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A Dozen Things You Need to Know about Adult Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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NOTE: The Tomorrow's Professor eNewsletter will now take its annual December holiday break.  The next posting will appear on January 2, 2017.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Deborah Jessop, who has held different positions in the media industry and teaches at a Canadian college, and Elaine Hawley a retired college librarian (George Mason University) and graduate student mentor.  Both have taken considerable time twice a week over several years to proofread each TP message before posting. While any mistakes that get through are mine, I can assure you that the quality of what you read is improved greatly by their efforts.


However, I would like to introduce you to some ideas that can help you gain a basic understanding of adult learner characteristics.  In this chapter, I share a dozen points and some tips for each that you can use immediately to help you better understand the adults you are teaching. 


The posting below, a bit longer than most, describes a dozen tips for working with adult learners. It is from Chapter 4 – A Dozen Things You Need to Know about Adult Learning, in the book, Teaching Adults: A Practical Guide for New Teachers, by Ralph G. Brocket. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis



Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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A Dozen Things You Need to Know about Adult Learning


The second key to effective teaching is to know the adult learner.  In 1928, E.L. Thorndike and his colleagues published an important study that showed adult learning ability is more stable than previously believed.  Since then, educators and psychologists have been pushing back the frontiers of knowledge to the point where, today, we know much about cognitive and psychomotor processes in adulthood and have developed a vast range of theories designed to explain how adults learn.  An in-depth discussion of theory and research is beyond the scope of this book.  However, I would like to introduce you to some ideas that can help you gain a basic understanding of adult learner characteristics.  In this chapter, I share a dozen points and some tips for each that you can use immediately to help you better understand the adults you are teaching.

1. Most Adults Are Actively Involved in Learning and Undertake at Least One Learning Project Every Year. 

The number of adults who participate in adult education is quite amazing.  Recent U.S. government surveys estimate that about 45 percent of all adults participate in some type of course during a given year.  That’s nearly half of all adults.  And this counts only enrollments in classes, workshops, training programs, and the like.  When you include self-directed learning activities, some estimates suggest that nine out of ten adults take on at least one learning project a year.

These adults come from nearly every segment of the population.  In the past, the stereotype was that the typical adult learner was a white, middle-class, middle-aged person with at least one college degree.  This has changed.  Today, there is no stereotypical adult learner; participation cuts across gender, age groups, race, and income levels, although the popular belief that “education begets education” – those with previous education are more likely to seek out more education – still holds true.  The evidence is clear, then, that there are a lot of people involved in doing what you do … teaching adults!

Tips: Remember that in most cases, the adults you are teaching have chosen to be there. They want to learn. So most of the time, you have the learners on your side from the beginning.  It is important to remember that your students will often come from very diverse backgrounds, and you must make a serious effort to get to know the learners.  Of course, this is more practical with a small group than in a large lecture class.  But even in the large class setting, you can demonstrate respect for all learners and show that you value their diverse backgrounds.

2. Adults Have the Ability to Learn Successfully Throughout Their Lives.

The old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks just does not hold water.  Or you could say, “that dog just doesn’t hunt” (pun intended!).  While it is true that adults experience decline in many functions, such as how quickly they can work, hearing loss, and changes in vision, there are things that you can do to compensate for these losses.  Also, while there are declines in certain cognitive skills, older learners typically have the benefit of increased life experience and wisdom, which are resources they can use in lieu of other declines that are a normal part of the aging process.  Finally, make sure you create a climate that shows you believe the adult student can learn effectively.

Tips: Try to adjust the pace of your teaching so that you are not putting older learners at a disadvantage.  Make sure you have adequate lighting in the classroom.  When possible, use visual aids like handouts or PowerPoint slides to accompany your presentations; this will help learners who have difficulty hearing.

3. Adult Learners Bring a Wealth of Experience to the Teaching-Learning Setting, and This Experience Can Be a Valuable Resource.

One characteristic that sets adults apart from younger learners is the vast wealth of experience that they have accumulated over the years.  While they may have limited experience with the topic you are teaching, they nonetheless can often make connections from past experiences in order to help them learn new material.  As you will see, learners’ experience is one of the most important ideas that we will discuss in this book, and we will return to it time and again in the following chapters.

Tips: Use the learners’ experience as a way to break the ice with a new group.  Ask about their previous experiences and even consider using an activity that will allow them to share their experiences.  Sometimes giving learners a chance to draw from their experiences will help the entire class by putting a “real life” perspective on your topic.  In doing so, you have the potential to engage the learners more fully because the content takes on a personal meaning for the learners.

4. It Is Important to Recognize That Decisions You Make about How You Will Teach Are Based on Whether You Are Trying to Change Attitudes and Values, Skills and Performance, or Knowledge and Factual Information.

