Characteristics of Adult Learners

There are some distinct differences in the learning styles of adult learners when compared to the younger college population. These descriptions here are generalizations — exceptions occur in each group of learners — but you may want to keep these differences in mind if you are designing or teaching a course that may have adult students.

Adult Learners are…Younger Learners are…
Problem-centered and seek educational solutions that will take them from where they are to where they want to be in their life or profession.Subject-oriented, seeking to successfully complete each course, regardless of how the course relates to their own goals.
Results-oriented, with specific results in mind for education. Because their participation is often voluntary, adults may drop out if the education they are receiving does not lead to those resultsFuture-oriented, since they are often in a stage of life when education is a mandatory or expected activity and designed for their future.
Self-directed, and typically do not depend on others for direction.Often dependent on others for direction.
Often skeptical about new information, preferring to try it out before accepting it.Usually accepting of new information without seriously questioning it or trying it out.
Looking for education that relates or applies directly to perceived needs, and is timely and appropriate for their current lives.Seeking education that prepares them for an often unclear future so may not look for immediate application of learning.
Willing to accept responsibility for their own learning, as long as they see that learning as timely and appropriate.Dependent on others to design their learning and sometimes reluctant to accept responsibility for their own learning.

When designing or teaching a course for adults, remember that…

  • They are more self-guided in their learning.
  • They bring more, and expect to bring more, to a learning situation because of their wider experience.
  • Because of their greater experience, they can also take more away.
  • They require learning "to make sense," and may not participate in a learning activity just because the instructor says to do it

This means that you may find certain teaching strategies more effective than others with your adult learners.

Adult Learner CharacteristicsTeaching Strategies
Adults have years of experience and a wealth of knowledge
  • Use adult students as resources for yourself and other students
  • Use open-ended questions to draw out their knowledge and experiences
  • Provide opportunities for dialogue among students
Adults have established values, beliefs, and opinions
  • Take time to clarify student expectations for the course
  • Permit debate and the challenge of ideas
  • Be careful to protect minority opinions within the class
Adults expect to be treated as adults
  • Treat questions and comments with respect
  • Acknowledge the contributions that students make to the class
  • Do not expect students to always agree with your course plan
Adults need to feel self-directed
  • Engage students in designing the learning process
  • Expect students to look for a variety of learning media and activities
  • Flex to student needs in the learning pace and start/stop times
Adults often have a problem-centered approach to learning
  • Frame new knowledge or skills in terms of application to current problems or situations
  • Use participatory techniques, such as case studies and problem-solving groups
Adults tend to be more interested in straightforward how-to than in survey type courses
  • Focus on theories and concepts within the context of how they apply to relevant problems
  • Orient the course content toward direct applications rather than toward theory
Adults have increased variation in learning styles, since individual differences increase with age
  • Use a variety of teaching materials and methods to connect with differences in style, time, types, and pace of learning

Instruction designed for adults tends to be more effective if it is learner-centered rather than instructor-centered. Instructors must maintain a careful balance between the presentation of new material and its applications, discussion and participation among students, and the academic calendar.

Instructors must wrestle with the paradox of establishing control by being willing to give it up! The tendencies to feel good about expertly delivering information to students and to feel threatened by student challenges to the course plan, gives way to a more learner-centered approach that is most effective for adult learners.

If you would like to talk with an Instructional Design Consultant about learning strategies and methods that connect with different types of learners, contact Teaching & Learning Services.

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