Responding to the Challenges Experienced by Working Adult Students
This pilot study explores the challenges faced by working adult graduate students at the premier private university in Cambodia. It utilizes survey research methods to elicit student opinions about the challenges they face as working adults and what they believe the university, their instructors, their peers, and they themselves can do to address these challenges and achieve a better work-life balance. The conceptual context for the research reviews literature pertaining to higher education in developing countries, the needs of adult learners, and the work-life balance challenges experienced by adult learners.
Because this literature is based on western research, this study seeks to understand the challenges faced by adult learners in the particular cultural context of Cambodia. It concludes that, based on the data collected from a limited sample, Cambodian working adult students face many of the same challenges as working adult students in other cultural contexts. It recommends that a broader study on the topic be conducted and offers preliminary recommendations for how the university, instructors, student peers, and individual students can address challenges faced by working students in Cambodia. INTRODUCTION
Having emerged in the late 1990s from three decades of armed conflict and political instability, Cambodia is one of the poorest nations in the world. With 36% of its population living below the official poverty line, Cambodia ranks 87 out of 135 countries measured by the UN Human Poverty Index (UNDP, 2009), placing it between Djibouti and India. The UN Human Development Index (UNDP, 2009), which assesses a broader range of factors including life expectancy; adult literacy and educational enrollment; and the ability to have a decent standard of living, ranks Cambodia 137 out of 182 countries studied, placing it between Congo and Myanmar.
Prolonged civil conflict destroyed Cambodia’s educational institutions. During the Khmer Rouge era of 1975-1979, teachers and intellectuals were targeted for execution, schools were converted to political prisons, and books were systematically destroyed (Hagadorn, 2004. ) The political instability that continued through the late 1990s delayed the country’s ability to move into a period of economic and human development.
The Royal Government of Cambodia’s Rectangular Strategy, which forms the basis for its National Strategic Development Plan (Ministry of Planning, 2006), cites capacity building and human resource development as one of five pillars — together with improvements in agriculture, development of the private sector and employment, rehabilitation of infrastructure, and good governance — that are essential for national development. The Education Strategic Plan: 2006-2010 (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, 2006) calls for improvements in access to and quality of education at all levels from preschool through higher education.
On one hand, a mid-term review of the strategy (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, 2008) indicates that 6% of the government’s education budget focused on higher education and that acceptable progress has been made on most higher education targets, with the exception of increasing enrollments in science, technology, and math. On the other hand, the World Economic Forum Competitiveness Report: 2008-2009, cited by Green (2003), ranked the quality of Cambodia’s higher education system as the lowest in Southeast Asia, although data for Lao PDR and Myanmar were not available.
It is understandable that the current priority of the Ministry is to ensure basic education for all; however, in the long term, quality higher education will be a key to economic development. Lack of quality in higher education is reflected in the reality that while the number of higher education institutions in Cambodia rose from ten to more than seventy during the period from 2000-2008, only one in ten graduates is able to find employment in their area of study because of a gap between what they learn and the skills employers need (AsiaOne, 2008.
) Students currently pursuing higher education in Cambodia often experienced deficient education at the primary, secondary and high school levels where didactic methods are used almost exclusively, due to teacher training and classroom overcrowding. As a result, students may enter higher education with poor basic skills and study habits, and difficulties with critical and analytical thinking (personal observation).
In addition, according to one expert, “Some students are scared of studying hard and think what they need is any degree, not quality. ” (AsiaOne, 2008. ) To complicate matters further, many students, particularly those studying at the graduate level, must balance their academic studies with full time jobs and family obligations. This suggests that innovative strategies are needed to provide appropriate support to working students to ensure that their efforts result not only in a certificate, but in quality learning and workforce preparedness.
This study’s research purpose is to learn about the challenges experienced by working adult students at the graduate level at one of Cambodia’s premiere educational institutions. In addition, it seeks to understand students’ opinions about what the university, their teachers, their fellow students and they themselves can do to help them achieve better work-life balance, which in turn, may have a positive influence on learning outcomes. In addition to these research purposes, there are two additional purposes that motivate this study.
First, on a personal level, as a teacher of working adult students in a graduate research methods course, I have observed first hand the difficulties students experience in balancing school with other obligations and their difficulties in completing their coursework at a high level of quality. Most are able to pass the class, but few master the course material. As a result, the course is taught on a pass/not pass basis, to avoid damaging the students’ grade point averages.
Therefore, this study also seeks to understand what these students need, as working adults, to be successful in their studies. Second, at a practical level, this research aims (1) to generate preliminary data and conclusions that suggest actions that the university, teachers and students can take to enrich the learning experience and (2) to recommend areas for further study. The subjects for this research are students attending an Introduction to Research Methods course on Sunday mornings during the Summer 2010 term.