Certain teaching techniques work better depending on what you are trying to achieve.  For example, if you need to convey a lot of information in a short time, then a lecture is probably the most efficient way to reach the learners. But if you are trying to teach skills, various “hands-on” techniques like demonstration or simulation will engage the learners more directly.  Finally, if you are trying to address topics that connect with learners’ values, attitudes, or feelings, then techniques like discussion, role playing, and critical incidents will help adults learn more effectively than content-centered techniques will.

Tips: Make sure that you are clear about what you hope to accomplish and communicate this clearly to the learners.  If they are expecting to learn practical skills, they may not respond well to long lectures.  It is important to know and use a variety of teaching techniques, so that you can adapt what you do to what you are trying to accomplish.

5. Most Adult Learning Is Self-Directed.

Research has shown that 70 percent or more of all learning is self-directed, which means it is planned, carried out, and evaluated primarily by the learner.  This does not mean that we, as educators, have nothing to do with all of these learning activities.  Rather, it means that the more we can do to encourage and support self-directedness in our learners, the more in harmony we will be with their urge toward self-direction.

Tips: While most adults have a certain level of readiness for self-direction, don’t assume that the learners you work with will start out at a high level of self-direction.  Levels of self-directedness will vary considerably among learners, but there are many strategies you can use to help learners become more self-directed.  We will discuss these in the next chapter.

6. The Need for Adult Learning Is Often Triggered by Some Kind of Developmental Transition or Crisis.

Quite often, adults will seek out learning opportunities when they experience some sort of change or crisis in their lives.  Losing a job, being diagnosed with a chronic illness, becoming a parent, and ending a relationship with a spouse or partner are all examples of situations that might lead a person to seek out a learning opportunity.  When I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in 1995, I began a learning project consisting of individual education / counseling sessions, classes, and self-directed learning activities related to understanding and managing my diabetes; many of these continue to this day.

Tips: You will probably find it helpful to spend some time studying adult development theories and concepts.  An understanding of the life cycle and the kinds of developmental transitions adults face can sometimes help you better understand the motives of your learners.  Remember that empathy, authenticity, and respect, which were discussed in Chapter Two, involve getting to know the learner and trying to understand the whole person.

7. Adults Choose to Learn for Many Different Reasons, and You Need to Know What These Are.

In a classic study from 1961, Cyril Houle asked a group of adults about the motives behind their decision to engage in learning.  Basically, he found that the learners fell into three groups: (1) Goal-oriented learners had a clear purpose in mind and thought of their participation in learning as a means to some other end, like a promotion, a career change, or a new skill that they could use; (2) Activity-oriented learners had very different motives. These learners became involved in a course or other type of learning because they enjoyed the activity itself, and they were mainly interested in meeting and interacting with others; (3) Learning-oriented learners were those who participated simply for the sake of learning.  These are the people Houle described as having an “inquiring mind.”  They are the people who sign up for classes just for fun or because it sounds interesting.  They also take on a large number of self-directed learning projects on things that interest them in any given year.

Of course, there are other motives for participating in adult learning.  Some of these include a requirement or expectation from others, the desire to contribute to the community or to promote social change, and even the hope of meeting a potential spouse or partner.

Tips: While it is not always possible to know why someone has enrolled in your class, any information you can find about this will be helpful.  If you know why learners are there, you can target your approach to better meeting their needs.  For example, if you know that your participants are required to be there, you can anticipate that you may encounter some resistance.  If they are there to meet a specific goal, you can help them become clearer about the goal and how they can best attain it.  And if you know that some of the learners are there for social reasons, you can decide whether you wish to provide time and activities for socialization.

8.  It Is Important to Understand Something about Motivation and How You Can Use Motivation Strategies to Help Excite the Learners about What You Are Teaching and, in Some Cases, to Help Break Down Learner Resistance.

Motivation is a tricky topic because we can’t see it or touch it; we can only assume it is there and can infer it through different kinds of assessment.  Yet a basic understanding of motivation will serve you well in knowing how best to meet the needs of your learners.

Tips: Knowing what motivates your learners can help you find ways to best evaluate whether they have learned successfully.  If you know that they are motivated by external rewards, you can set up a schedule of reinforcements.  But if the motivation is intrinsic, you can help learners decide how and when they have learned and help them see the inherent value of what they have learned.  We will look more closely at motivation in Chapter Eleven. 

9. Teachers of Adults Need to Understand the Many Kinds of Barriers That Can Limit Whether Adults Choose a Learning Activity or Stay with the Activity.

Many factors can keep adults from registering for or remaining in a learning activity.  Many of these barriers have to do with situational factors or life circumstances, such as lack of time or money, health problems, work obligations, or lack of childcare.  Other barriers have to do with institutional policies or practices that can limit adult participation.  These include not scheduling courses at a convenient time (for instance, older adults typically do not like to go out at night, so a senior center is likely to have a better turnout if they schedule a genealogy class during the daytime), lack of support services (such as financial aid, bookstore hours, parking), and not providing adequate information to the target audience.  Finally, many barriers have to do with dispositional, or attitudinal, factors.  We know that adults are often scared and lack confidence when they first return to the classroom (for example, students in “Adult Basic Education” often face fears related to their previous negative experiences with schooling).

