Part-Time Learner

Part-Time Learner

=Who are part-time learners?=

Part-Time Adult Learners are a group of the higher education students. There are a variety of terms synonymous with the Part-Time Learner (PTL) used in Canadian and American academic literature, including the Non-Traditional Learner. [Bean, J., P., & Metzner, B., S. (Winter,1985). A conceptual model of non-traditional undergraduate student attrition. Review of Educational Research, 55(4), 485-540. Retrieved November 6, 2007, from JSTOR database.] It is therefore acceptable and reasonable to explore the numerous characteristics of the PTL through examining research on the Non-Traditional Learner (NTL). Definitions as proposed by Andres and Carpenter (1997), Shuetze and Slowey (2002), Schuetz and Day (2001) as well as Stydinger and Dundes (2006) describe various features of the NTL as including:

#Physical maturity
#Living off-campus
#Unconventional educational biographies
#Possessing responsibilities affiliated with family and/or employment
#Minority or disadvantaged status (i.e. ethnicity, female gender, disability or immigrant, etc.)

Additional characteristics with NTL's exist as a result of the numerous programs and fields of study they pursue. PTL's can be enrolled in certificate, diploma, undergraduate (including after-degree) or graduate degrees, in credit or non-degree credit courses, in a plethora of fields. [Shale, D., & Roche, J. (1998). Not all part-time students are the same. Presented to the Canadian Institutional Research and Planning Association Annual Conference, October 1998. Office of Institutional Analysis, University of Calgary. Retrieved September 19, 2007, from] The multiplicity of characteristics reflected by PTL's makes this segment of the student population challenging to study and describe.

One method of separating the PTLs from the NTLs can be found by applying institutional criteria. Part-Time status in Canadian Universities is dictated by the enrollment in a maximum and, occasionally minimum number of credit hours or courses. The University of British Columbia defines a part-time undergraduate student as one enrolled in less than 80% of the standard 30 credit-hour course load. [The University of British. (N.D.) Student Calendar. Retrieved September 28, 2007 from:,195,272,29] The University of Manitoba defines the part-time undergraduate student as an individual enrolled in less than 60% of the standard full 30 credit hour course load. [The University of Manitoba. (N.D.) Student Records. Retrieved September 26, 2007, from:] The Government of Canada National Student loans program defines a Part-Time Student as one who is enrolled in 20-59% of a full course load. [CanLearn (N.D.) Canada student loans program: Part-time studies. Government of Canada. Retrieved October 2, 2007, from] Institutional criteria can be used to separate the NTL from the PTL however caution must be practiced as criteria can vary between and within institutions. Campbell (1984) effectively captures the aforementioned variability by describing the PTL as...

"the 29 year-old man with a wife and a new baby, who, at last perceiving that accounting is his niche, plods on over as many as eight years towards accreditation in that field. It is an ambitious senior school teacher who has set his mind on a school superintendency and seeks to advance his credentials. It is a member of a farmers’ union with a vision of what might be in agriculture who undertakes to grapple with economics in preparation for a leadership role. It is a restless 43 year-old wife and mother who gains relief from household demands through the study of ceramics or comparative literature or who takes refresher courses in nursing techniques in anticipation of her re-entry into nursing. It is an engineering graduate, success having placed him in managerial ranks, who is confronted with human problems for which his earlier professional training has not prepared him. It is a new Canadian for whom more rewarding employment or access to formal post-secondary education requires that he upgrade his skill in English as a second language"(p. 19-20).

In spite of the diversity of characteristics and variability of institutional criteria a plausible and general definition of the PTL can be established. The PTL could be described as: a mature individual; residing off-campus; holding an unconventional educational biography and responsibilities associated with work and/or family duties; may be of a minority status; and would be enrolled in a course load approximately half that of a full time student. Caution must be practiced when applying this definition as it is one of many possible interpretations of a PTL.

