Adult learners are known by a wide variety of names — including non-traditional students, adult students, returning adults, adult returners, mature learners and many more — and they have an even wider variety of cultural and educational backgrounds, abilities, responsibilities and experiences.

    • Adult learners are a diverse group – typically age 25 and older – with a wide range of educational and cultural backgrounds, adult responsibilities and job experiences.
    • They typically do not follow the traditional pattern of enrolling in postsecondary education immediately after high school.
    • They often return to school to stay competitive in the workplace or prepare for a career change.
    • And they usually study on a part-time basis, taking one or two courses a term while maintaining work and family responsibilities.
    • They must balance a busy schedule between work, school and family responsibilities.
    • They may feel some anxiety about going back to school and may fear failure.
    • They may be on a tighter budget than traditional students.
    • Because they usually commute, they need the flexibility to take classes on-campus or online.

What does it mean to be an adult learner?

The term “adult learner” basically describes anyone who is not a student in the conventional sense of the word. There is no hard-and-fast definition, but we can draw upon Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory (andragogy) to help us differentiate between adult learners and traditional students.

While pedagogy refers to the process of teaching children, andragogy is the process of helping adults to learn. It assumes that adult learners are autonomous, intrinsically motivated and goal-oriented, and that they have gathered some previous experience.

Based on the theory of andragogy, adult learners may also have external responsibilities and situations that impact the learning process — be it a job, family commitments, or both. Finally, adult learners are normally studying out of choice, so you can reasonably assume that intrinsic motivation is high. However, maintaining this level of motivation can be tricky, as adult learning comes with its own set of challenges.

Needs of Adult Learners

An effective teacher must understand the major needs of adult students and how these needs impact the training environment:

  • Educational Needs—An educational need is the difference between what the student does or knows and why he or she needs to know or do it.
  • Felt Needs—Felt needs are those identified by the student. Felt needs are the most valuable to the instructor because they are very strong motivators.
  • Ascribed Needs—Ascribed needs are developed through observation. The observer identifies and details the discrepancy between the exhibited behavior and the desired behavior.
    • Real Needs—The gap existing between present performance and desired performance is referred
    to as a real need. Real needs are determined by multiple forms of input and may be ascribed or felt.
  • Symptomatic Educational Needs—Symptomatic needs provide clues to the identification of real needs. For example, an illiterate adult may confuse the manifestation of a need such as the inability to fill out employment applications with the real need of becoming literate. The individual, however, perceives the symptom of an educational need as the real need.
  • Esteem Needs—This refers to the adult student’s need for a feeling of importance. Although esteem needs are not considered strictly educational needs, their importance in education has been well documented as a strong motivational force.

Adult Learning Theory

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles was a respected educator and researcher, focusing on adult learning. He was even associated with establishing the term “andragogy,” the art and science of adult learning.

Back in 1980, Knowles made four assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners that are different from child learners. Four years later, he added a fifth assumption.

As an individual matures, his or her concept of self develops from being a dependent personality toward being a self-sufficient one. For example, child learners rely on their parents and teachers to teach not only basic concepts in core content, but also social skills and societal norms. Adult students, on the other hand, know how to learn and can dive deeper into a subject.

Adult Learner Experience
As a person matures, he or she accumulates experiences that are used as resources for learning. These experiences, for example, may pertain to proper study habits or the simple memory of how many protons are in a hydrogen atom.

Readiness to Learn
Adults are often ready to learn things they need to know in order to effectively deal with life situations. Adult students, therefore, are more interested in subjects that are relevant to their lives and impact their goals and careers.

Orientation to Learning
As an individual matures, his or her time perspective changes from that of postponed application of acquired knowledge to immediate application. Adult students are more motivated to learn if they know it will help them improve their lives and careers, as opposed to learning something that they may not benefit from for years.

Motivation to Learn
Through maturity, a person’s motivation to learn becomes internal. Adult students need a reason to learn something before doing so.

Treatment of Adult Learners

Students should be treated with respect. They are people with years of experience and a wealth of information. Instructors should provide opportunities for dialogue within the group and tap their experience as a major source of enrichment to the class.

Most adults have established values, beliefs, and opinions. Respect should be demonstrated for differing beliefs, religions, value systems, and lifestyles. Students should know that they are entitled to their values, beliefs, and opinions, but that everyone in the room may not share their beliefs. Debate and challenge of ideas should be encouraged.

brainstorming at tableTeaching Strategies

Studies in adult learning theory show that adults prefer courses that focus heavily on application of concepts to relevant issues. To retain and use new information they need to be able to integrate the information with what they already know. Tasks must be slow to moderate pace and not complex or unusual to avoid interference with adult learning. Adults prefer a personalized learning environment with focused effort on concept application where they can solve problems and take personal responsibility.

Scaffolding, a term taken from Applebee and Langer, involves empowering students with their own authority. A task which they need to accomplish is identified. They are then given a facilitator-determined scaffold or structure to follow in order to achieve the task. Once that task is achieved, the next task is set and scaffolded again. A new task is set. Using the previous scaffolds, students can begin to learn on their own. As they become increasingly in control of their own learning, they can adapt the scaffolds to various situations.

Praxis is Greek for action with reflection. The idea of doing while learning is a widely recommended approach to teaching adults (P.87, Vella) (and children too, although the existence of some kind of participatory and collaborative element may be one of the most frequently cited differences between the education of children and the education of adults.(P.14, Brookfield(1)

Returning students want to see how the theory relates to the practical application. (P.149-153, Apps) One way to ‘do’ while learning is to set skills in the context of problem solving. Another is to provide experiences for the learners and allow them to construct their own knowledge.

