6 Key Characteristics of Adult Learners


June 05, 2018 - Gini Beqiri

Learners differ in many ways, from gender to culture to previous education. It's important to be aware of these factors when teaching. However adult learners do share similar traits which impact their learning:

Here's a list of characteristics common to many, but not all, adult learners.

1. Less flexible thinking

Adults are more reluctant to change because their thinking has become more rigid due to life experiences. It's important to explain why making these specific changes is important and how the changes will help them, the team, company, etc.

In addition, linking new ideas to their existing beliefs and ideas is a good way to get them onboard and optimise learning.

2. Self-direction

Adults prefer to have control over their learning because they hold themselves accountable for their lives and their decision-making - they take responsibility for their own achievements or failures at learning.

Therefore, self-directed learning is preferred because adults can control the content of their learning and how they learn. Adult learners need to:

  • Be challenged and think about their learning
  • Self-assess and reflect
  • Be given the right level of support - some of this will be from the materials provided, such as extra reading etc.
  • Be provided with options and choices
Group of adults learning in a classroom

3. Practical and outcome-focused

Adults prefer information that can be practically applied and information that improves their performances because they are goal-orientated. It's important to create a learning environment which consists of practical and hands-on content, rather than just theory.

4. Use personal experiences

Adults learn better when they are able to link previous experiences with new ones and adults trust new concepts more when they have been based on previous knowledge attained. This is because, as aforementioned, adults already have lots of experience and existing frameworks which are concrete to them.

First find out what they know and fit new knowledge into this by, for example, using analogies and examples they are familiar with. Norma and Schmidt (1992) created a three-step procedure to explain how the connections made between new and old information can lead to learning and improved memory retention:

  1. Elaboration - we find the links between new information and previous knowledge.
  2. Refinement - we go through the information to retain the things that we understand and which we think are important.
  3. Restructuring - new schemata (knowledge maps which help us interpret information in our environment) are formed which subsequently allow us to learn.

5. Readiness to learn

Adults want to learn things they need to know in order to do their job or deal with situations better. Adults want to learn what they can apply and use immediately in their current day-to-day activities, and are less focussed on training focussed on the future.

The less the training is focussed on the now, the harder it will be to engage adult learners.

6. Slower learning but more knowledgeable

Aging does slow down the learning process for adults. However their depth of experience and knowledge increases over time, varying considerably with the type of job they do and extracurricular work.