Part-time learner population

PTL's have a long history in Higher Education. Some of the earliest universities including Takshasila and Nalanda in Asia and the medieval Universities in Europe were created by and organized for PTL’s. [Waniewicz, I. (1976). Demand for part-time learning in Ontario. The Ontario Educational Communications: Canada.] In Canadian higher education, part-time enrollment demonstrated significant growth for the greater part of the twentieth century but has recently leveled off. The Trends Report (2007) reported that from 1976 to 1992 part-time enrollment "“…grew by some 65 percent or 125,000 to a peak of 316,000 in 1992"(p. 13). Following 1992 participation of PTL's in Canadian higher education dwindled to 250,000 by 1997 and has stayed about that level since. [Trends in Higher Education (2007). Associations of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from:] PTL's compose a noticeable portion of Canadian Higher Education. Today there exists approximately 265,000 PTL's in Canadian Universities and University-Colleges (see University College). [Trends in Higher Education (2007). Associations of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Retrieved September 20, 2007, from:] The Trends Report in Higher Education Report (2007) purports that there are 815,000 full time learners in Canadian Universities and University-Colleges. PTL's compose almost 25% of the entire student population within Canadian Universities and University-Colleges. Acquiring data on Part-Time Learners in Canadian Colleges would assist in providing a more accurate picture of PTL's in Canadian Higher Education. It would also be of great benefit to include statistics on PTL participation in other countries.

Barriers distinguished in part-time learning

Part-Time Learners are faced with a multitude of barriers in Higher Education that can be classified as attitudinal, institutional or situational. An attitudinal barrier relates to the learner’s attitude towards negative experiences in the learner’s educational past which may prevent enrollment in further education.Conrad, D., L. (2001) The issues of access in adult education: Privilege and possibility. In Fundamentals of adult education: Issues and practices for lifelong learning, edited by D.H. Poonwassie and A. Poonwassie. Toronto: Thompson.] Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner (2007) purport that some adult learners lack the confidence to pursue further education. Additionally, they may perceive higher education as reflecting the teacher-centered practices and exclusive pedagogy of their earlier schooling experiences. There are a variety of institutional barriers. Attitudinal barriers can be interpreted as the first obstacle a PTL must overcome to enroll. Institutional barriers are policies and procedures that make attendance difficult or impossible. [Conrad, D., L. (2001) The issues of access in adult education: Privilege and possibility. In Fundamentals of adult education: Issues and practices for lifelong learning, edited by D.H. Poonwassie and A. Poonwassie. Toronto: Thompson.] Some elitist Canadian Universities still practice conventional admissions. [Schuetze, H., G., & Day, W., L. (March, 2001). Post-Secondary Education in BC 1989 – 1998: The impact of policy and finance on access, participation, and outcomes. Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training, University of British Columbia. Retrieved September 12, 2007, from] PTL's often hold unconventional educational biographies that can be difficult to compare and measure against traditional admissions requirements. Canadian Universities are not adequately providing information to assist PTL's in long term course planning. [Thompson, G., & Devlin, L. (1992). Access by part-time students: A question of openness in Canadian Universities. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 22(3),57-75.] PTL's have a variety of constraints and demands on their time and therefore need to be able to synthesize a long term plan of action. There are an insufficient number of adult learner orientated workshops in Canadian Universities that meet their needs. [Given, L. (2000). The promise of ‘lifelong’ learning and the Canadian Census: The marginalization of Mature Students information behaviors. University of Alberta. Retrieved September 12, 2007, from] Canadian Universities are not effectively disseminating information regarding part-time learner programs. [Thompson, G., & Devlin, L. (1992). Access by part-time students: A question of openness in Canadian Universities. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 22(3), 57-75.] Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) (see Prior Learning Assessment) can assist PTL's accelerate the completion of studies by granting credit through lifelong learning. However, there is a lack of PLAR taking place in Canadian Universities. [Kennedy, B. (May, 2003). A spring 2003 snapshot: The current status of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) in Canada’s public post-secondary institutions: Part one. Prepared for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, (CMEC). Retrieved September 9, 2007, from] Institutional barriers present challenges to enroll and participate as a PTL. Situational barriers relates to an individual’s circumstances at a given time that can impede enrollment or attendance. [Conrad, D., L. (2001) The issues of access in adult education: Privilege and possibility. In Fundamentals of adult education: Issues and practices for lifelong learning, edited by D.H. Poonwassie and A. Poonwassie. Toronto: Thompson.] Situational challenges include financial costs [Schuetze, H., & Slowey, M. (Oct. – Dec., 2002). Participation and exclusion: A comparative analysis of Non-Traditional students and lifelong learners in Higher Education. Higher Education 44 (3/4), 309–327. Retrieved September 12, 2007, from JSTOR database.] , scheduling conflicts and balancing time. The expenses of tuition, textbooks, and evening snacks must be weighed against family needs such as clothes and school supplies for children or family vacations. The scheduled classes must be able to fit within a schedule that accommodates work and family obligations. Time spent on school assignments cannot be so excessive that it detracts significantly from work and family responsibilities. Situational barriers should be considered prior to enrollment. There still exist a significant number of barriers that affect PTL's in Higher Education institutions. However, due to the variety of characteristics of PTL's barriers can differ in severity.

