Renee Bourdeaux, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Communication in the Communication Studies Department at Northwest University, Kirkland, WA. Lindsie Schoenack, MA, is a doctoral student in the Education Doctoral Program in the School of Education, North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND.Address correspondence to Renee Bourdeaux, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication, Northwest University, 5520 108th Avenue NE, Kirkland, WA 98033, USA (E-mail:

The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 64:152–161, 2016Copyright © 2016, Association for Con tinu ing Higher EducationISSN 0737-7363DOI: 10.1080/07377363.2016.1229072

Adult Student Expectations and Experiences in an Online Learning EnvironmentRenee BourdeauxLindsie Schoenack


Colleges and universities continually address changes to their student body and the changing tech-nological landscape. Online and distance education remains a rapidly growing segment of learning in higher education, with more than 95% of higher education entities with an enrollment of 5,000 or more students offering online options (Allen & Seaman, 2015). In addition to the growth of online courses, colleges and universities are seeing an increase in adult students entering the educational system (Hussar & Bailey, 2014). According to Hussar and Bailey (2014), between 1997 and 2011, higher educational institutions experienced enrollment increases of 51% for those students who were 25 to 34 years old and increases of 26% for stu-dents who were 35 years and older. To proactively meet

the needs of these growing trends, higher education must understand more about both adult students and courses offered online.

Online courses offer flexibility to adult students balancing extra responsibilities. Adult students encounter many of the challenges traditional students face, but adult students also endure additional stressors, such as full-time jobs and families (Choy, 2002; Forbus, Newbold, & Mehta, 2011; Haley & Booker, 2012; Park & Choi, 2009; Zembylas, 2008). The growing population of adult students may be more amenable to enrolling in the rising number of online courses because distance courses may fi t more easily into a busy schedule. Unfortunately, adult learners who feel unsupported in an online class may discontinue their enrollment in the course (Park & Choi, 2009), so a clear understanding of what adult students expect in online courses is crucial.

Abstract. This study investigated adult student experiences with instructors in online classes. Using expectancy viola-tions theory as a lens, we conducted 22 interviews to understand reasons students enroll in online classes, expectations for instructors, and behaviors instructors employed that may or may not meet expectations. We conducted a thematic analysis and uncovered students expected clarity, respect, and intentional course design from instructors. Behaviors facilitating effective communication and enabling learning actually led to positive outcomes, while the poor use of pedagogical tools and behaviors stopping the learning process led to negative outcomes. Recommendations to meet adult student needs online are proposed.

Keywords. andragogy; expectancy violations theory; instructor behaviors; adult students; online learning environments

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This study seeks to identify what adult students expect in an online class, and what behaviors faculty currently employ that may or may not be meeting expectations. First, adult students are defi ned to identify specifi c needs of this growing segment of students. Second, online learning envi-ronments are explored. Third, expectancy violations theory is discussed, as it will help us evaluate these phenomena. Finally, the research questions are introduced.

Adult Students

Adult students continue to emerge at a growing rate on college and university campuses, so understanding how to defi ne characteristics of an adult learner helps institutions meet the needs of these students. Adult students are typically over 24 years of age, employed and working full-time, and oftentimes supporting dependents at home (Forbus et al., 2011). Other common characteristics that defi ne an adult student are fi nancial independence, part-time pursuit of classes, delayed enrollment, and possibly even lacking a diploma from high school (Choy, 2002). Adult learners also typically have more stress regarding time management and juggling life roles than traditional students (Morris, Brooks, & May, 2003).

This growing majority of students also creates chal-lenges simply due to their unique lifestyles. Because of barriers such as work and family commitments, adult students may become problematic for their institution because of their interrupted enrollment status and their lack of accomplishing their degree (Kasworm, 2014). Adult students also tend to crave more meaningful relationships with staff and more interaction with instructors (Newbold, Mehta, & Forbus, 2010). As universities work to address adult learners, administrators must address that this stu-dent segment has different expectations from those of their traditional counterpart. Given the increasing enrollment of adult students, universities must place emphasis on both reducing barriers and recognizing expectations of adult students. Since online courses emerge as one way universities reduce barriers, the next section overviews online learning environments.

