Applying Adult Learning Principles to Students with Interrupted Formal Schooling 

This month, Project ExcEL school coach Lisa DiMartino shares her thoughts on what we should be thinking about when working with SIFE students.  

​Secondary schools have seen an increase in the number students with interrupted formal schooling (SIFE), students are defined as overage and under credited.  The majority of SIFE are also English Language Learners and share some common attributes, such as an interruption in their formal educational experiences.  These interruptions could be the result of migration, civil conflicts, and/or economic hardships (DeCapua and Marshall, 2014).  SIFE are generally older when they come to the United States, so applying adult learning theory to help design and implement programs to support these students could help educators bridge the two worlds of overage students and high school completion.

Adult learning recognizes different environments that help learners.  When adults see themselves as learners, even informally, they are encouraged to pursue formal learning opportunities.  Learning through experience is directly connected to this concept.

All students, not only SIFE, come to school with various experiences and knowledge.  While we weigh different experiences for adult learners as assets, we often view experiences of nontraditional students as deficits.  Many secondary schools do not have a system to award credits that value informal or learning through experience.  Recognizing that some students have not progressed through the US educational system and creating different opportunities for them to demonstrate knowledge would be a great benefit to students new to the country.  Apprenticeships and opportunities for learning to occur outside the classroom can help all learners appreciate the connectedness of learning to the world outside of a formal learning institution.

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) note that part of the job of educators is to help learners plan, carry out, and assess their learning.  They also note the need for critical self-reflection and an understanding of the history, cultural and personal narratives of each learner. These two components of self-directed learning can be directly applied to SIFE since they tend to be students who are aware of their needs, wants, and interests.  Students who are overage should be able to have more autonomy and flexibility in their educational pathway.  Acknowledging that SIFE have different needs and abilities can help districts design programs that are individualized for students while giving them the skills to self monitor and evaluate their progress toward educational goals.

Utilizing some of the facets of adult learning theory can benefit educators who are developing programs for SIFE and other nontraditional students.  Treating these students as adults (in learning and life) would have a greater impact on their educational development than trying to conform them to a system that was never designed for them.


DeCapua, A., & Marshall, H.W. (2014).  Breaking new ground: Teaching students with limited or interrupted formal education in U.S. secondary schools.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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