Leaving Flexibility for Adult Learners

By Shang Li*

Shang Li, a Student Partner at Duke Kunshan Center for Teaching and Learning, had a conversation with Kisha N. Daniels, Ed.D., Assistant Professor of the Practice of Education at Duke University, about her philosophy and pedagogical strategies for teaching adult learners.

For every DKU undergraduate student, in our junior year, we can study abroad at Duke for one semester. However, due to the pandemic, Chinese students from the Class of 2022 failed to get visas on time, such that they were not able to physically go to Duke in fall 2020. Fortunately, all classes at Duke were moved online, so students took classes virtually in China. The time difference was not friendly. Many of them had to attend classes in the early hours. I was one of them. Every Friday evening, I did not go to bed and worked until the 2.5-hour class ended at 4:15 am. I had been learning like this for eight months, two entire semesters. It sounds exhausting; however, I always attended the class on time and well-dressed, with my camera on. It was my most enjoyable moment in the week.

Dr. Kisha N. Daniels (Dr. D)

Professor Kisha N. Daniels (Dr. D) was the instructor of both EDUC 101 Foundations of Education and EDUC 204 Educational Psychology, the two courses I took in the 2020 fall and 2021 spring semesters. She adopted a strategy called flipped classrooms (Nechkina, 1984), which is a type of blended learning (Friesen, 2012) requiring students to complete the readings and learn contents before class, and have discussions instead of listening to lectures during class time. Before each class, students needed to watch Dr. D’s pre-recorded lecture videos and read materials to have an overview of the class content. Then we filled in a note-taking guide to reflect on what we had learned. Finally, we attended the class to have in-class discussions, group activities, etc.

As a math major student, I was used to listening to lectures without speaking a single word for a whole semester. I had even thought about dropping this class after I read the syllabus! However, Dr. D’s class opened a whole new world for me. Since then, in every class, I would excitedly click the “raise my hand” button in Zoom—I could not wait to share my ideas in the heated conversation.

Optional Attendance to Synchronous Classes

2020 was a year of chaos. Coronavirus and the international travel ban are distributed to students all around the world. It brought many uncertainties to our lives: unreliable internet access, different time zones, infectious outbreaks, etc. The school year taking place at the same time was obviously not easy at all. To ensure class quality, some instructors took mandatory attendance for those who were able to join the synchronous sessions. However, Dr. D was an exception: she made her synchronous classes optional, even though it was discussion- and activity-based. I was wondering why she did not make it mandatory, how she provided a relatively equivalent learning experience for those who couldn’t join lively, and why almost all the students still came to the synchronous classes.

Dr. D believes having a certain level of flexibility as a professor is always difficult, but educators should still manage to do so since it is not the reality to control everything in education. Students are adult learners and should be treated as individuals. They might have different learning preferences and face different situations. Giving them flexibility can be a form of warm support through hard times. For each assignment, Dr. D prepared two versions (synchronous and asynchronous) with detailed instructions: if you can come to the class, then you can work in a group to do the assignment; if you cannot, then finish these sections of the assignment as equivalency. By doing this, every student was fully supported.

Although Dr. D’s synchronous class was optional, it achieved a relatively high attendance rate. To tackle the low attendance rate problem, Dr. D invited students to relate their own background knowledge to the course concepts. If some students did not come to class, they may not have a chance to realize how educational psychology relates to their everyday life, and what their peers’ educational experiences are like. Once students agree that class is the place where they can learn more, it will become their motivation to attend class. “Students are adults, even my freshman students. They are starting to figure out who they are in the adult world.” She, therefore, lets the students decide what is the best study strategy for them.

This is Dr. D’s philosophy: if you don’t have a choice as an adult learner, you are not going to work at your full potential. Only when your intrinsic motivation drives you to study, will you make full use of time and effort.

Differentiated Activities and Assignments

Dr. D is keen on offering students choices in the course through differentiated instructions (Tomlinson, 2000).

She would tell the students, “Here is the outcome that I want you to achieve, at this point, you can decide freely how you would like to do it. You can read articles, listen to podcasts, watch videos, interview, or do anything to finish the Common Ground, which is an assignment to share how we connect our own experience with the class topic, by referring to any available resources (podcast/movie/book/paper/YouTube video/etc.). I can give one resource to you, but you can also pick your own. You are an adult learner, you should learn the contents on your own, and it is my job to make sure you are on the right track.

Reading my peers’ Common Ground posts, I could tell how they elaborate on their own interests within the class content, each offering a personal insight based on a unique background. Everyone was excited, then we came to class, and exchanged ideas.

This is not the only element of flexibility in this course. We also played “POPCORN” during class: throwing a ball to another student in the class, asking them to share their ideas on a topic, then “popcorning” to another student to have them share ideas. By doing this, Dr. D wants every student to have a chance to share their own ideas; regardless of differing opinions, students are welcomed to have debates and discussions, which is a central component of the class. “We should not shy away from having the students have their own voice,” Dr. D says.

Every Student Should Be Respected and Heard

“You get so much more back from the students when you show them that you are interested in who they are.” During class, Dr. D encourages every student to have no fear of being unique.

In the first class, she asked everyone to share their favorite song and made a class playlist. Then she randomly played the song at the beginning of each class: this made the students feel connected. I think there is also a trick: it might be a little embarrassing if the song’s recommender did not come to the class, and we don’t know the order of songs played. Thus, most students came to every class! Also, she was not filtering. Even if the song was controversial, whether because of content or cursing, Dr. D thinks, it is not her prerogative to censor the students’ songs. “I would like to be able to honor your song. My personal taste and opinion do not matter.”

Personally speaking, I have benefited a lot from this teaching philosophy. As the only Duke Kunshan and Chinese student in this class, I initially feared being different. However, my worries quickly dissipated. I realized, my identity as a Chinese and my unique background is a gift rather than a curse. Once we discussed in class how to memorize things more efficiently. I shared my experience of taking a memorization class, which teaches kids how to visualize the numbers of π and then remember them. This method has each number represent a piece of furniture and turn the value into a room tour video based on the order in which each number appears. None of my classmates had ever heard of this kind of method. I actively engaged in such class conversations, and everyone was interested in my sharing.

Going back to the flipped classrooms, for adult learners like me, the benefits exceed mere class contents; individuals are supported, heard, and respected through Dr. D’s educational philosophy.

I really like what Dr. D said, “Everything we talk about in class can be found online. The point of coming to college is through the interactions. Make the time more valuable than they just study by themselves and learn things from each other.” I hope I could be an educator like her in the future.


Friesen, Norm (2012). Report: Defining Blended Learning. Retrieved: https://www.normfriesen.info/papers/Defining_Blended_Learning_NF.pdf

Nechkina, Militsa (1984). Increasing the effectiveness of a lesson. Communist (2): 51.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

*About the author

Shang Li is a senior majoring in Applied Mathematics and Computational Sciences. She worked as a Student Partner at the Center for Teaching and Learning in 2021. Her research interests lie in mathematics education and educational psychology.