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Educating adults: How to teach adult learners 

Teaching adult learners is a very different experience to teaching younger learners. We explore some techniques for teaching adult learners and discuss how to motivate them.

A teacher talking to an adult learner, both smiling.

With COVID-19 instigating the great resignation of 2021 and online education becoming more prominent, there are more reasons for adults to pursue education. Whether it’s to upskill for a new career or to fit their learning around their family lives – education can be a fantastic tool for today’s adults. 

If you’re a teacher looking to find out more about the world of educating adults, this article will provide some insight. We will explore some adult learning strategies and share some tips for motivating adult learners.

What is an adult learner? 

First, let’s discuss what we mean when we say ‘adult learner’. Adult learners, often referred to as mature learners, are adults receiving education. This could be in the form of college, university, workplace training, or any other means of learning. Learners are generally considered adults if they are over the age of 25. 

Many adult learners are those who have taken a break from education. They could be returning to finish a degree or be studying to gain a new qualification. With this in mind, we should think about where adult learners’ priorities and goals may lie. 

Adult learning principles

Whilst all teaching methods may have similar traits, teaching adults will be a different experience from teaching younger people. The principles of adult teaching stem from the adult learning theory which we will explore shortly. The principles are that adult learners tend to learn best under these conditions:  

  • When their education can be self-directed, they need to be somewhat involved in the planning of their education.
  • When the lesson plans incorporate background knowledge and experiences.
  • When the learning is offered in an active manner rather than passive. 
  • When the learning is relevant to their current circumstances and can be applied to some aspect of their lives. 

Adult learning theory

So, what is the adult learning theory? The adult learning theory, or andragogy, is the concept of how adults learn. The theory was developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968, and it highlights how adult learners differ from younger learners. 

According to adult learning theory, adults differ from children because adults need to understand why learning is beneficial. The main points of this theory are that adult learners are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions.

Adult learners tend to be seeking education for their needs and goals. The key difference with younger learners is that the latter are often learning due to parent and teacher involvement. Because of this key difference, you’ll need to approach adult learners differently from how you would with young learners.

Characteristics of adult learners

Now that we know the basic principles of teaching adult learners let’s look at what characteristics we can expect to see. Keep these characteristics in mind when constructing your lesson plans and content. We can more easily create effective educational resources when we know exactly who we’ll be teaching.

Adult learners have life experience

It’s safe to assume that mature learners will, unlike younger students, bring with them a wealth of life experiences. Adult learners may have pursued a career before studying again, travelled the world, or even raised a family. This is great as it means that adult learners will have a lot of varied knowledge to share. 

Adult learners are driven to achieve their goals

Most older learners will be pursuing education out of choice. Whether it’s to learn skills for a new career or just try something new, chances are that they have made an active decision to pursue education. When teaching adult learners, you may find that they are more driven to get the most out of their learning. 

Adults learners are independent

Since adult learners come from all walks of life, you’ll find that they are far more independent than younger learners. Adult learners often know what goals they need to achieve and can hone in on those independently. This means that they often like making their own decisions regarding their learning. 

Adult learning styles and techniques

With the characteristics of adult learners and principles of adult learning introduced, let’s think about some useful techniques for adult learners. 

Encouraging involvement and independence

This approach encourages individuals to become more involved in their learning. Since adult learners prefer to be involved in their education, you should let them make decisions and listen to their input. 

Ask for feedback from adult learners and offer more freedom with lesson plans and activities. You can even allow for self-guided study if this suits the needs of your learners more. 

Active learning

One of the principles that we outlined was to provide educational material in an interactive and problem-based manner. Adult learning is more effective when learners solve problems and address tasks using reasoning.

Task-oriented educational tools will be more effective than standard passive teaching methods when teaching adult learners. Try to involve things like quizzes, interactive activities, and discussions to involve the learners. With some creative thinking, you can make sure that all learners are engaged and have a chance to get involved. 

If you’re interested in furthering your knowledge in regards to increasing engagement for adult learners, check out our Engaging Adult Learners With Active Learning course. 

Drawing on their life experience

We can utilise the life experience that we mentioned earlier to amplify the learning potential for adults. You could use real scenarios as examples during lessons and utilise the knowledge of your learners where possible. Use open-ended questions and draw on their own experiences to utilise their knowledge.