Online Learning Environments

Online learning continues to rise in popularity on campuses around the globe because it capitalizes on a medium that allows students to access learning outside of the traditional classroom (Johnson, Adams Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2014). Online courses attract students because these classes are fl exible options that may remove

some of the barriers to learning, such as time and distance ( Crawford-Ferre & Wiest, 2012). Students regularly mention being busy, and online options for learning offer students the fl exibility to study whenever it best fi ts their schedules (Caruso, 2006). For busy adult students who may be balancing a job, family responsibilities, and an educa-tion, online learning is much more convenient than attend-ing a physical class (Bishop, 2002). The fl exibility of time proffered by online courses allows adult students to juggle work and family while still pursuing a degree (Alexander, Perreault, Zhao, & Waldman, 2009; Choy, 2002).

Online courses are growing in popularity on the higher education landscape; however, instructors of online courses have yet to perfect effective online delivery of instruction (Sugar, Martindale, & Crawley, 2007). Online courses deviate from the standard face-to-face student-and-teacher interac-tion, and instructors must now reevaluate their roles in the learning process, because although online learning may force students to be more autonomous regarding the pursuit of knowledge, these students still need direction (Baran, Correia, & Thompson, 2011). Teaching strategies contribute to success in an online class much more than just the con-venience of the technology (O’Lawrence, 2006). Therefore, institutions must remember the connection between a student and a teacher still remains the most important factor leading to student success (Haley & Booker, 2012).

Although online courses continue to experience higher enrollments in higher education, completion rates for these online courses were less than completion rates for traditional, face-to-face courses (Levy, 2007). Instructors of online courses need to fi nd ways to engage students in order to increase retention in online courses (McLawhon & Cutright, 2012). However, in order to effectively engage students, online instructors must understand what students expect in an online environment. The next section explains expectancy violations theory, which provides a lens for understanding student expectations in this study.

Expectancy Violations Theory

Expectancy violations theory (EVT; Burgoon, 1993) examines expectations people embrace regarding behaviors of other people during interpersonal interactions (Burgoon, Le Poire, & Rosenthal, 1995). EVT allows in-spection of awaited behavioral expectations while routinely evaluating individual behavior based on the context (Burgoon et al., 1995). When interacting with others, people expect certain behaviors because they possess preconceived notions regarding how others should behave (Frisby & Sidelinger, 2013). Individuals evaluate and assess

154 • Adult Students Online

the behaviors during an interaction based on how close the enacted behaviors match the preconceived notion (Burgoon et al., 1995).

When a person’s behavior exits the range of tolerable behavior during an interaction, a violation of expectations occurs (McPherson, Kearney, & Plax, 2003). When individuals violate our behavioral expectations, the behav-iors evaluated positively generate a positive valuation of the interaction, whereas behaviors interpreted negatively produce a negative assessment of the relations (Houser, 2005). In addition, when a mismatch exists between ex-pectations and behavior, the outcome will likely be much less satisfying; yet when the behaviors match or exceed expectations, the outcome will likely be much more satisfy-ing and productive (Koermer & Petelle, 1991).

Because people have rules for expectations in their interpersonal relationships, it makes sense that these rules transcend to both online and offl ine educational experiences between teachers and students as well (Frisby & Sidelinger, 2013). In the educational setting, EVT has helped to evaluate topics such as instructor credibility (Obermiller, Ruppert, & Atwood, 2012), instructor availability (Mottet, Parker-Raley, Cunningham, Beebe, & Raffeld, 2006), teacher anger (McPherson et al., 2003), and student disclosure in the class-room (Frisby & Sidelinger, 2013). EVT has also been helpful in evaluating differences between the expectations of traditional versus adult student learners (Houser, 2005, 2006).

