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CAEL Pathways Blog

Learning Styles of Adult Learners

Learning_Styles_of_Adult_Learners-min.jpgHistorically, traditional students - those between the ages of 18 and 22 - have far outnumbered older students. In recent years, however, that demographic has been changing rapidly.

Adults over the age of 25 are enrolling in universities and colleges at an ever-increasing rate. The National Center for Education Statistics has projected that by 2020, 9.6 million adult learners will be enrolled in an institute of higher learning. This number is equivalent to 43 percent of the total campus population, an increase of approximately 3 percent from 2010.

During the same period, students over the age of 35 are expected to increase from 17 percent to 19 percent.

Some adult learners are enrolling for the first time. Others are returning to complete an interrupted education. Still others are pursuing advanced degrees.

Their reasons for continuing their education also vary. They may be attempting to advance their careers or start a new one. For some, it is an opportunity to realize a long-abandoned dream or to find personal fulfillment. Others have already retired from one career and are ready to launch a second one.

Whatever their motives, it is an inescapable fact that adult learners are different from traditional students. They have different motivations, life experiences, challenges and needs.

Adult Learners Seek Tangible Benefits from Education

Adult learners tend to be more self-motivated. They expect to receive a finite benefit in the near future.

Traditional students often need to be motivated by external forces, such as the prospect of having their grades reduced for absenteeism or disappointing their parents if their grades are deficient. Traditional students frequently view the benefits of an education in terms that are much more vague, with the benefits not manifesting until some future, unspecified date.

Consider an Adult Learner's Rich Life Experiences

Adult learners have typically been in the workforce for a number of years. They have acquired knowledge on the job and through self-study.

Traditional students, on the other hand, have little or no work experience, and they have usually enrolled in college directly following their graduation from high school. Thus, they have had little opportunity to learn from a mentor, acquire skills independently or learn from hands-on experiences.

Returning Students Face Challenges

Most adult learners have family responsibilities and jobs that can create time constraints. They may have difficulty finding time to complete homework assignments or work on a group project. Some adult learners may need a university or college that is focused more on them than traditional students.

Traditional students are typically unmarried and childless, not yet faced with the demands of aging parents and seldom hold full-time jobs. Their schedules are more flexible, making it easier to meet with groups or complete lengthy homework projects.

Non-traditional Students May Require Additional Support

Older students are often less tech-savvy than traditional students, so they may need more assistance with classwork that requires technical knowledge, spreadsheets or use of other newer apps. Emotionally, they need recognition for the knowledge they have acquired through their life experiences. They are goal-motivated, so they need unambiguous statements of what is expected from them. They also tend to respond positively to coursework that is relevant to them in their current situation.

By contrast, traditional students typically require little or no assistance with technology. They assume that relevancy will become obvious at some future point and are not troubled by their inability to immediately apply what they learn.

It is important to remember that there is no single style that applies to all individuals, whether they are traditional students or adult learners. For example, there are traditional students who are self-disciplined and self-motivated, and there are adult learners who have extensive experience with the latest technologies. There are adult students who learn best from visual presentations, and there are traditional students who require hands-on experience to master a skill.

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