Differences in Adult Learning and Motivation
Scott Campbell / February 9, 2016
Adult learners and traditional students have many differences - in reasons for continuing their education and in terms of different needs that must be met if they are to remain inspired enough to conclude a process.
Understanding common traits of adult learners is critical to providing the type of learning they need:
- Adult learners are results-oriented. They need to know that the material is relevant to their goals. They prefer the practical to the theoretical, and want to be able to apply what they learn immediately.
- Adult students are more self-directed. They want to be responsible for and in control of their educational path. Adult learners can benefit from options, such as the ability to choose between an essay-based test and a multiple-choice test.
- Although you might think age makes people more open-minded about learning, the reverse is typically true. Life experiences can make mature students less receptive to new ideas. They need to know the "why" behind the need to learn a new concept, then be able to relate it to established ideas.
- Adult learners need to be engaged. Unlike children, they are not legally required to be in class. If adults find themselves bored or unable to see the relevance, they can stop.
- Adult students have busier lives. The majority work full time and spend significant time commuting between work, home and campus. Restrictive policies can make it impossible for adult learners to juggle all of their responsibilities. Breaking learning into smaller chunks that they can complete quickly can help.
- Children absorb new information faster than adults, but adults tend to have a deeper understanding of the information. The difference can be noticeable with material that requires memorization, such as mathematical formulas or foreign-language vocabulary lists. Adult learners can benefit from having "memory work" introduced early in the learning module to give them more time to commit the material to memory.
- Adult students expect to be treated with respect. They have lived longer and experienced more than traditional students, and most adult learners hold positions of responsibility in either the home or workplace. Adult students will not respond well to having their questions or concerns brushed aside, or ridicule from an instructor. They also expect respect for their time. If they drive 20 miles to attend a class that is canceled, they will be unhappy.
- It is not uncommon for years to have elapsed since an adult learner was in a formal educational environment. Adult students may benefit from some subtle coaching in study skills.
- Adult students have many life experiences and skills and will feel more engaged if they are allowed to share them.
- Not all adult learners have the same level of commitment. Some are there because their employer requires additional education for a promotion others are there to achieve a life goal. Students can be motivated by demonstrating how they will directly benefit from mastering the material.
In most cases, adult learners are furthering their education voluntarily. This can make it easier to inspire them, as long as their differences are identified and respected.