Goals of the Study

Instructors would benefi t from understanding what students expect in a class. To facilitate effective learning, instructors should solicit and act upon the expectations of students (Houser, 2005). Adult students expect clear instruction and useful feedback in a traditional educational environment (Houser, 2006), but research must aim to specifi cally identify what adult students expect in an online environment and what behaviors faculty enact related to those expectations. To further explore this, the following research questions (RQ) are posed:

RQ1: What expectations do adult students have of instructors in online courses?

RQ2: What behaviors have adult students experi-enced from an instructor in an online course that have led to either positive or negative outcomes?

RQ3: What suggestions to better meet their needs do adult students have for online instructors?


To assist faculty and administrators in higher education with understanding what adult students expect in an online environment, we wanted to talk directly to students to not only uncover their answers, but to further explore the meaning behind each answer. For the purposes of this research, the criterion for an adult student was simply defi ned as a student being over 24 years of age (Forbus et al., 2011). To answer our three research questions, we recruited enrolled (either full-time or part-time) undergraduate students, 24 years or older, that had taken at least one recent online course, and we interviewed the recruited students utilizing qualitative, semi-structured interviews. Twenty-two interviews (N = 22) were conducted from July 2013 through March 2014.

Data CollectionParticipants were recruited from two different institu-

tions of higher education. All participants were adult, under-graduate students over 24 years of age who were enrolled at either a midsized Midwestern university or a private, religious liberal arts college located in the Midwest. Because students were recruited at two different institutions, the researchers received institutional review board (IRB) approval from both institutions to recruit participants for the study.

Potential subjects were asked to participate in a 30- to 45-minute interview about their experience in an online learning environment via recruitment e-mails and recruit-ment posts on social media. All students received the same recruitment message that solicited enrolled undergraduate students, 24 years or older, who had taken at least one online course to participate in the research. The students were fi rst recruited via customized e-mail lists that were cre-ated at each institution to reach any undergraduate student who had previously been enrolled in an online class. The students were also recruited at the midsized Midwestern university through a second e-mail list to a dedicated re-search pool of undergraduate students (both traditional and adult) enrolled in an introductory communication course. Finally, the researchers also posted the study recruitment on personal social media sites. Interested individuals were asked to contact the researchers to sign up for an interview time if they were willing to participate. Those interested individuals who contacted the researchers via e-mail and met the recruitment criteria were interviewed for the study.


After recruitment of participants, there were only 22 students that contacted the researchers via e-mail, met the recruitment criteria, and were interviewed for the study. Of

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the 22 students, eight were female (36.4%) and 14 were male (63.6%), which is in line with the demographics of the larger university. Student ages were broken down as follows: 13 students were 24 to 30 years old (59.1%), fi ve students were 31 to 40 years old (22.7%), two students were 41 to 50 years old (9.1%), and two students were 51 to 60 years old (9.1%). Fifteen participants identi-fi ed themselves as Caucasian (68.2%), four identifi ed as African-American (18.2%), two identifi ed as Asian (9.1%), and one identifi ed as Somali (4.5%), which is in line with the overall demographics of both universities. Because students were recruited from two different universities with both traditional degree programs and degree completion programs, we asked students to self-identify their personal progress toward their degree completion: two were fi rst-year students (9.1%), fi ve were sophomores (22.7%), four were juniors (18.2%), and 11 were seniors (50.0%).


Interviews were conducted with one researcher and one participant in a private room at one of the two universities or via Skype using a semi-structured proto-col. A semi-structured protocol allows for the fl exibility of second or follow-up questions where the researcher asks for clarifi cation of the subject’s answers related to the research questions (Kvale, 2007). Each participant answered questions and the follow-up questions regarding their most recent completed online undergraduate course that was offered entirely online through either Blackboard or Jenzabar. We fi rst asked students to talk about the online class and reasons for taking an online class with questions such as “What was your most recent online class?” and “What are some reasons you took an online class in the past?” The online courses the students referenced covered many areas across the curriculum such as literature, public speaking, chemistry, history, and medical terminology, and all courses were undergraduate courses that enrolled both traditional and adult students.