Twenty-four students who attended the first day of class were asked to complete a questionnaire that included 13 items related to the research. A contingency question, “Do you work? ” was used to identify any students who did not fit the category of “adult working student. ” Only one questionnaire was eliminated because the student does not work. Therefore, a total of 23 students are included in the pilot study. The questionnaire included questions about students’ major field of study, type of employment, number of hours worked and amount of travel required by their employer.
It then asks about major challenges experienced by the student and solicits opinions regarding what the university, instructors and peers, and the students themselves can do to help the students achieve better work-life balance. Responses to closed-ended questions were tabulated and responses to open-ended questions were coded and organized into themes. CONCEPTUAL CONTEXT FOR THE RESEARCH Personal Observations Having completed master’s and doctoral degrees as a full time working adult, I have first-hand experience with the challenges experienced by adult learners.
Juggling the competing demands of work, studies, family and social obligations, and household chores requires careful time management, negotiation with those who present demands to the working student, and often leaves the working student exhausted. In my experience, I was able to meet these challenges by organizing my time carefully, receiving positive support from family and friends, negotiating with my employer to reduce travel assignments, taking earned leave when facing major course deadlines, and making personal sacrifices.
In my teaching, I observe that my students often arrive at class tired, regularly state that they are “too busy” to complete school work and frequently ask permission to be absent due to work-related travel, assigned meetings, family emergencies, obligations to care for older and younger family members, and important social functions, such as weddings and religious ceremonies. Having worked in Cambodia for more than five years, I believe my students do not have the same freedom I enjoyed in the U. S. to negotiate with employers, family members, and friends to make their studies a high priority.
When I asked my students, “Are you able to negotiate with your family regarding family obligations? ” and “Are you able to negotiate with your employer regarding work obligations? ” as a group they emphatically responded “no. ” In addition, having been raised in primary, secondary and high schools that may not have rewarded students based on merit, Cambodian students may not enter the university with the same levels of discipline and time management skills that college-bound students in the West typically develop.
In the case of female students, some of their families may not place a high value on female education, and therefore, may not encourage them in their studies. As a result, female students may be under greater pressure to sacrifice their academic pursuits to respond to family obligations. Literature Review After conducting an internet-based search for literature, three areas appear especially relevant to understanding the context for this research study: (1) Higher education in developing countries; (2) The special needs of adult learners;
(3) Challenges in maintaining work-life balance among adult learners. Higher Education in Developing Countries The World Conference on Higher Education (UNESCO, 1998) created a vision statement and action framework for higher education in the 21st century. The report notes that higher education is essential for socio-cultural and economic development. While the availability of higher education increased six-fold during the second half of the 20th century, unequal access to higher education also increased between industrial and non-industrial countries and between socio-economic groups within countries.
Of particular concern to the members of the conference is the continuing gender gap in access to higher education. The report states that, because the rate of social and technological change is at an historical high, emphasis must be given to lifelong learning to continually update skills to address evolving social and market needs. As a result, higher education must address not only the needs of young students, but also the needs of students who are re-entering the university mid-way or late in their careers.
The key challenge for education systems is “creating opportunities for adult learning in flexible, open and creative ways. ” (pg. 14. ) Donor organizations, such as the World Bank, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and the United Nations often view education as a means to produce human capital to drive economic growth and, therefore, focus on producing workers with specific technical skills (Spring, 1998.
) This approach does not give sufficient emphasis to building productive citizens and future leaders who are able to think critically about society and find creative solutions to emerging problems (UNESCO, 1998. ) Nor does it take into account that, as the world economy changes, “knowledge supplants physical capital as the source of present (and future) wealth” (Task Force on Higher Education and Society, 2000. ) Bloom and Rosovsky (2003) assert that higher education ought to focus on “teaching students how to think rather than what to think, and how to learn rather than what to learn” (pg. 2.
) The Task Force on Higher Education and Society (2000) suggests that if markets alone drive educational choices, many disciplines that are critical to social development and citizen empowerment, for example basic sciences and the humanities, will be under-provided. The task force calls on leaders in the field of education to advocate for their inclusion in curricula. Special Needs of Adult Learners Statistics are not readily available as to what percentage of university students in Cambodia can be classified as ‘adult students,’ which is typically defined as students who are 25 years or older (Peck and Varney, 2009.
