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What to Consider When Working With Adult Learners

Ms. Williamson is a published author and educator with a Bachelor of Business, Master of Public Administration, and Master of Science!

Happy graduate shares a moment with her children.

Happy graduate shares a moment with her children.

Exploring the Dichotomy of Adult Learners

Who can be defined as an adult learner? An adult learner is a person, generally past the age of 16, who has previously left the formal schooling system and who now has reentered that system for further education/training. Such a person typically has responsibilities in several adult life roles.

Let us compare the difference between the adult and youth instructor.

Traditionally, the youth instructor is presumed to be one who is equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary for the curriculum and is responsible for conveying this information to the learner. The student is seen as a vessel or container—receiving, without question, what the teacher transmits.

The adult instructor however, is assumed to be one who is responsible only for providing guidance to the learners. These students choose what is important to learn and when and how they are going to learn it. These adult learners were formerly viewed as being completely self-directing.

Nevertheless the roles of both the youth and adult learner have evolved through the passage of time. Our focus is on the evolution of the adult learner and your unique role in working with them.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was little need for an office worker to be skilled in the operation of sophisticated word processing or computer related systems. Today however, office and medical administrative assistants are at a serious disadvantage if they do not possess these critical skills. To progress beyond the traditional roles of clerical personnel; companies are requiring subordinates to utilize either Microsoft Office Suites or Corel Office applications, depending of the workplace environment.

With more people graduating with college degrees and advanced technical training skills; competing employees will be at a disadvantage if they possess no more than rudimentary reading, writing, and mathematical skills. Individuals possessing these simple skills will never progress past the reception area.

Adult students have many different interest and abilities. Understanding this is vital.

Adult students have many different interest and abilities. Understanding this is vital.

In working with adults, some generalizations can be made, and these are useful as long as they are treated as general tendencies and not as scientific premises governing all individual cases.

  1. Generalization One: Adults can learn—In fact, adults have one advantage over youth in their ability to learn; they have an extensive range of experiences upon which to rely. These experiences—learning through living—provide a structure of reference for the acquisition of further learning.
  2. Generalization Two: Adults Learn What They Consider Important—when adults enroll in formal educational or training programs, it is usually for unambiguous reasons.
  3. Generalization Three: Adults Are Often Time-Conscious Learners—some adults participate in further education because it is a satisfying way of time consumption.
  4. Generalization Four: What Is Important Varies Among Adults—adults know what is important to them and tend to do best in educational experiences that provide what they value.
  5. Generalization Five: Adults Wish to be Treated as Such—having reached adulthood—at least chronologically—it is essential to many adults to be treated as if they were responsible individuals with the capability of being self-determining.
  6. Generalization Six: “Them That Has, Gets”—there is overwhelming substantiation that those who have successfully accomplished their goals in formal educational programs will probably seek to further their educational experiences. To interject an old cliché: nothing succeeds like success!
  7. Generalization Seven: The “Have-Nots” Need Special Support—Many adults have other requirements they should be considered when enrolling—necessities that must be met before they can participate, for example:
  • Personal needs—The adult may need help in financing his/her education, in locating child care facilities, in arranging transportation, and so on.
  • Poor self-concept—The returning adult may not comprehend what skills he/she possesses and may qualm his/her ability to succeed in school.
  • Poor basic skills—The adult may be deficient in the basic skills needed to succeed in the educational program.
  • Poor study skills—An adult may need help in learning (or relearning) how to learn before he or she can get the most from the educational program.
The adult learner has many goals in mind.

The adult learner has many goals in mind.

Adult Development

Let us investigate three distinctive developmental issues that exist among adult learners.

Physiological Changes

  • Speed and reaction time—as we grow older, the speed in which we react to any given situation will become slower.
  • Visual acuity—our perception significantly and noticeably diminishes with age.
  • Auditory acuity—our ability to differentiate sounds, especially voices is affected with age.
  • Intellectual functioning—the more the mind is stimulated as we grow older; the better for us!

Psychological Changes

A great deal more is known about how adults change physically than about how they change mentally.

  1. Cognitive psychologists note that some aspects of memory and processing change as people get older.
  2. The brain's volume peaks in the early 20s and gradually declines for the rest of life. (The American Psychological Association.)
  3. It can take longer to grasp a concept than it did earlier in life.