Other questions on the semi-structured protocol were related to student expectations and perceptions of faculty behaviors in an online educational class environment. For example, open-ended questions included “How do you expect faculty in an online class to communicate regard-ing the course expectations?” and “Are there things your instructors have done in an online class that you believe have worked well?” We also asked students for suggestions to make online learning better with questions such as “If you were teaching an online class, what would you do dif-ferent and why?” and “If you could share ideas with faculty when it comes to creating the most effective online class

environment, what advice would you want to share?” The interviews averaged 23 minutes, ranging from 13 minutes to 46 minutes. The interviews were transcribed after they were completed. Students were assigned pseudonyms in transcripts and in the fi nal written document. Recorded interviews yielded 148 pages of typed, single-spaced data.

Data AnalysisThe data analysis process allowed for a comprehensive

analysis of the data. First, each researcher read through all of the transcripts to gather a comprehensive awareness of data from the interviews. Using some of the principles of the grounded theory approach to data analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), the researchers began to analyze the data by using open coding. Open coding occurs when “data are broken down into discrete parts, closely examined, and compared for similarities and differences” (Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 102). The researchers worked together to complete open coding of two transcripts by analyzing the transcripts line by line to look for key ideas emerging from words and phrases (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

The two researchers then moved to independent cod-ing. The researchers split up the remaining transcripts and independently completed open coding. Previous transcripts were reviewed to apply the principle of constant com-parison whenever a new code surfaced (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). The constant reviewing of previous codes allowed the researchers to validate previous work (Manning & Kunkel, 2013). Next, the researchers did a reliability check by reviewing all of the transcripts coded by the other researcher. This transcription checking allowed the researchers to ensure there were strong code memos and that there was no defi nitional drift in coding (Gibbs, 2007).

Finally, the researchers moved to axial coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The researchers used axial coding to identify the relationships between the open codes (Gibbs, 2007). The relationships, or themes, further explain a concept that surfaces from the participants’ own words describing the participants’ lived experiences (Gibbs, 2007). The researchers met weekly during axial coding of all transcripts to review and discuss the development of themes. The researchers then validated themes by fi nding evidence in the form of participant quotations to support each theme (Gibbs, 2007).


The data from the interviews provided insight into adult learners in the online learning environment. During data analysis, we uncovered themes explaining why adult

156 • Adult Students Online

students select online classes, what they expect instructors to do in an online environment, what led to satisfaction or dissatisfaction with online courses, and suggestions to make online learning environments better for future learners. The Results section demonstrates pertinent themes, in addition to sharing demonstrative quotes from the participants. We begin with the advantages adult students encounter with online learning.

Advantages to Online CoursesThe fi rst area where themes illuminate our under-

standing of online learning is in regards to advantages to online learning. The interviews with the adult students began by asking each individual to talk about their most recent online course and then elaborate about advantages of taking an online course. The students shared stories that pointed to three main themes for the advantages of taking an online class: Time, Self-Directed, and Learning Tools.

The Time theme points to items that allow students fl exibility and control over scheduling their education. The Time theme encompasses items that have to do with schedules such as fi tting personal or work schedules, and this theme appeared in 73 of the 2,719 coded segments from the transcripts. The notion of a personal schedule appears in 28 of those 73 Time-themed segments, and is best demonstrated by Donna, a 30-year-old sophomore, who said, “Advantages: you don’t have a set schedule, you can do it at midnight if you want, or whenever.” Comments in the Time theme showed repeatedly that adult students appreciate the schedule fl exibility offered by online courses.

