Characteristics of Adult Learners
(Baker, D.; Colvin and Root, 1987; Ennis and Woodrow, 1992; Steck-Vaughn, 1989; Winnipeg Core Area Initiative.)

Confidence: Adults often come into a learning situation with fear and apprehension, following a long history of failure. It takes a great deal of courage to admit their needs and ask for assistance. Once in a program, some may exhibit negative attitudes because of their past failures.

Competence: Each adult learner has unique talents and has succeeded in some area of life: church, neighborhood, family, job, hobbies, sports, as part of a network of friends. They are mature people who deserve to being treated as such.

Energy: Adults are sometimes tired when they attend classes as a result of their other responsibilities. They may be working full-time, looking after a family and attending classes.

Goal-Oriented: Adult learners usually have definite goals when starting an educational program. These goals may include self-improvement, getting a driver's licence, reading to their children, improving job skills, getting a job or a promotion, getting a high school diploma or equivalent.

Learning Styles: Different people have different preferred styles of learning. Some will learn more easily if they can see or feel what is to be learned, while others may have to hear it to know it. Most adult learners know how they prefer to learn if the right questions are asked.

Life experience: Adults have a wealth of personal, family, work and life experiences which provide unlimited possibilities for the creation and understanding of lessons.

Motivation: Adult students are usually highly motivated when they begin. The motivation can quickly lessen if they become discouraged, if progress is slow, or as time passes and other responsibilities affect the amount of time and energy they can give to their learning.

Motives: Adults often attend classes with a mixed set of motives: education, social, recreational, and sometimes out of a sense of duty or because they are required to (ie. by their employer, to receive certain benefits, or by law).

Needs Change: Needs of the adult learner will change over time. The goals identified by the learner at the beginning may become more realistic, evolve as learning takes place, or change with one's life circumstances. For example, wanting to read with one's children may become secondary to learning to read messages from the school and write messages to the teacher if a child is sick or having problems at school.

Reaction time: Increased age or poor health can affect the reaction time, vision and hearing of adult learners. However, they do not lose their capacity to learn.

Responsible: Adult learners, like all adults, have many responsibilities. They are busy earning a living, taking care of a home and family, often just trying to survive. As a result, many students have little time to review and absorb large amounts of material at one time, or to waste on things which they don't perceive to contribute directly to their learning.

Results: Adult students need to see immediate change and growth. They may be intolerant of anything that does not help them achieve their goal. Often, as adults, student's goals are overly ambitious.

Self-conscious: Many adults develop strategies to conceal their lack of education. These strategies may show up as excuses for non-performance.

Self-Motivated: Many adult learners are strongly motivated towards studying as they see education as a way to improve their self-image, and reach other personal goals.

Uneven Learner: Adult learners will not necessarily learn at an even pace. It may simply be because some things are more challenging for the learner than others. Or there may be external factors affecting their ability to concentrate.

How Adults Learn

"When psychologist David Kolb studied how adults learn he found that when they undertook to learn something through their own initiative, they started with a concrete experience. Then they made observations about the experience, reflected on it and diagnosed what new knowledge or skill they needed to acquire in order to perform more effectively. Then, with the help of material and human resources, they formulated abstract concepts and generalizations from which they could deduce what to do next. Finally, they tested their concepts and generalizations in new situations. The experiential learning theory which Kolb developed from this research sees learning as a cyclical and lifelong process." (From M. Gillespie, Many Literacies, p.37.)

(The following quotes are taken from Ennis and Woodrow 1992: p.12)

"Effective [adult] learning requires the provision of opportunities for taking risks and making mistakes."

"[Adult] learning is fostered by moving from the known to the unknown; from the concrete to the abstract."

"Adult learners have many different ways of learning. It is important to stimulate as many senses as you can whenever possible."

"Adult learning is enhanced when educators demonstrate the strategies they use in approaching the unknown."

"[Adult] learners attach great importance to the ability of their tutors to communicate well."

Adult learners need "appropriate opportunities for independent work to decrease the sense of dependency that some learners may feel."

Adults learn by being with people who are enthusiastic about learning. "Enthusiasm about learning can be contagious."

"A critical factor influencing successful learning is the relationship between learners and tutors."

(The following quotes are taken from Cypress Hills Regional College, 1994: p. 2-3)

"Adults quickly learn things that are meaningful and that they can immediately use. The use of learner-centred materials will ensure that the information is meaningful to the learner and that he will use it."

"Adults must be able to relate the new information to what they already know. Adults have a lot of knowledge and life experience. They just have to learn the printed symbols for the words and concepts they already know."

Adults learn best if they are actively involved in making decisions about their learning.

"Adults do not want to spend time going over what they already know. Find out what they do not know and fill in those gaps."

"Adults must be motivated to learn the material. They must have a need to learn something before they will bother to learn and remember it. Find out what they need to learn and make it a goal to reach."

"Adults will remember something if it is important to them, if it is presented in a memorable way and if it is repeated. We must teach information that will help a learners reach his goals. It must be taught in a way that suits him. Enough practice must be given to ensure the new knowledge is over-learned and therefore, remembered. This practice will be supplied naturally if he is learning things he will use in his daily life."

"Adults will maintain interest if tasks are challenging but not overwhelming. We must divide the new learning into chunks that are the right size and at the right level. We will know the dimensions of these chunks if the learner tells us what he needs to learn. We can take his goals (what he needs to learn) and do a task analysis on it. This will give us the exact chunks he has to learn so the new learning will be challenging but not overwhelming."