Taking a varied approach

Those teaching adult learners should be willing to use a variety of teaching approaches. Since every adult is different, you should use a range of learning approaches suited to the needs of your learners. Lesson content can be adapted to meet the needs of individual learners, and new resources can be brought in to accommodate all learners.

On the topic of accommodating the needs of all learners, it’s important to consider any additional help that learners may need. Adult learners may be neurodivergent and require additional considerations in terms of learning aids and resources. You’ll need to consider this when creating lesson plans and course content. 

To learn more about creating an inclusive learning environment, check out our Education for All: Disability, Diversity and inclusion course.

Motivating adult learners

One of the differences you may notice when educating adults as opposed to children is the difference in attention span. Your ability to focus decreases with age, so you may have to make a more conscious effort to engage adult learners. By tailoring lessons to your learners and making an effort to motivate them, you should be able to engage your learners.

Relating lesson content to your learners

Since adult learners tend to learn better when education immediately benefits them, you should highlight how the content relates to them. Adults tend to be seeking out a skill or qualification that will have an immediate impact on their lives. You can cater to this by using real-world examples and specifying how these new skills will have a direct impact on the learners.

Utilising time effectively

When teaching adults, it’s important to consider that an adult learner is likely to have limited time for learning. Adults could be juggling their education on top of full-time or part-time jobs, or caring for their families. Since an adult learner’s time is so precious, we should make the most out of lesson time and be strict with time limits.

Addressing goals

One way to motivate adult learners is to get to know their individual goals and address them where appropriate. Adult learners will all have different sets of learning preferences and goals. If possible, customise lesson content to fit your learners and take the time to learn their needs and goals. This will also help you relate the lesson content to your learners as you can pinpoint which content is relevant to their goals. 

Being flexible

It’s important to be as flexible as possible when teaching adults. Adult learners will have additional responsibilities and may already know teaching methods that work for them. Give adult learners flexibility in terms of timing – perhaps they have to leave the learning environment early for other commitments. This also includes being flexible with work deadlines and late arrivals. 

Adult learners may have a preferred learning style or are aware of a teaching method that suits them best. Be flexible and allow them to implement methods that align with these preferences and let them make decisions about their learning. 

How to teach adult learners

There are a variety of settings where you may be tasked with teaching adults. It could be in a college, a university-based setting, for corporate training, or as part of an online course. By using the adult learning strategies we’ve outlined above, you can ensure that your teaching will be effective. 

It’s important to think about your learners’ needs and goals when teaching. Always keep the adult learning theory in mind and don’t forget what makes teaching adults different from teaching children. Keep learners involved in the teaching process and do as much as you can to keep them engaged. 

You should also continue to review your teaching strategies to make sure you’re having as much impact as you can. Reviewing your methods and lesson content is a great way to see where you could improve. By asking your adult learners what could be improved and what they’d like to see in lessons, you can also involve them whilst also reviewing your teaching. 

If you’re keen to learn more about teaching adults in a workplace setting, check out our Grow Your Workforce: How to Teach Adult Learners course.

Teaching adults online

As we briefly mentioned above, online education is more prominent than ever before. Learning online is an accessible option for adults that allows for access from anywhere at any time. For those who have families to work around or possibly full-time jobs to keep up with, online education is a fantastic option.

Managing time

One thing to consider when teaching adults online is how much time is split between speaking and engaging with learners. This is important across all learning environments, but especially in an online classroom. It can be difficult to focus and engage across online platforms, so you should try to manage your time well.

Give all learners a chance to speak, and make sure that you don’t talk for extended periods without a break. If you have a large group of learners, you could put them into breakout rooms to share ideas.

Our Online Teaching: Creating Courses for Adult Learners microcredential offers an in-depth view into how to fulfil the needs of adult learners whilst making online courses.

Making learners comfortable

In an online environment, learners may find it difficult to integrate with other learners and speak up when they’re struggling. Be sure to cultivate a welcoming environment where all learners feel comfortable speaking up. For effective online learning, you should try to implement all of the teaching strategies we listed above and adapt them for online platforms.

Final thoughts 

There are some significant differences between andragogy and pedagogy. With the right techniques and approaches, you can effectively educate people of any age. We hope that this article has offered some valuable insight into the world of educating adults. If you’re in a position to do so, why not try out these techniques in your adult learning environment? 

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