The second theme, Self-Directed, identifi es the ways that the online environment delivers education in a way that allows students to be personally responsible for their learning. The Self-Directed theme, appearing in 55 of the 2,719 coded segments, covers items such as working ahead on assignments and accomplishing educational tasks due to personal drive. Carmen, a 30-year-old senior, mentioned that “online classes are generally looked at as a ‘on your own pace’ because you don’t have that structure.” This quote demonstrates an appreciation for self-direction.

Finally, the Learning Tools theme emerged to describe that students signed up for online courses because the courses used pedagogical tactics they enjoyed. Students discussed strategies used by faculty that they considered to be effective in the Learning Tools theme, and the theme ap-peared in 21 of the 2,719 coded segments. Erica, a 25-year-old junior, enjoyed the online discussion boards, and stated, “I like reading discussion postings because I feel like I get more out of the reading. Like, I’ll read those fi rst, and then I’ll go do the reading, and I’ll understand it a lot more.”

These three themes demonstrated why students enrolled in online courses. Next we explore what students expect from instructors once they are enrolled in an online course.

Expected Online Instructor BehaviorsThe interview questions also asked students to explain

what behaviors they expected from faculty in regards to communicating about things such as course expectations, assignments and deadlines, and class participation. The in-terviewed participants described the behaviors that students expect from instructors when enrolled in an online class. The students explained examples that fell into one of three major thematic areas: Clarity, Respect, and Intentional Design.

The Clarity theme encompasses all statements that hinted at students wanting simple, concise, and unambigu-ous instructions for the online class. Clear expectations, step-by-step instructions, and detailed syllabi were men-tioned in this thematic area, and Clarity was mentioned in 48 of the 2,719 coded segments. Carl, a 38-year-old senior, had clear expectations in multiple ways:

At the very least, I would expect that they would, they would have a clear-cut communication either in e-mail form, a post, maybe an introduction within the syllabus for the course, or the best, I guess, the best practice would be a prerecorded lecture or something, just giving their actual verbal words, their actual words as to what is going to be expected of you throughout the course.

Although Carl expected clarifi cation in multiple ways, Joe, a 42-year-old senior, simply said the following:

Step-by-step it out because it has to almost be like that because if you are not face-to-face you don’t have an option to explain or to really ask questions or to get the real gist of it. It has to be very simple, clear, and defi ned—what the goals are and the understandings of what you need to do each week.

The students hinted at clear expectations being paramount in online classes.

The Respect theme describes statements represent-ing the students’ yearning for instructors to demonstrate care and deference to student needs. This theme covered ideals such as patience, encouragement, timeliness, and availability. The Respect theme appeared in 44 of the 2,719 coded segments. Cindy, a 60-year-old senior, explained that she expected timeliness with grading: “I expect them to get

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the tests graded in a timely manner. If I am supposed to get my stuff in on time, then you had better get my grade back to me on time.” The students expected the faculty to demonstrate respect as a part of teaching the online course.

The third and fi nal theme regarding expected behav-iors is intentional course design. The Intentional Design theme described instructional design tactics mentioned by students when asked for expected instructor behaviors. This theme, appearing in 63 of the 2,719 coded segments, covers pedagogical strategies such as using online forums, having the course designed in a timely manner, and assigning an appropriate amount of work. Joe, a 42-year-old senior, demonstrated that he expected instructors to use effective pedagogical strategies on online discussion boards:

Instead make it more of a conversation. Make it more of a feedback thing as a requirement. Start calling people out on their answers in front of everybody, because that is what you do in class. You can’t just say something and then arbitrarily leave it hanging. Most good instructors would say, “Why do you really think that?”.

This example reveals students expect clarity, respect, and intentional design from instructors in an online course. Next, we examine the behaviors students experience online that lead to satisfaction.