Constructivism is a contextualized approach to learning. The presentation of context is an important aspect of teaching adults. (ref.)(P.54, Knowles) According to the constructivists, learners gain deep understanding when they act on new information with their present knowledge and resolve any discrepancies which arise. (P.58, Cruikshank, et al. When we notice information that conflicts with our present knowledge, we experience an internal sense of discomfort. Adults appear to be strongly motivated to reduce this discomfort by modifying knowledge structures and, thus, engaging in learning. (P.23, Dixon). Discovery learning can create situations which give rise to a constructivist approach. The major beliefs about discovery learning are (P.59, Cruikshank, et al.)

  • Discovery learning is most useful for higher-order thinking and problem-solving.
  • Instructors should regularly engage learners curiosity.
  • Discovery learning activities should be done both independently and collaboratively.
  • Information is most meaningful when learners come to understanding on their own.
  • When learners are given regular opportunities to discover knowledge for themselves, they learn how to learn.
  • When learners share their thoughts about ideas and the way they solve problems, they grow intellectually.

One of the goals of adult educators is to help adults become self-directed learners. Understanding how to learn is an important step in that process.

One of the benefits of groupwork is increased social integration. Social integration has been show to have a significant positive effect on retention. Small groups of peers at the same level of career maturity create a social environment that motivates adult learners to persist. P.2, Kerka The importance of drawing on the experiences, skills, and values of the learners themselves is an internationally supported tenet of adult education(P.812, Ducci). Groups allow students to draw on these experiences.

Groups and groupwork is an especially important experience for minority students since they often must work with people from the dominant culture when they begin their careers. Groups can give them valuable experiences and insights into this ‘other’ culture.

The constructivist view stresses communication among students and between students and the facilitator. Four kinds of communication environments can be distinguished (P390, Collins et al.):

  • discussion (in person or via email)
  • argumentation (making a case for a particular viewpoint)
  • inquiry teaching (student constructed response to an instructor posed question)
  • brainstorming (generating ideas without attempting to critique them)

Ideally, an instructor uses different types of communication within a classroom.

Questions that allow students to interpret and incorporate facts into their experiences are especially helpful to adult learners (P.22, Turoczy). However, dialogue can get out of hand unless ground rules are set. These ground rules might include topics such as, must learners raise their hand and wait or can they jump in, are there times when dialogue will not be appropriate, etc. It is also important to solicit opposing viewpoints and encourage participation.

Dialogue doesn’t have to be confined to the classroom. The internet offers wonderful opportunities for additional dialogue. The internet allows us to extend cooperative problem solving outside of the immediate community of learners R. Martin and into a multicultural community.

Use Self-Directed Learning
Design programs for all generational groups because there will be different viewpoints and value sets in a learning environment. Concepts should be explained from more than one viewpoint and appeal to adult learners in different age groups. Adults prefer self-directed learning over group learning. Self-directed learning does not mean isolated learning; it involves using other people as resources, subject matter experts, guides and encouragers. Adults prefer more than one method of learning. They like learning via auditory, visual and kinesthetic means.

Set Expectations Upfront
Set expectations at the beginning of the class. Since adults have learning and classroom expectations, it is vital that the instructor clarifies and thoroughly articulates all expectations before discussing the content. The instructor’s and the learners’ expectations should be discussed and noted. The instructor can assume responsibility only for her expectations, not those of the learners. One expectation that a good instructor will have is for learners to actively participate in the learning process. A good instructor knows that new and old knowledge have to be integrated and applied to achieve knowledge retention and learning success.

Use Life Experiences
Tap into the broad range of life experiences that each learner brings to the learning environment. Life experience is a valuable asset that should be acknowledged and used because adults learn well when they share experiences with one another. One of the best ways to pull knowledge and experience from learners is to use open-ended questions to draw out relevant knowledge and experience. An open-ended question is one with more than a one-word answer; the answer has to be expounded upon to thoroughly address the question.

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Apps, Jerold W. (1981) The Adult Learner on Campus. Chicago: Follet Publishing Co.
Though some of the material may be dated, this book contains many useful examples of exemplary practices.

Brookfield, Stephen D. (1986). Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1986.

Brookfield, Stephen (1992 April). Why Can’t I Get this Right? Myths and Realities in Facilitating Adult Learning. Adult Learning, 12-15.

Cranton, Patricia. (1996). Professional Development as Transformative Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cruikshank, Donald R., Deborah L. Bainer, Kim K. Metcalf. (1995). The Act of Teaching. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Dixon, Nancy M., The Organizational Learning Cycle: How We Can Learn Collectively. McGraw-Hill Book Co., London, 1994.

Edwards, Richard and Robin Usher. (1996). University Adult Education in the Postmodern Moment: Trends and Challenges. Adult Education Quarterly, 47(1).

Havighurst, Robert. (1953) Human Development and Education. David McKay Company.

Imel, Susan. (1995). Inclusive Adult Learning Environments. ERIC Clearinghouse, Digest No. 162 [].

Kerka, Sandra (1995). Adult Learner Retention Revisited. ERIC:

Knowles, Malcolm. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New Jersey: Cambridge/Prentice Hall Regents.

Reinsmith, W. A., (1994). Two Great Professors: Formidable Intellects with Affection for Students. College Teaching 42(4).

Vella, Jane. (1994)Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. Jossey-Bass, Inc.

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