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Teaching Older Adults Means Learning Too

"In my courses, participants share lots of information. A participant, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, wrote saying that my class had inspired her to face a new way of being."– Astrid Schmied, Chili, College of Education and Human Development

Astrid Schmied has been teaching courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) since 2016, but she says she's the student, not the people taking her courses.

"The oldest participant I've had was 92, the youngest probably 55. There's no way I can call them my students," Astrid said. "They have tons of experience. They might not know about the content that I teach, but they do know about life."

Astrid teaches courses related to how the brain works and how it changes as we age at OLLI, which offers noncredit classes, interest groups, and events for adult learners. Some of the courses at OLLI are taught by international graduate students like Astrid through a partnership with the Culture Corps program, run by International Student and Scholar Services. This was a unique effort to internationalize the OLLI department and courses.

Culture Corps, which aims to enrich cross-cultural understanding on campus, has recently increased its support of international students who want to become faculty in the future. OLLI provides the space and the audience, and Culture Corps provides motivated graduate and PhD students who can share their unique perspectives and insights. Students have described their experience with OLLI as crucial in their search for academic positions around the world.

Astrid is originally from Chile, and teaching classes at OLLI allows her to gain teaching experience in a second language and with a different audience.

"Before coming to the UMN, I had taught from kindergarten to university levels, but never older adults. This was actually a long-lasting desire that I was able to accomplish far away from home," she said.

Astrid also noted that graduate students do not often have the opportunity to create their own curricula and instruct their own courses.

"For international students this is actually even harder. Teaching in a second language presents particular challenges, such as the pronunciation and spelling. This, however, should not be an excuse for departments to not offer and support these kinds of endeavors," she said. "I have met international students whose strong backgrounds in teaching have not been valued at all. Culture Corps and OLLI recognized my talents and have allowed me to continue my professional development as an instructor."

Astrid uses an inquiry-based approach when teaching, bringing in brains and different materials for her students to experiment and to analyze. Her classes have a very interactive feel.

"I strongly encourage the questioning in class, pushing discussions in which we can learn from each other. My goal is to promote a deeper appreciation of how their brain works and how it relates to their own capabilities," Astrid said. "Commonly, participants share how their memories start failing at a certain age. They also reflect on personal stories about relatives or friends who have suffered brain injury and are experiencing cognitive decline."

Astrid is well-placed to explain what is happening in these cases. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology in Chile, she obtained a master's degree in neuroscience and a specialization in neuropsychology and dementia. She moved to Minneapolis after being awarded a Fulbright PhD scholarship. At the UMN she received a second master's degree in educational psychology and is now pursuing a PhD in the same field.

Astrid says teaching is also about creating meaningful connections. She's received excellent feedback about her classes, along with some special thank you notes from students, over the years.

"In my courses, participants end up sharing lots of information. They send me articles and ask questions, give me books, and extend invitations to events associated with the class content," Astrid said. "I remember one case that particularly touched me: A participant, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, wrote me saying that my class had inspired her to face a new way of being."  

Astrid is also bringing research on improving the process of teaching and learning to OLLI. She runs workshops for fellow U.S. and international instructors to help them prepare their course materials and learn how to teach older adults.

Astrid has led these workshops for several semesters now, but she expects to finish her PhD program next fall. She's making sure future OLLI instructors will have the help they need after she leaves, though.

She plans to make an online version of the workshop, and with Peg Lonnquist, OLLI executive director, and Taki Andrianakos, program manager at OLLI, Astrid is creating a manual for teaching older adults. It will include strategies that best facilitate learning in older adults, along with information about how our cognitive capabilities change as we age and its implications for teaching.

"Astrid is a wonderful course leader and great asset for OLLI," Taki said. "Everyone at OLLI appreciates Astrid's hard work and dedication to enriching the lives of so many people."

For her dissertation, Astrid works at the intersection of neuroscience, education, and psychology at the Elison Lab for Developmental Brain and Behavior Research. Interestingly, she focuses on the other extreme of the lifespan, examining how specific learning disorders develop. She focuses on neural correlates and cognitive profiles that have implications for the development of dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia early in life. Another line of research describes how the field of educational neuroscience has evolved.

Date Published: February 2019

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