Positive Instructor Behaviors Enacted OnlineParticipants in our qualitative study refl ected on the

behaviors enacted in the online classroom that students evaluated as satisfactory. The interview questions asked students to explain what behaviors they experienced from faculty that made the outcome feel positive. The students explained examples that fell into one of two different themes: Effective Communication and Enabling Learning.

The Effective Communication theme tied together all subcodes that discussed facets of messages from instructors that students viewed positively. The use of various modalities of communication were mentioned in this thematic area where online instructor behaviors led to successful out-comes. Effective Communication was mentioned in 106 of the 2,719 coded segments. E-mail was the most referenced modality in the Effective Communication thematic area (41 of the 106 Effective Communication-themed segments). Lois, a 47-year-old senior, mentioned, “I probably have more e-mail interaction in an online class.” This effective com-munication resonated with many of the interviewed students.

The second theme identifying positively enacted instructor behaviors was Enabling Learning. The Enabling

Learning theme identifi ed those statements where instructors empowered and assisted students in the learning process, which left the students feeling satisfi ed. This thematic area encompassed items such as reminding students of upcoming deadlines and instructors interacting with the students, and was mentioned in 156 of the 2,719 coded segments. Reminders were often cited (28 of the 156 Enabling Learning-themed segments) and the power of reminders was best explained by Mary, a 28-year-old senior, who stated the following:

So they’re not necessarily hand-holding you, but in a sense they’re there to remind you and they want to make sure that you’re doing the work and achieving it and completing it on time rather than just saying, “Here you go; make sure you get it done.”

Another popular subtheme in Enabling Learning was interacting with students (31 of the 156 Enabling Learning-themed segments). Lois, a 47-year-old senior, claimed, “I guess just for me, the more they can interact with the people they are trying to teach, the better it is from my perspective.”

Negative Instructor Behaviors Enacted OnlineAlthough the respondents shared many enacted behav-

iors where they experienced positive outcomes, the students also shared instructor behaviors that led to dissatisfaction in the online classroom. The interview questions prompted students to share an experience when an instructor did some-thing that they felt did not work well and led to negative out-comes. The students shared examples in one of two themes: Poor Use of Tools and Stopping the Learning Process.

The Poor Use of Tools theme explains the statements from students that described online instructors using teach-ing strategies in an ineffective manner. The Poor Use of Tools theme was cited in 33 of the 2,719 coded segments and encompassed subthemes such as not having the online system set up correctly and not effectively using available tools. Carl, a 38-year-old senior, showed evident frustra-tion related to an online course not being set up correctly:

When you open up a session and you see due dates from two years ago or half, kind of half-mashed together assignments and just things that don’t make sense or you are supposed to do a, supposed to post a discussion response, but when you go to do it, there is no button. There is no option to allow you to post to the site.

Mike, a 26-year-old junior, echoed this frustration and explained that online systems not being set up cause him to

158 • Adult Students Online

lose motivation: “You’re so motivated at the beginning of the semester, and when you have a week and a half before you’re even able to do anything, kind of makes you lose motivation.”

The second theme, Stopping the Learning Process, arose when students referenced instructor behaviors that disrupted their ability to successfully proceed with the learning process. Students referenced behaviors such as falling behind on grading, not responding to student questions, and rude interactions. Stopping the Learning Process appeared in 84 of the 2,719 coded segments. Cindy, a 60-year-old senior, shared frustration when tests are not graded in a timely fashion: “That really kind of upsets me that it is three weeks later and you don’t know how you did and it is time for the next test.”

Recommendations From Adult Students for Online Instructors

Finally, students shed light on behavioral practices that adult students wish more faculty enacted when teaching on-line. The interview question we used to invite participants to share these recommendations asked students to share ideas for helping faculty create the most effective online class environment. The students cited suggestions that fi t in one of the following three thematic areas: Intentional Artistry in Course Design, Meeting Students Where They Are At, and a fi nal theme just asking instructors to Do Your Job.