"Adults learn best when they have immediate feedback on the task."

Adult learning may be influenced by the social networks of the learner. These networks may change over time, becoming more or less supportive of the adult's efforts to learn. (Gillespie, 1990)

Conditions of Adult Education
(Knowles, M. 1980: p.57-58)

Malcolm Knowles, a leader in the field of adult education, developed this framework describing how adults learn differently than children. The Conditions of Adult Education (in bold print) are followed by corresponding Principles of Teaching.

The learners feel the need to learn.

  • The facilitators expose the learners to new possibilities for self-fulfillment.
  • The facilitators help the learners clarify their own aspirations for improved performance.
  • The facilitators help the learners diagnose the gaps between their present level of performance and their desired level.

The learning environment is characterized by physical comfort, mutual respect and trust, mutual helpfulness, freedom of expression, and acceptance of differences.

  • The facilitators provide physical conditions that are comfortable (as to seating, temperature, ventilation, lighting, decoration) and conducive to interaction (circle or small groups at tables).
  • The facilitators accept the learners as persons of worth and respect their feelings and ideas.
  • The facilitators build relationships of mutual trust and helpfulness with and among the learners by encouraging cooperative activities and refraining from inducing competitiveness and judgmentalness.

The learners perceive the goals of the learning experience to be their goals.

  • The facilitators expose their own feelings and contribute their resources in the spirit of mutual inquiry.

The learners accept a share of the responsibility for planning and operating the learning experience.

  • The facilitators involve the students in a mutual process of formulating learning objectives in which the needs of the learners, of the facilitators, of the institution, of the subject matter, and of society are taken into account.
  • The facilitators shape their thinking about the options available in designing learning experiences and the selection of methods and materials and involve the learners in deciding among these options jointly.

The learners participate actively in the learning process.

  • The facilitators help the students organize themselves (project, teams, field projects, and so on) to share responsibility in the process of mutual inquiry.
  • The facilitators help the learners exploit their own experiences as resources for learning through such techniques as group discussion, case method, and projects.

The learning process is related to and makes use of the experience of the learners.

  • The facilitators gear the presentation of their own resources to the levels of experience of the learners.
  • The facilitators help the learners to apply new learnings to their personal experiences and thus to make the learnings more relevant and integrated.

The learners have a sense of progress toward their goals.

  • The facilitators involve the learners in developing mutually acceptable progress toward the learning objectives.
  • The facilitators help the learners develop and apply procedures for self- evaluation according to these criteria.

Principles of Adult Education
(Steck-Vaughn Tutor Training Manual, 1989: p. 13.)

Achievement: Realistic standards of student achievement should be jointly developed by teacher and student.

Adult: The vocabulary, themes, and language of all adult learner materials must be clearly written for this audience.

Apply: Give your students opportunities to apply newly-acquired skills as quickly as possible in real-life situations.

Experience: Capitalize on the adult's past experiences wherever possible in the learning situation.

Goals: Organize each lesson around specific learning goals. Tell students what objective they will achieve with each lesson.

Independence: Materials should allow adults to make discoveries on their own with limited teacher supervision. Adults need independence and are capable of assuming responsibility for their own learning.

Integrate: Combine several skills and teach them concurrently. Reading materials should supply information and develop ideas while developing new reading skills.

Meaningful: All learning materials should be vital and meaningful to an adult learner. The vocabulary must be adult-oriented.

Progress: Provide adult learners with progress reports at frequent intervals. These can serve as an important stimulant to adult learning.

Steps: Develop skills for the adult learner in small, sequential steps so that students are not overwhelmed with too much information at one time.

Stimulate: Make learning stimulating but not too demanding. These adults are already threatened by school, so don't give them materials beyond their ability.

Success: Make sure adult students consistently experience success in learning. Don't allow them to fail.

Time: Because students and teachers feel the pressure of limited learning time, make the most efficient use of each lesson.


* I have the right to learn at my own pace and not feel stupid.

* I have the right to ask whatever questions I have.

* I have the right to need extra help.

* I have the right to ask a teacher for help.

* I have the right not to understand.

* I have the right to say "I don't understand".

* I have the right to feel good about myself.

* I have the right to be treated as a competent adult.

(From The Manitoba Literacy Star 1994, Fall, Vol. 4, No. 4: p. 1.)

Chapter Five References

Baker, Diane. The Literacy Tutor. Wetaskiwin PALS (Program for Adult Literacy Skills). Wetaskiwin, AB.

Colvin, Ruth J. and Jane H. Root. TUTOR: Techniques Used in the Teaching of Reading. Sixth edition. Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. Syracuse, NY. 1987.

Cypress Hills Regional College. Tutor Ways. Swift Current, SK. 1994.

Ennis, Frances and Helen Woodrow. Learning Together: The Challenge of Adult Literacy: A Resource Book for Trainers. Educational Planning and Design Associates, Ltd. St. John's, NF. 1992.

Gillespie, Marilyn. Many Literacies: Modules for Training Adult Beginning Readers and Tutors. Center for International Education, University of Massachusetts. Amherst, MA. 1990.

Knowles, M. The Modern Practice of Adult Education; From Pedagogy to Andragogy. Cambridge, The Adult Education Company. NY. 1980.

Manitoba Literacy Star, Vol. 4, No. 4, Fall 1994.

Steck-Vaughn. Reading for Today - Reading for Tomorrow. Tutor Training Manual. 1989.

Winnipeg Core Area Initiative. PAL (Project for Adult Literacy) Tutor Guide.

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