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Build Confidence in Adult Learners with a Road Map to Learning

You cannot be curious if you feel incompetent. To give returning students confidence, Jessica DelBove, PhD, provides them tools to be great learners.


Jessica DelBove, PhD

Adjunct Instructor of Biology, Forsyth Tech Community College, Winston-Salem, NC

PhD in Cellular and Molecular Pathology, BS in Biology and Chemistry

At first glance, the curriculum vitae of Jessica DelBove, PhD, appears to be that of a traditional life sciences instructor. But she once had a hobby that took her far from microscopes and petri dishes. While working as a teaching assistant in grad school, DelBove worked off stress as a member of a Roller Derby team. She loved it so much that she stayed with it for 10 years. “It was physically very hard,” she says. “But competing worked out grad school frustrations and gave me confidence.”

Confidence still plays an important role in DelBove’s life: This time, though, she seeks to build it up in others. As an adjunct instructor at Forsyth Tech Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, DelBove often works with nontraditional students. Many do not believe they can be competent in science—which is a hypothesis that DelBove flat-out rejects.

“We’re all natural-born scientists,” she insists. Today, it is her mission to help her students come to that conclusion, so they can actually enjoy the discoveries they will be making in classes, including tough ones like Anatomy and Physiology. Luckily for them, she tackles this challenge with the same passion and determination she once brought to the rink.


Early struggles in sciences can squash confidence

Most kids have an innate curiosity for nature, whether they are examining bugs in the backyard or building a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano. But for adults who struggled with science in primary and secondary school, that spark can be snuffed by a fear of being wrong.

Part of the problem, she found, was that many of them did not have great study habits the first time they were in school, so they never really learned how to learn. In fact, their common misconception was that students just need to take notes and read the textbook—strategies that often are not enough to absorb, apply, or retain information, and certainly not enough to understand it.


Help adult students learn how they learn best

DelBove has developed a series of exercises that help students understand how they learn best, then find study strategies that complement that. Once they have the tools to keep up with the workload and prepare for the tests, their natural curiosity has room to grow. That curiosity makes them better learners and leads to their success in DelBove’s class—and boosts their confidence in facing the challenges that lie ahead, inside and outside the classroom.


“My father told me, ‘There is no teaching; there is only learning.’ So I give my students strategies to learn. Then, with the proper motivation, learning is going to be so much easier—and fun again, like when we were kids.”

— Jessica DelBove, PhD

Course: BIO 168 Anatomy and Physiology

Course description: This course is the first of a two-course sequence which provides a comprehensive study of the anatomy and physiology of the human body. Topics include the structure, function and interrelationship of organ systems with emphasis on the processes which maintain homeostasis. Upon completion, students should be able to demonstrate an in-depth understanding of principles of anatomy and physiology and their interrelationships.

See resources shared by Jessica DelBove, PhD

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Lesson: Provide adults with a road map to learning

Each semester, DelBove breaks the ice with her students by sharing the story of her somewhat surprising Roller Derby career. She hopes that can help students feel comfortable around her, even as she learns more about them. (In discussing why this matters, she cites an article from The New York Times—“Students Learn from People They Love”—about how students try to do better for teachers they know well and respect.) Then she follows up by providing them with clear directions for how to explore their learning styles, develop better study strategies, and become more successful at absorbing and retaining material. While her goal is to make the students self-sufficient in their study habits by the end of the course, she tells them that they should come to her for help any time that they are struggling.

Here is the road map she provides to students in the first weeks of class, to help them succeed throughout the semester and beyond.

Make them name their motivations

In the first week of the semester, DelBove asks her students why they are taking her class, so she can understand their motivations for being there. She wants them to know that their success depends on the actions they take, and those actions will develop from their motivations for returning to and succeeding in school. She assures them that succeeding is not really about getting an A; the students are pursuing careers to improve their own lives and to help other people do the same. Having their motivations in mind when working toward a goal can help people stick to their plan, whether they are quitting a bad habit or beginning a good one.

“They have to have their own drive to succeed,” she says, “so they don’t throw up their hands when the class gets hard.” Passion, she tells them, is the main thing they need to succeed.

Introduce learning styles and strategies

DelBove has students take a learning style survey called the VARK Questionnaire to discover how they learn best. She then offers specific study tips for each of the styles. For example:

  • Visual learners can add color to the notes they take, with highlighters or colored pens. They can also draw pictures and create flowcharts of the information.
  • Auditory learners can practice saying the material out loud or use an audio textbook.
  • Physical learners should do something with the material—work with a model, for example, or make flashcards to teach the concepts to someone else.
  • Reading/writing learners can create mnemonic devices for the things they need to memorize. They also can rewrite their notes.
Help them get more from class time

DelBove gives students strategies to use in class to get more out of each lesson. For example, she tells them not to write everything down. Instead, they should actively listen and “be there in the moment.” She also encourages them to be curious and ask questions—without fear of being the only one with questions.

Encourage mini study sessions

DelBove knows that many of her students do not have huge chunks of time to do homework and study. So she introduces them to the idea of studying in short bursts, as often as possible. She recommends that they schedule 15 to 20 minutes for study time and actually put it on their calendar, treating it like an appointment. When time is limited like this, she suggests, “Look at what material you covered yesterday, and add a little more to it today.” Over time, the learnings from those sessions really add up.

Offer strategies for self-reflection

DelBove gives students metacognition strategies to keep track of the study strategies that work best for them. She tells them to ask themselves: What strategies did I use this week? Did they work? What can I do better? What went really well? What do I want to try next?

If their approach is simply not helping them grasp and retain the information, she encourages them to come back to her, and she will work one-on-one with them to figure out new strategies to try.

Tackle test anxiety

Testing and test scores are the main causes of anxiety among DelBove’s students. They tell her, “I don’t know what is going to be on the test, so I don’t know how to prepare.” While the above strategies should help them come into the exam feeling more prepared, she also offers this advice:

  • Make and take practice tests. Do this each week (not just the day before).
  • Ask questions as they arise. Get clarification on a particular topic, term, or lesson early enough to be able to absorb it by test day.
  • Take care of your body. Get plenty of sleep the night before the test, and eat well the day before and the day of. This can make it easier to focus.
  • Tell yourself you can do it. Remind yourself that, if you have prepared every day, you have the facts in your head.
  • Believe you can do it. “That really helps,” she says.

She reminds her students that, after learning and adopting good study habits, confidence is often a natural consequence—one that opens the door for curiosity.


Students frequently tell DelBove that her course helped them learn how to learn. They tell her that, at the beginning, the material looked so hard and so extensive that they were hoping for a B at most. Then, even though they were working full-time and caring for children while taking her class, they ended up earning an A.

They tell her they could not have done it without her strategies, but she makes sure they realize that they were the ones who put them into action. “They figured it out,” DelBove says. “They then know they can take on anything.”

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