The Intentional Artistry in Course Design theme encompasses suggestions from students that refer to the instructor constructing the course in creative, effective, and exciting ways. This thematic area references techniques demonstrating mastery of the art of effective course design, and the theme was mentioned in 171 of the 2,719 coded seg-ments. Shawn, a 24-year-old sophomore, suggested fi nding a way to incorporate perspectives of other students in the class because “they pick up on things and you pick up on things that they don’t and then you can learn things you didn’t know.”

The second thematic area for student recommenda-tions involves instructor behaviors, or Meeting Students Where They Are At. This theme explains the necessity for faculty to adjust the course for individual students based on obligations and responsibilities outside of the classroom. This thematic area (in 34 of the 2,719 coded segments) covered suggestions such as knowing your audience, being fl exible, and understanding the busy life of an adult student. Carl, a 38-year-old senior, shared that he wanted instructors to be more respectful of individual circumstances:

You are dealing with the stay-at-home moms, the career dads that are trying to extend their education and get a leg up at work. You are

dealing with people that are, instead of just kind of being tunnel vision on one thing, they are balancing a lot of different things on their plates and on their shoulders, so you need to know that audience so you can be a little bit respectful, or a lot bit respectful, but a little bit more mindful of how you may phrase some things in the form of responses and expectations.

The fi nal theme of suggestions for online instructors instructs online teachers to simply Do Your Job. The Do Your Job theme encompasses recommendations that in-structors should actually perform the duties in their job description, and additionally covers tactics institutions should also engage in to ensure teachers do their jobs. The Do Your Job theme appears in 94 of the 2,719 coded segments. Carmen, a 30-year-old senior, suggested to “keep the students informed, and be available as opposed to not. Don’t just slough off comments, actually respond to all the e-mails.” Carl, a 38-year-old senior, additionally suggests that institutions should be doing more to ensure instructors are doing their job: “The dean or somebody that is in charge of the online courses should be just randomly popping into the courses and just seeing how dysfunctional they are.”


The fi rst research question explored expectations adult students have for online instructors. The students revealed that they sign up for online courses because the courses fi t their schedules, allowed self-direction of their learning, and used learning tools they liked. As Carl and many other students discussed, outside commitments make fi nding time for class challenging. Instructors in higher education need to understand the challenges (such as limited time) that adult students face and be willing to adjust to what these adult learners expect and need during their learning experiences (Donovant, Daniel, & MacKewn, 2013).

As the results showed, when adult students do make the time to take an online class, students expect clarity, respect, and intentional design from their instructors because time is precious and adult students do not have time to waste. As Mary emphasized, students want clar-ity from the start, which aligns with previous research that found adult students expect clarity from instructors (Houser, 2006). Clarity, respect, and intentional design together are best achieved when an instructor has adept teaching abilities. Because these students were enrolled

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in many different types of undergraduate courses, higher education institutions should be mindful of adult student needs across the curriculum. Adult students also want extra clarity, so colleges and universities should ensure online instructors receive training to enact tools online to meet those needs effectively. Institutions must move beyond the idea that generic teaching standards actually meet the unique needs of running an effective online course (Baran et al., 2011).

The second research question aimed to uncover what adult students experienced from an instructor in an online course that led to the student feeling positive or negative about the interaction. Expectancy violations theory (EVT) explains that when a behavior matches or exceeds what is expected, the outcome is likely to be satisfying, but when a behavior does not meet expectations, the resulting feeling will be much less satisfying (Koermer & Petelle, 1991). RQ1 found that students expect clarity, and in line with EVT, when instructors were clear in their communication, the behavior matched student expectations and students were more satisfi ed with the instruction. When instructors communicated in clear ways such as via e-mail, students felt they were better able to learn from the instructor. This fi nding is in line with previous research that found effective learning occurs when individuals interact with one another using communication to co-construct the learning process (Bronack, Riedl, & Tashner, 2006). Therefore, higher edu-cation institutions must ensure that online course policies require the instructors to deliver a quality communicative experience that enables learning (Johnson et al., 2014).