Tips: Sometimes, barriers will be beyond your control.  Life circumstances or institutional policies may keep a person from enrolling in your class.  But when the learners do overcome these barriers, it is important for you to do things that will keep them there.  A welcoming attitude, a supportive climate, and an approach that helps build confidence and shows that the person can learn will go a long way toward increasing retention of participants.

10 Understanding Learning Style Is Important, but It Is Often Misunderstood and Misused.

I know you know this, but adults learn in different ways.  There are many, many ways of defining and measuring learning styles, and each has certain strengths and limitations.  In my view, it is fine to use learning style information to get a better understanding of individual learners.  It is easy to misuse learning styles data, though, when teachers try to gather data and then adjust their classes in order to “teach to” the different styles.  It’s not as simple as “plug and play” to match styles with instruction, because the range of styles among your learners will vary considerably.

Tips: I suggest that you not reject learning styles information outright, but be careful not to oversimplify something complex by trying to be all things to all people.  It’s just not possible to do this.  Rather, use learning styles information as a way to assess individuals and to help them find ways to maximize their own self-directed learning efforts.  This can happen best in a climate in which learners are encouraged to support one another.

11. Most Successful Adult Learning Takes Place in a Collaborative or Cooperative Setting, Where Sharing and Synergy Are Crucial.

This is the question of climate.  What kind of a learning climate do you want to create? In my seven words for “teacher,” I emphasized the importance of trust and respect.  It is vital to be able to trust that one can share ideas or perspectives without being attacked or humiliated by other students or by the teacher.  Respect means that it is important to value differences among the learners in your class. In essence, the classroom needs to be a “safe” space where learners can explore and “try on” different perspectives without fear of reprisal from others.

Tips: Tell learners right up front what kind of learning climate you are striving to achieve. Make it clear that you believe the greatest chance for success in learning will come when group members work together and support one another.  This does not mean that students can’t disagree with or challenge each other.  It does mean, however, that this must be done in a way that respects and values the person.

12 The Ultimate Purpose of Adult Education Is to Help Learners Think for Themselves.

Many years ago, I was on a panel at a research conference sitting next to Jack Mezirow, a highly respected professor of adult education (now retired) at Teachers College, Columbia University.  When he said this, it really resonated with me.  It wasn’t a new or original idea; it is something very basic in the world of adult learning.  But when he said it, at that moment, in that context, that was a “teachable moment” for me.  I believe that it is the essence of everything discussed in this chapter.

Tips: Remember that it’s all about the learner.  As teachers, we are there to provide information, facilitate learning and change, train people in new skills, or help people generate solutions to the problems they have identified.  But we are only a means to help people learn.  Ultimately, success is determined by how well the learner achieves what he or she has set out to learn.  We are only with our learners for a short time, but if we can convey the idea of “thinking for yourself,” then we have taught something far more profound than any content that we are teaching.

These twelve points are only a brief introduction to the exciting world of adult learning.  Many books provide much more information about these and many other topics.  Among these are Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice by Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Beirma; Learning in Adulthood (3rd ed.) by Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner; How We Learn by Knud Illeris; and Transformative Learning in Practice by Mezirow, Taylor, and Associates.  Next, we are going to look at two more essential themes in adult learning – andragogy and self-directed learning.

Think About It


Identify and interview five adults about their activities as adult learners.  You can choose family, friends, co-workers, or fellow students.  Plan to spend about a half hour with them.  Ask them the following:

  • How many different learning activities did you engage in over the past year?
  • What were the topics you studied?
  • Were the activities primarily self-directed, or did you enroll in some sort of class,

workshop, or training program?


  • How many of your projects were related to work?  To personal interests or hobbies? 
  • To dealing with issues going on in your life?
  • How do you believe you learn best? 


Jot down some notes and compare these.  Do you see any trends among the learners? 

How about differences?

I use this activity when I teach my “Adult Learning” graduate class.  The purpose is to give each person a chance to see how widespread learning is in most people’s lives.  Over the years, my students have been surprised by the responses they have received, especially from friends and relatives whom they know well.

Further Reading

Bjorklund, B.R., (2014). The journey of adulthood (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Houle, C.O. (1988).  The inquiring mind (3rd ed.).  Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Higher and Professional Education.  (Originally published in 1961.)

Illeris, K. (2007). How we learn. London and New York: Routledge.

Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., III, & Swanson, R.A. (2011). The adult learner. Oxford, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Merriam, S.B., & Bierma, L.L. (2013). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., & Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J., Taylor, E.W., & Associates. (2009). Transformative learning in practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.