again, a departure from the traditional model of "let us know when you’re finished."
Include systematic and robust faculty-student engagement throughout, and at every step of, the process. Faculty should participate in guiding, coaching, mentoring and facilitating the student through the dissertation process. This is in contrast to "teaching" by feedback, where faculty serve only as a final critic.
All learners, but especially adult learners, deserve more than a "sage on stage" or "ultimate critic” model of graduate education.
Through structure and engagement, adult learners become independent scholars equipped to continue the pursuit of improving the human condition through education.