Use Autoethnography Theory to explore the different aspects of barrier in part-time learning

Autoethnography is defined as Auto (Self), ethno (culture) and graphy (the research process) (Holt, 2003).

Russell (1999) used Walter Benjamin’s “A Berlin Chronicle” to describe the writing of an autobiography as the writing of ones life with sequence. The writing includes personal experiences and observations that help us to construct our social identities. However, Benjamin suggested, “Theory, philosophy, and intellectual life were inseparable from his own experience of modernity.” Russell (1999) commented, “Autobiography and ethnography share a commitment to the actual”. Autoethnography becomes “a contemporary autobiography to explore the fragmented and dispersed identities of our pluralist society”. Autoethnography is an “art of memory” to fight against the homogenization of our modern society. Russell (1999) said that Fischer described the writing of autoethnography that “partake of the mood of meta-discourse, of drawing attention to their linguistic and fictive nature of using the narrator as an inscribed figure within the context whose manipulation calls attention to authority structures”.

Holt (2003) said that the Reed-Danahay Study has indicated that researchers use Autoethnography to do research; they use their learned experiences to understand in-depth of a discipline or a culture within the social context. Holt (2003) also said that the Ellis & Bochner Study showed that Autoethnography is written in “first person, feature dialogue, emotion and self-consciousness” influenced by the research’s “history, social structure and culture”. Holt (2003) said that Tierney “asserted that autoethnography confronts dominant forms of representation and power in an attempt to reclaim, through self-reflective response, representational spaces that have marginalized those at the borders”.

Kroth (2000) quoted “Eduard Kindeman, father of adult education in the United States, said that the purpose of adult education is to put meaning into the whole of life”. This holistic approach includes “wants, needs, desire, and wishes”. Autoethnography may allow us to discover and explore some basic questions of “Who am I?” and “Why am I?” Kroth (2000) suggested that “Who am I?” stays with us through “our life journey”. They also suggested that “Why am I?” is “incorporated into our meaning perspectives” of life and “our underlying assumptions about what we believe to be true.” To seek meaning of life and to find out our true purpose of life are the foundations of adult education. Kroth (2000) pointed out that “Why am I?” consists of the idea of “mission”. Kroth (2000) said that mission comes from the internal being rather than external means. This “mission” gives people purpose to their lives; the adult learning theorists overlook mission, but the mission might be “an unspoken assumption underlying much adult learning theory”. Kroth (2000) listed a few theorists who have “mission” to be embedded in their theories. These theories are “Friere’s Conscientization, Mezirow’s Transformation Theory, and Taylor’s Transformative Learning.” Kroth (2000) also pointed out “John Dewey said that to find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness.”

Russell (1999) stated that “Autoethnography is a vehicle and a strategy for challenging imposed forms of identity and exploring the discursive possibilities of inauthentic subjectivities”. If we could find our life mission by exploring our life events during the autoethnographic writing process, we could fulfill our adult learning purposes. However, some critics may disagree. Holt (2003) stated that the Charmaz & Mitchell’s study indicated, “The researcher’s voice is included in the presentation of findings which challenged accepted views about silent authorship”. It is lacking in objectivities. Russell (1999) pointed out that “Autoethnography can also be a form of what James Clifford calls “self-fashioning”, in which the ethnographers come to represent themselves as fiction, inscribing a double-ness within the ethnographic text. This will also contribute to the problem of objectivities.

