Stressors and Supports for Adult Online Learners: Comparing first- and continuing-generation college students

Susan A. Dumais
Tracey E. Rizzuto
Joe Cleary


A mixed-methods approach was used to examine the perceptions that adult online learners have about their ability to succeed in their educational pursuits, the barriers that they face, and the institutional supports that help them to persist. Particular attention was paid to the differences between first-generation and continuing-generation adult online learners. Survey findings show that the majority of adult online learners—both first- and continuing-generation—are confident in their abilities to succeed in school. First-generation adult online learners are more likely to cite highly demanding work environments, which may impede their ability to balance school with other commitments. Both groups make use of the supports offered by their schools, especially those related to curriculum and technical guidance, but first-generation adult online learners have higher rates of usage overall. In interviews, both groups cite the importance of advisors, whereas first-generation adult online learners are more likely to cite problems with teachers as obstacles to their success. These findings imply that it is important to consider students’ generational status when developing programs and services for the adult online student population.


Course modality, Online learning, In-person learning, Experimental design


Dumais et al. (2013) focus on adult first-gen students and adult online learners. The authors relied on 308 telephone and web-based surveys, in which nearly half (n=152) are first-gen students. They then conducted 30 open-ended telephone interviews, in which 12 were of first-gen students. The authors find that among both groups, the primary motivation for returing to school was personal fulfillment. But in the phone interviews, the authors note that continuing-gen students were most likely to cite professional and financial reasons to do so. Additionally, the authors found no support for a lack of confidence in pursing a degree for both groups. They did find however, that first-gen students relied more heavily on institutional resources of guidance (e.g. curriculum guidance) than did continuing-gen students. Among both groups, advisers were cited as playing a crucial role in their success. Overall, nearly 80 percent of both groups were employed full-time and the authors call for future research to assess these constraints. Lastly, the authors provide some evidence that first-gen students have more difficulty understanding and communicating with instructors. In sum, the authors find differences and similarities among these two groups of online learners, but call for future research to improve the methodological abilities to assess adult online learners.

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