Know Your Adult Learners
by Mark Sivy
The writing of this post was prompted by the all too common contrary treatment of adult learners in academic and corporate settings. Learning for adults is often treated as an extension of traditional public education, which itself is in desperate need of updating. As an adult, the motivations, challenges, psychology, and mechanics of learning are significantly different from those that exist for K-12 and undergraduate programs. These differences need to be recognized, acknowledged, and integrated into instructional practice.
Even though no single theorist’s approach comprehensively applies to all adults, one of the most well-known of contemporary adult learning theorists is Malcolm Knowles. His assumptions align with previous work of noted individuals such as Jean Piaget and Dusan Savicevic and concurrent work by experts such as Kathryn Cross and Jack Mezirow.
Adult Learner Characteristics
So for a start, the first six items that I present are based upon Malcolm Knowles’ (1984) assumptions of adult learning characteristics. I then follow up with some of my own, which I highly doubt are original, yet they are important to consider.
- Adults have transitioned from being dependent learners to being self-directed. This translates into the abilities to: a) have control over their learning process, b) develop peer-level rapport with instructors and trainers, c) learn in a manner that is conducive to their individual style, d) to select projects or tasks that reflect their desires, and e) avoid highly structured learning.
- Closely related to the previous assumption is that adults motivated to learn voluntarily, or at least learning material in a manner that generates a sense of intrinsic benefit such as to boost self-esteem or address a curiosity.
- Adults want to draw on or connect to their past experiences to help them in learning new content or skills. This stresses the importance of hosting learner groups that are comprised of individuals with similar experiences or interests.
- Adults are pragmatic and goal-oriented, wanting learning outcomes that are immediately applicable.
- Adults need to see the relevance and benefit of current learning to their life and future, work or personal.
- Learning needs to be problem-based and task-oriented instead of focused on the memorization of facts or processes.
- Adult’s lives are complex with multiple roles and busy schedules, thus learning needs to be more flexible in terms of time, place, and pacing.
- The ability to learn slows with age, yet learning becomes deeper and more meaningful due to its integration with a learner’s pre-existing knowledge and experience.
- Many adult learners who approach a new learning experience have anxieties, either due to negative learning experiences at earlier ages or because they sense they may not be equipped to learn as an adult.
- As a whole, adult learners are much more diverse, consequently requiring a greater personalization of the learning experience.
- Learning through the use of technology and at-a-distance communication can be new for many adults, thus causing a sense of disconnection with the learning process and a perceived inability to address previously mentioned adult learner needs.
- After a learning event, adults benefit from coaching, follow-up discussions, on-demand support, and informal communities of practice.
The topic of integrating these characteristics of adult learners into instructional design will be the topic of a follow-up blog post….
Reflection Point – “Learning isn’t an assembly line process like that implemented by Henry Ford” ~Mark Sivy
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.