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Achieving Success with Adult Learners
As more mature adults pursue career changes,
educators must be ready!

As more and more mature adults decide to make a career move and re-enter the educational environment, educators must have a firm understanding of who they are and what they want to accomplish. Clearly, more and more sophisticated learners are enrolling in our educational programs, especially within the specialty fields, such as esthetics and massage therapy. To help us better prepare for this special learner, it might help to take a look at how these learners compare to younger learners.

Younger learners tend to depend on others for material and psychological support as well as life management. In other words, they are directed by others, while adult learners are self-directed. Adult learners depend on themselves to manage their lives. Children basically learn what they are told to learn and view it as important because adults have told them it is so. Adults, however, learn best when they view the potential outcome to be of personal value to them. Young learners have yet to experience much of life, yet they learn quickly. Adult learners, on the other hand, have experienced life and tend to learn more slowly even though they learn well. Because of the younger learners’ limited experience, they tend to be open to new ideas and will readily take them in. Adults, however, have opinions of their own and may reject new information if it doesn’t “fit” into their life experience. Young people learn because they are told it will benefit them in the future, but adults generally expect the learning to have immediate applicability in their lives. External motivation, such as good grades and praise from parents and teachers, affect younger learners while adults are more motivated intrinsically. Feelings of achievement, self-worth and self-esteem are more important to adult learners.

Having identified those differences, it is also relevant to look at ten specific factors as they apply to adult learners and how educators can help accommodate their needs in the classroom.

  1. The motivation factor. Most adult learning is voluntary; it’s a choice. It stands to reason, then, that adults are more motivated to learn. There are several areas that serve as sources of motivation for adults. They include: a) community welfare: adults are interested in the improvement of the community and mankind; b) social relationships: adults have a need for associations and friendships; c) prestige: adults want to enjoy personal advancement and achieve a higher status in their professional position; d) expectation achievement: adults basically want to fulfill the expectations of others and comply with relevant instructions; e) acquisition of knowledge: some adults learn for the sake of learning; they want more knowledge simply because they have an inquiring mind. As educators, rather than focusing on learner motivation, we may want to consider spending more time on facilitating learning in an efficient and interesting way, since older learners are already motivated to pursue it.
  2. The control factor. Adults have an innate need to have some mastery or control over their own lives. They need to be self-directed and take responsibility for themselves. They tend to strongly resent not being able to make choices. They want to take an active, rather than a passive role in their education. We need to seek ways to include them in the planning of their educational experience. We need to consider giving them choices in assignments and projects that will offer a variety of ways to show that learning has occurred.
  3. The experience factor. Adult learners have already experienced a wide array of training, beginning at home, then in school, and then perhaps in various jobs prior to pursuing career education. Some of those experiences have been positive and others not. Consciously or unconsciously, adult learners tend to link new learning to what they already know, whether through education or life experiences. They evaluate new ideas as they relate to their past experience. As teachers, we need to get to know our learners and what experience they bring to the classroom. We need to use valid concept-connectors as we introduce new material on a daily basis.
  4. The diversity factor. Adult learners vary greatly from one another in terms of experiences and age. The variety they bring to the classroom can greatly enhance the learning environment. By using collaborative efforts and group discussion or projects, adult learners can all benefit from their shared experiences. Interactive dialogue facilitates increased solutions and options over simple private reflection. As educators, we must allow more time for networking among adult learners to share perspectives and experiences. In addition, we need to prepare our presentations to meet the needs of every learning style in the classroom.
  5. The aging factor. The speed of learning tends to decrease with age, but the depth of learning increases. While it may take us longer to learn as we get older, we do grasp what is learned at a deeper and more relevant level. Other physical factors should be considered as well. Adult learners may experience barriers to learning, such as hearing or vision impairments. As educators, we can compensate by paying attention to the physical learning environment and making adjustments as needed.
  6. The goal factor. Adults enter career education with a specific goal in mind. They want to be able to apply what they have learned as soon as possible. They want the information to be presented in a well-organized manner with all key elements clearly defined. As educators, we need to give them more than theory. They want information that they can grasp and put into practical use immediately. We need to classify and define goals and course objectives from the very beginning of their educational experience.
  7. The relevance factor. Adults must be able to identify the reason for learning something. It must be applicable to their personal or professional lives if it is to be of any value. As educators, in defining program objectives, we must make sure that the theories and concepts are relevant to the learners’ needs. We must also let adult learners choose projects and activities that reflect their own interests.
  8. The habits factor. Adult learners may come into the classroom with behavior patterns that are contrary to what we will be presenting. They may be less flexible or more difficult to persuade than younger learners. They may even feel threatened when told those behaviors must change.  Their opinions about certain subject matter may not always be productive or appropriate, but should be recognized as important. As educators, we need to take advantage of learners’ past experiences and behaviors and, if possible, use them to improve procedures or techniques. We need to inform adult learners that their ideas and opinions have value and weight.
  9. The change factor. While some adult learners are motivated by change, others tend to resist it.  Learning usually involves changes in attitudes, actions, and behaviors and that can cause some learners to become suspect. As educators, we need to carefully explain the “why” as well as the “how.” We need to recognize that small changes sought incrementally will be better received than global changes all at once. This allows learners to see that the change is beneficial, not harmful, and they will become more receptive to future changes.
  10. The respect factor. All students deserve respect; adult learners expect and demand it. As educators, we must learn to treat our adult learners as equals and allow them to voice their thoughts and ideas freely in the classroom. We must recognize that, even though they are students, they are also our peers, not our subordinates. The old attitude of teachers that “it’s my way, or the highway” simply won’t work anymore and has no place in the classroom, especially with adults.

Adult education is substantial and carries great potential for success. That success, however, requires a greater responsibility by the educator. We need to be aware of learners’ attitudes, past experiences, habits, opinions and cultures. We need to understand their perspectives and be able to help them discover how useful a change in behavior and actions can be for them. We need to engage them in the learning process and help them achieve their precisely defined expectations. If we can show them how our programs can benefit them practically, they will perform better and the benefits will last longer.

Letha Barnes, Director of the Career Institute


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