Billett (1998) proposed that the adult learners’ knowledge and “transformation” are “secured” by their “life history” (ontogeny) and “social factors”. The human development factors include “cognitive, moral, and personality”; and the social factors include “belief, preference, attitude, and value.” Billett (1998) also stated that “socio-cultural and cognitive constructivist” theory can consolidate the above two views to investigate “the social, cultural, and psychological contributions to adult thinking, acting and learning.” I will try to establish the process of the construction of his knowledge relating to learning and education by employing the theorists, Piaget (Cognitive Development), Erikson (Psychological Stages), Kohlberg (Moral Development), and Vygotsky (Social Culture) to shed more light on the process.

Adult childhood learning experience could be described by Piaget’s Childhood Theory. Siegler (1996) pointed out that Piaget’s “Constructivism, Essentialism, and Dynamism” are the main parts of Piaget’s Childhood Theory.

Siegler (1996) stated that Piaget’s Constructivism Theory showed that children think actively and constantly construct knowledge to understand the world around them. Knowledge is constructed through gathering information by interacting with the environment. The obtained knowledge would be compared to the existing one. The new knowledge would be kept and the previous knowledge would be discarded. The new knowledge relies on the previous declarative knowledge. Adult learners had difficulty relating the daily school education knowledge to his daily life in his young age. Lack of the declarative (factual) knowledge also played an important role in their learning of procedural knowledge. Language, mathematics, and other school subjects were taught in a sequential way. The adult learner’s lack of declarative (factual) knowledge required them to struggle with school constantly.

Essentialism is important Cognitive development in Piaget’s Essentialism (Siegler, 1996). Children utilize their concrete and abstract reasoning, measurement, sensory perceptions and moral values constantly. Connecting with multiple methods of reasoning, these children try to “identify essences” in their thinking processes. As they progress in age, their concrete and abstract reasoning, measurement, sensory perceptions and moral values mature, but at different rates. Conceptually, Adult learners may have other responsibilities to occupy their lives; they were not able to concentrate on their studies in school.

Siegler (1996) also pointed out that Dynamism is an important aspect of Piaget’s Theory of Children Development. Piaget identified that different age’s children think and learn through the process of “assimilation, accommodation, and equilibration”. “Variability’ played an important role in adapting the new environments. This adaptation helped children to discover new, more difficult, knowledge and the required actions to change in a social setting. Adult learners might not have a chance to assimilate to their peer groups. Adult learners might view the world as routine: work, study, eat and sleep. Some adult learners’ learning environment could be described by Vygotsky’s Classroom Theory in an adversary way. Vygotsky (Kozulin, 2004) stressed social and cultural aspects of cognition and learning. The “behaviorist and information-processing models” of learning relied on the social-cultural background information. Kozulin (2004) also indicated that “Vygotsky’s Social-Cultural Approach” could apply to learning of literacy, and scientific reasoning. Vygotsky treated education as a life long learning tool. Learners need the appropriate psycho-social and cultural framework to gain a higher level of learning. Vygotsky suggested that reading, writing, and mathematics were equally important in learning cognitively. Vygotsky also believed learners are able to change their learning environment actively (Kozulin, 2004). Adult learners could be more mobile than the other worker population to make their living. As they move around they have experienced different cultures, they have to adjust themselves to the new working conditions. It could be problematic.

Adult learners might search for the “Just Society”. Adult learners wanted to search the “Just Society” by keep on learning, Kolhberg’s Just Community Program of Moral Education (McDonough, 2005) gave some understanding of adult learners in search of a “Just Community” in our society.

McDonough (2005) listed three major components of a “Just Community”. Firstly, the governmental allows the citizens of the community a “feeling of belonging”, interconnecting for the purpose of the social order. The governmental body not only promotes moral growth, but practices it. As a result, the “Just Community” attracts more people who believed in the same moral values to join the community. A “Just Community” practices participatory democracy with a high degree of fairness and morality.