) According to a study by Noel-Levitz (2008), in the U. S. , 50% of university students are adults. Seventy percent of female university students are adults (Bash, 2003. ) A variety of factors lead people to become adult students, including the desire for a job promotion, following the example of friends or co-workers, or internal motivation to achieve (Norman Davies Group, 2005. ) Others may seek education as a means to cope with a life-changing experience, such as marriage, divorce, being fired from a job, or moving to a new city (Zemke and Zemke, 1984.
) Adult students differ from younger students in many ways (Zemke and Zemke, 1984. ) They bring a significant amount of practical knowledge with them to the classroom. They are less interested in theory and more interested in applying new knowledge. They find it difficult to integrate information that conflicts with what they already know. They prefer practice to lectures. And they have many other responsibilities in their lives. Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (1998) add that adults need to understand why they need to learn something.
In addition, they are responsible, and therefore accountable, for their own decisions regarding what and how they learn. Because adults bring different needs and preferences to the classroom, instructors must use a variety of teaching methods, including discussion, debate, and in-class exercises. The key role of the educator is not so much to teach the adult, but to facilitate the adult’s own learning process (Zemke and Zemke, 1984. ) Challenges in Maintaining Work-Life Balance among Adult Learners
Many adult students work full time and also provide care to children and older relatives. They may be involved in community and volunteer activities. When they decide to add higher education to the mix of activities, they risk under-achieving in some aspect of their lives because they are not able to balance all of the demands on their time (Fairchild, 2003. ) Mercer (1993) describes three types of barriers that can serve as threats to the adult student’s ability to succeed: situational barriers, dispositional barriers, and institutional barriers.
Situational barriers include the need to care for children and older relatives, finances, and job responsibilities. Many working adults must make temporary career sacrifices in order to manage family and school responsibilities. Dispositional barriers include experiencing conflicts among competing demands; having insufficient time to meet demands, resulting in overload; and worrying about one role while performing another. Increased demands can lead to stress, anxiety and depression, especially for female students who are low income or have young children.
Institutional barriers result when class work does not integrate work experience, when classes are not offered during appropriate days and hours, and when students are unable to develop a social network within the university. According to the Mayo Clinic (accessed July 2010 from www. mayoclinic. com), the fatigue caused by managing multiple priorities can lead to poor productivity and even costly mistakes due to unclear thinking. Relationships also can suffer, leading to a sense of isolation.
Fairchild (2003) notes that multiple roles can be helpful to adult students because learning can be applied immediately to work; adult students have more life experience to draw upon; and adult students make the most of class time. Acknowledging that all working students have to make sacrifices to succeed, Hoak (2007), suggests several methods for improving work-life balance, or at least keeping stress at a manageable level. First, she recommends having a specific, long-term goal in mind and keeping sight of it.
Students who are seeking specific benefits, rather than general knowledge, are better able to keep sacrifices in perspective. Second, she suggests taking a step by step approach to re-entering the academic world by enrolling at first in one or two courses before committing to full time studies. Third, she notes that the families and friends of working adult students also make sacrifices when they do not have access to the student’s time and that the student should remind others that their life is going to be different for a period of time and request their active support.
Finally, she encourages adult students to maintain good performance on the job and, if possible, to solicit their supervisors’ support. RESEARCH QUESTIONS A significant amount of research has been done on the topics of the special needs of adult learners and the challenges they face in maintaining a healthy work-life balance. The literature specifically cites the demands on the adult learner to manage work responsibilities, school responsibilities and family and social obligations and the stress, anxiety and exhaustion that can result from these efforts.
My own experience as a working adult learner reinforces these research conclusions. In my efforts to complete master’s and doctoral level degrees as a working adult, it was necessary to make sacrifices in social and family relationships and even in meeting basic health needs. For example, it was difficult to keep up a regular program of exercise, I seldom was able to enjoy a full night’s sleep, and leisure time became a distant memory. While there is a significant body of research on the topics of working adult learners and work-life balance, most of the available studies were conducted in the United States.
Therefore, a gap in knowledge that this research seeks to address is to learn more about the dynamics of being a working adult student in the cultural context of Cambodia. Based on my observations, I believe working adult students in Cambodia have less ability to negotiate with employers and families to reduce obligations or to manage them in a flexible manner. Therefore, the research questions that guide this study are: (1) What are the key challenges faced by working adults studying at the master’s level at a private university in Cambodia?