Sociological Changes

As adults grow older, they begin to experience many different types of losses, such as financial, economical, residential, and the demise of friends and family. Other variable can disrupt the normal learning process such as:

  1. Grieving may be delayed and the pain may erupt later
  2. Health problems may develop
  3. Behavioral problems may develop
  4. Relationships can be negatively affected
  5. Drug or alcohol problems may develop
  6. Depression may develop

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These are issues that the adult instructor will need to consider when dealing with older students.

Sometimes older students are part of a classroom with younger counterparts.

Sometimes older students are part of a classroom with younger counterparts.

Learning Modality Preferences: Characteristic Behaviors

We will now briefly look at three types of learners. By understanding these learning characteristics, you as an instructor will be able to modify your teaching methods to accommodate your specific students.

Some students will possess multiple learning patterns; however, the majority will fall into one of these basic behaviors.

The Kinesthetic-Tactile Learner

  • Doesn’t like sitting still; gets fidgety during lectures
  • Likes to touch people and things
  • Often learns best by doing
  • May enjoy taking notes (the act of)
  • Quite likely is well coordinated; may be an athletic type
  • Likes to disassemble things and try to put them back together

The Visual Learner

  • Enjoys looking at and/or reading books
  • Often learns better by demonstration
  • Is sometimes a good “detail person”
  • Is not particularly talkative in class; uses words sparingly
  • Often has some degree of artistic ability
  • May have difficulty in learning and speaking other languages
  • Often likes to work puzzles

The Auditory Learner

  • Is often a “talker”
  • Likes to tell jokes and long, involved stories
  • Remembers spoken material better than visual material
  • Likes music; often knows the words to many songs
  • Sometimes has poor spatial perception; may get “turned around” in unfamiliar surroundings
  • Is not the world’s best writer or artist; handwriting may be unintelligible—the proverbial “chicken-scratcher”
  • Is sometimes physically awkward

Never underestimate the ability of the adult learner. Though there are pronounced differences between the youth and adult learner; you will find that once the adult is committed to the learning experience—he/she will make a very good candidate for success!

Gone are the days of the traditional student.

Gone are the days of the traditional student.

It's time for Application ...

Now that we have looked at the some of the characteristics of adult learners, let apply these concepts with true/false statements and scenarios.

True and False

1. There are no distinctive advantages the adult learner has over the youth learner. True/False

2. Adult learners should never be presented with challenging situations; this could hinder the learning process. True/False

3. The Kinesthetic-Tactile Learner loves to sit still and is not well coordinated. True/False

4. The Audio Learner loves to tell jokes and is often very talkative. True/False

5. The Visual Learner learns best through demonstrations as opposed to hearing a concept.


After being married for 28 years, Stacie and her husband Roger divorce. Stacie has never had to work outside of the home but kept active through volunteer work and the activities of her growing children. Stacie also has developed a great talent for writing. Although Stacie is completely satisfied with the divorce settlement—she is now faced with rearranging her lifestyle.

Her only daughter is married and has just moved, living out of the country with her husband. Stacie’s only son is in the military and is constantly mobile. Stacie no longer has to prepare meals for Roger’s dinner parties or attend the various social gatherings required at Roger’s company.

Stacie comes to you for advice—should she continue her education in an attempt to find a suitable job? Will she have the necessary skills required for academic endeavors? How will you advise Stacie?

© 2013 Jacqueline Williamson BBA MPA MS


Jacqueline Williamson BBA MPA MS (author) from Memphis on May 24, 2014:

Always remember that adult learners are not just larger versions of children. Adult Learners have experienced things that can impact their ability to function whether temporarily or permanent. Layoff or terminations of jobs, death of significant others and long-term illnesses are just of a few situations that can negatively impact the adult learner. Always keep these things in mind and treat your learners accordingly.

Jacqueline Williamson BBA MPA MS (author) from Memphis on May 01, 2014:

Working with Adult Learners can be more of a challenge than working with youth. Because the adult learner has more experience and more defined conceptions on various subjects, the teacher may have to incorporate more "real life" issues in his/her teaching repertoire.

Jacqueline Williamson BBA MPA MS (author) from Memphis on April 01, 2014:

Never treat Adult Learners like children. Adults function on a different level and therefore require a more cooperative, relaxed atmosphere. Threatening or intimidate adults can lead to negative, defensive responses. Use courtesy and consideration and all should be well.

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