The last component of the “Just Community” deals with discipline, in the event a community member violates “one of the rules”. The “just” and “care” apply to the violator. Instead of punishment, rehabilitation will be administrated to ensure the violator receiving proper care; and the society can learn from the mistake. Some adult learners may have difficulty with the laws or mistreated by the law. Some part-time learners may be able to find their justices through learning.

Some adult learners might be reached their middle-age; they have reviewed their lives and reflected on their experiences on education. Rennemark et al. (1997) indicated that our life experiences would affect our wellbeing. By reflecting on our past would help us to discover unresolved conflicts to make sense some of the incoherent events. Erickson’s Psychosocial Development Theory with the interpretative perspective, it is a good way to look their life history. They can try to interpret their present careers and social situations by reconstructing their education and life experiences through autoethnography. Rennemark et al. (1997) also indicated that recalling children experience with parents, and experiences with “significant others” have a great impact on their later life. To avoid “Erickson’s retrospective mythologizing”, deception, adults evaluate their life events as objective as possible with the evident presented.

Adults’ part-time learners tried to make sense of their lives through exploring the theories of Psychology and Education theories. Exploration helps the adult part-time learners the connection between education and career in their life journeys. Adult learners are constant struggle in career and education may relate to societal issue rather than their own making.

Further reading

1. Waniewicz, I. (1976). Demand for part-time learning in Ontario. The Ontario Educational Communications: Canada

2. Fisher, D. (1997). Learning the hard way: Part-time degree students and the University of Toronto. Toronto: University of Toronto, Association of Part-time Undergraduate Students.

3. Haughey, D., J. (1994). Towards a changing profile of the adult learner. In M. Brooke and M. Waldron (Eds.), University continuing education in Canada: Current challenges and future opportunities (pp.124-132). Thompson Education Publishing: Toronto.

4. Schuetze, H., & Slowey, M. (Oct. – Dec., 2002). Participation and exclusion: A comparative analysis of Non-Traditional students and lifelong learners in Higher Education. Higher Education 44 (3/4), 309–327.

See also

Prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR)


Additional citations

Andres, L., & Carpenter, S. (1997). Today’s higher education students: Issues of admission, retention, transfer, and attrition in relation to changing student demographics. Centre for Policy Studies in Education University of British Columbia. Retrieved October 12, 2007 from:

Billett, S. (1998). Ontogeny and participation in communities of practice: A socio-cognitive view of adult development. Studies in the Education of Adults, 30(1), 21. Retrieved September 15, 2008 from the Academic Search Elite database.

Campbell, D. (1984). The new marjority: Adult Learners in the University. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press.

Holt, N. (2003) Representation, Legitimation, and Autoethnography: An Autoethnographic Writing Story. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 2 (1) Retrieved September 18, 2008 from

Kozulin, A. (2004). Vygotsky's theory in the classroom: Introduction. European Journal of Psychology of Education - EJPE, 19(1), 3-7. Retrieved September 15, 2008 from the Academic Search Elite database.

Kroth, M. (2000). Life Mission and Adult Learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 50 (2). Retrieved September 18, 2008 from

McDonough, G. (2005). Moral maturity and autonomy: appreciating the significance of Lawrence Kolhberg's Just Community. Journal of Moral Education, 34(2), 199-213. Retrieved September 18, 2008 from the Academic Search Elite database.

Merriam, S., B., Caffarella, R., S., & Baumgartner, L., M. (2007). Learning in adulthood” A comprehensive guide (3rd Edition). San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Rennemark, M., & Hagberg, B. (1997). Sense of coherence among the elderly in relation to their perceived life history in an Eriksonian perspective. Aging & Mental Health, 1(3), 221-229. Retrieved September 18, 2008 from the Academic Search Elite database.

Russell, C. (1999). Autoethnography: Journey of the Self. Experimental Ethnography. Retrieved September 18, 2008 from, R., Ellis, S. (1996). Piaget on Childhood. Psychological Science, American Psychological Society, 7(4). Retrieved September 18, 2008 from the Academic Search Elite database.

Stydinger, N., & Dundes, L. (Spring, 2006). Over the Hill? A Nontraditional Undergraduate Student’s Uphill Battle. College Quarterly, 9(2). Retrieved September 16, 2007, from

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