(2) What actions do the students believe the university, their instructors, their peers and they themselves can take to help them address these challenges? RESEARCH METHODS This research is a quantitative, pilot study utilizing survey research methods, specifically, a questionnaire. Because little is known about the challenges faced by working adult students in Cambodia, a pilot study was selected to test a questionnaire instrument and determine whether it produces the data needed to understand the research topic. The research has
both descriptive and exploratory components. It is descriptive because it describes the current situation and opinions of a group of adult students studying at the master’s level at a private university in Cambodia. It is exploratory because, although there is a large body of literature and research available about adult learners and work-life balance issues in general, these topics have not been studied in the particular cultural context of Cambodia. It does not attempt to draw conclusions regarding causes and effects, and therefore, is not an explanatory research study.
The study population consists of master’s level students who attended the first day of my course, Introduction to Research Methods. Twenty-four students attended this first class, out of which 23 are working students; therefore, the study population consists of 23 students. This group was selected because, as their instructor, I have easy access to them. In addition, because this is a course in research methods, using class time to give the students first-hand experience completing a research questionnaire, and modeling how a questionnaire should be administered, is justified as a learning experience.
After the questionnaire was distributed, I reviewed it with the students and explained key concepts in questionnaire design contained in the instrument. These students study on the weekend and, therefore, may not represent students who study on weeknights or during the day. In addition, most of the students are enrolled in education or business-related majors and are fairly advanced in their studies. Therefore, the pilot results can only be generalized to advanced master’s degree students in education and business-related majors who study on the weekend.
However, it was felt that their responses would be sufficient to test the instrument and develop recommendations for a study focused on a larger population. A questionnaire was selected as the research instrument because it provides an efficient means to gather data. Because I was using class time to gather data, using interviews or focus groups would have presented an unfair time burden to the subjects. The questionnaire was administered on a confidential basis. Students wrote their names and other identifying information on the instrument.
I considered whether students would respond more candidly to an anonymous questionnaire. Because past students have regularly spoken openly with me about the challenges they face as working adults, there is reason to believe the responses are honest and, therefore, the data can be considered reliable for this particular population. The questionnaire consists of 13 questions related to the research topic. Seven of these are closed-ended questions related to the student’s major, type of employment, number of hours worked each week, and how often the student must travel for his or her employer.
Five open-ended questions asked the students to describe the major challenges they face as working students and asked their opinions about what the university, teachers, classmates and they themselves can do to help them manage these challenges. Students were able to complete the questionnaire within the 20 minutes allotted. A review of responses suggests that both the closed-ended and open-ended questions were easily understood and elicited appropriate responses. This is further evidence that the data is reliable.
Initially, simple tabulations were made of the responses to closed-ended questions. Responses to open-ended questions were coded and categorized into themes. Once this initial data management was completed, the data were examined for correlations that deserve further analysis. For example, the researcher believed there may be differences in the types of challenges students report based on gender, major field of study, type of employer, number of hours worked per week and frequency of work-related travel.
A review of the data did not point to correlations, which may be a result of the small study population, and therefore, no correlation analysis was performed. There are two potential ethical issues involved in this research. The first is related to the principle of voluntary participation. Because my subjects are my students, and because the questionnaire was administered on the first day of class, it is unlikely that students would feel comfortable refusing to complete the questionnaire. In order to mitigate this potential ethical problem, I focused on questions that I felt would not be sensitive.
For example, I believe that family obligations create significant role conflicts for adult working students in Cambodia; however, questions about the students’ personal lives may have created psychological distress and, therefore, I avoided questions of that type. Instead, I limited my questions to ones that were related to work life and student life. In addition, the students were in control of how much information they gave in response to open-ended questions, which gives them the opportunity to decide, on a voluntary basis, how much information they want to reveal.
A second potential ethical problem relates to the principle of protecting the subject’s identity. I selected a confidential, rather than anonymous, questionnaire format. As discussed above, because students regularly speak openly with me about the challenges they face as working adults, and because I did not ask questions that relate to personal and family relationships, this does not seem to present a serious ethical problem. The benefit it provides is that, as a teacher, I have an opportunity to better understand the challenges faced by individual students. DATA PRESENTATION
This section of the report first presents descriptive data about the characteristics of students and their work commitments gathered from closed-ended survey questions. It then presents student responses to open-ended questions about the challenges they face as working students and their opinions about how the university, teachers, classmates and they can do to help them manage the challenges of being a working student. These responses have been coded and organized into response categories. Of the twenty-three students who work, eighteen (78%) are male and five (22%) are female.
Figure 1: Gender of Study Participants The study participants are relatively young, with sixteen (70%) of them in the 20-29 year age range and six (26%) in the 30-39 year age range. Only one (4%) is forty years of age or older. Figure 2: Ages of Study Participants The majority of the study participants are management (48%) or education (36%) majors. Figure 3: Major Areas of Study of Research Participants The largest number of students (28%) work for corporations, followed by 20% who work for a university.