However, students also reported that when instructor behaviors did not meet their expectations, the resulting feeling was much less satisfying. Interviewees explained that the poor use of teaching tools and behaviors that stopped the learning process left them feeling frustrated because those behaviors did not meet their expectations for respect. When instructors do not meet student expecta-tions, the students do not feel satisfi ed and may possibly even lose motivation, as was mentioned by Mike. Adult students often already feel stress and guilt about not being able to juggle all of their roles (Zembylas, 2008), so the addition of encountering behaviors that do not meet their expectations may lead students to abandon their online class, which would be detrimental to both their learning and higher education enrollment numbers. To ensure students do not face the frustration of unmet expectations and to improve student persistence, personnel working with adult students in higher education must commit to proactively understanding and addressing adult student needs (Kasworm, 2014; Wyatt, 2011).

The third research question asked adult students how online instructors could better meet their needs. The inter-viewee suggestions surrounded intentional, creative course design, tactics that meet students where they are at, and instructors simply doing their jobs. Students provided sug-gestions to make the course design better, such as Shawn’s proposal to have students interact more with one another. Teachers oftentimes have limited or no online experience, and when those inexperienced teachers simply transfer face-to-face teaching strategies to online, it does not work (Baran et al., 2011). Therefore, students may not see as much sound course design currently because instructors may not know how to design an effective online class if they do not receive training.

Students also suggested that instructors should meet students where they are at and that instructors should simply do their jobs. As explained by Mary, adult students want teachers to understand they have more go-ing on than just school. In order for students to achieve active learning, instructors must invest time to construct and continually adjust classes based on the needs of the enrolled students (Ball & Leppington, 2013). Previous research has shown that a best practice for educating adult learners is to have faculty adjust their teaching delivery to adapt to the needs of the learners (Wyatt, 2011), so institutions should ensure online instructors are adapt-ing courses to meet student needs. Simply put, if higher educational institutions provide tools and procedures to help instructors do their job well, adult students will be better able to succeed.


This study used qualitative interviews to explore adult student expectations and experiences in online courses. Through the interviews, we found student expectations of online instructors fell into one of three thematic areas: clarity, respect, and intentional design. In line with EVT, when students encountered instructor behaviors such as poor use of instructional tools, students were less satis-fi ed because it did not meet their expectations for clarity, respect, or intentional design. However, also in line with EVT, when students encountered instructor behaviors such as effective communication, those behaviors met student needs for clarity and respect, so the students were satisfi ed. EVT emphasizes the importance of aligned expectations (Burgoon, 1993), and this study demonstrated that when online instructor behavior aligned with adult student expectations, students were more satisfi ed and were better able to learn.

160 • Adult Students Online

Beyond empirical contributions to current research on adult students and online learning, the themes that arose from the data suggest ways that higher education may better meet the needs of adult students. Instruc-tors and institutions of higher education need to be cognizant of intentional course design, meeting students where they are at, and developing procedures to ensure instructors effectively do their jobs. Although this study interviewed only adult students, we believe the findings also have relevance to traditional student learning be-cause the suggestions emphasize good teaching. Future research should continue to explore the connection between effective course design and meeting student (both traditional and adult) needs. Although this study did not require students to have taken more than one online course, future research could look to uncover strategies used across multiple online courses. Future research could also interview both types of students to reveal more useful information regarding expected instructor behaviors.

Although it is unlikely that one formula exists for effective instructor behaviors, future research needs to analyze specifi c online instructor behaviors, demonstrate the effectiveness of each behavior, and then determine if those behaviors meet adult student needs. Throughout our research we found that instructor behaviors dem-onstrating clarity, care, and sound course design best supported the learning process. Both institutions and instructors must strive to use these behaviors to meet adult (and traditional) student expectations positively in the online classroom.


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