Twelve percent of the study population works, respectively, for a family business; primary, secondary or high school; or an international NGO. One student is employed by the government. Figure 4: Type of Employer Type of Employer Number % of Total Self-employed 1 4% Small to medium family business 3 12% Corporation 7 28% Primary, secondary or high school 3 12% University 5 20% Local NGO 1 4% International NGO 3 12% Government 1 4% No response 1 4% Not including their study time, eleven of the respondents (48%) work more than forty hours per week while eight additional students (34%) work from twenty to forty hours per week.
Figure 5: Number of hours worked per week Sixty-five percent (15) of the students report they do not travel for work, while 35% (8) report work-related travel. Figure 6: Percentage of students reporting work-related travel Among the eight students who report work-related travel obligations to provinces or other countries, 38% responded that they have weekly travel, 25% reported monthly travel, and 38% reported occasional travel as needed, but less often than monthly.
Figure 7: Frequency of Work-Related Travel The following data represents the students’ opinions regarding the major challenges they face as working adults and what the university, their teachers, fellow students, and they themselves can do to help them address these challenges. Students were able to provide multiple responses to the open-ended questions; therefore, percentages are calculated based on the number of responses, rather than the number of students in the study population.
Students reported three key challenges they face as working adult students: not having enough time; tired, which was linked with difficulty concentrating on course work; and conflict among competing roles. In addition, students in the “other” category reported that classes are not relevant to their work; they often hand in assignments late; significant travel to attend classes; financial management; and difficulties maintaining a B average. Figure 8: Key challenges faced by working adult students Number of responses = 38
Sixty percent of students would like the university to adopt a more “student centered” approach by revising class schedules and improving access to student services, including library and computer labs, on the weekend. Twenty-two percent would like classes to integrate more closely with their work, and 17% want more flexibility around deadlines for dropping and adding classes. Only one student asked the university to require instructors to give fewer assignments. Figure 9: Steps the University can take to address student challenges Number of responses = 23
`Students recommended that instructors take a number of steps to help them address their challenges as working adults. Figure 10: Steps instructors can take to address student challenges Recommendation Frequency % of responses Be available for student consultation through appointments, email and telephone 8 26% Be understanding and flexible about students’ needs 6 19% Make teaching applicable to students’ jobs 6 18% Provide clear guidance and assignments 5 15% Use interactive teaching methods 4 13% Give appropriate amount of reading 2 6% Number of responses = 31
A clear majority of students (63%) believe their peers can help them address their challenges by sharing information, knowledge and experiences. This includes sharing lecture notes and information when a student is absent, sharing work experience related to the course, and helping students to understand course material they find confusing. Twenty percent want their peers to participate more actively in group work and 17% want their peers to engage more actively in class discussions. Figure 11: Steps peers can take to address student challenges Number of responses = 30
A majority of student responses (53%) pointed to improved time management as a method to help them address their challenges, with some responses pointing to the need to make sacrifices (less rest and relaxation. ) Thirteen percent of student responses, respectively, suggested the need to improve self-motivation and commitment; to consult more often with the instructor and other students to understand course material; and to focus more in class. Responses in the “other” category included reading more, attending class regularly and cutting down on spending. Figure 12: Steps students can take to address their own challenges
Number of responses = 32 DATA ANALYSIS This section of the report provides conclusions related to the conceptual context for the research and provides recommendations to the university, instructors, classmates, and individual students. Review of Research Purposes and Questions The purposes of this study are to better understand the challenges experienced by working adult students studying at the master’s level at PUC; what students need to be successful in their studies; and to produce recommendations to instructors, the university and students regarding what they can do to address student needs.
Therefore, this study focused on two key research questions: (1) What are the key challenges faced by working adults studying at the master’s level at a private university in Cambodia? (2) What actions do the students believe the university, their instructors, their peers and they themselves can take to help them address these challenges? Conclusions
Zemke and Zemke (1984) note that adult students are interested in applied knowledge and respond best to a variety of teaching methods that minimize lectures and include discussions and exercises. A significant number of participants in this study note their desire that coursework be relevant to their jobs and cite interactive teaching methods and consultation with instructors and peers as important sources of learning. Knowles, Horton, and Swenson (1998) assert that adults are responsible and accountable for their own learning.
The students in this study appear to agree with this opinion as a majority point to time management and peer interaction as methods to support their learning process and address the challenges they face as working adult students. Fairchild (2003) discusses the multiple roles that adult learners must manage and the stress this can create. While this study avoided asking questions about role conflicts related to personal and family commitments, it is somewhat surprising that none of the students cited family obligations in response to open-ended questions.