Teaching Adults – We’re Not Just Big Kids


Adult and continuing education is a growing and common feature of modern life. More and more people are getting involved in taking classes and online courses as part of an ongoing need to keep pace with developments in their professions, move into new careers, and to further recreational pursuits. Government, military and corporate employers see the same need to offer continuing education to their workers. And, not to be forgotten, education among retired people is also growing as seniors renew old and embrace new interests and skills.

Teaching adults has always been a different matter than teaching children. Typically, adults come to class with objectives in mind, posses some background information, require relevance to be part of the training and have a better self-awareness of their strengths and learning styles (that they intend to capitalize on in the learning process). Many other issues enter the adult learning sphere and it is worth the time to consider these when presented with the task of developing or delivering training to an adult audience.

One particularly useful and concise review of the main issues that affect the education of adults was given by Dr. Karen Jarrett Thoms of St. Cloud State University as part of the Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference. A reprint of the talk can be found here.

Right off the bat, Dr. Jarret Thoms reminds us that distinct differences exist between between andragogy and pedagogy. That is, adult learning:

  • is problem-centered rather than content-centered.
  • incorporates experiential activities.
  • prompts redesign and new learning activities based on evaluation.
  • is based on an evaluation agreement.
  • permits and encourages active participation.
  • encourages past experiences.
  • is collaborative between instructor-student and student-student.
  • is based on planning between the teacher and the learner.

As such, adult learners expect (and need) to be involved, like to connect to past knowledge and experience, and see the teacher as a collaborator and guide. Doesn’t this sound like a partial description of the modern Web 2.0 learner we read so much about? Maybe there is a shift among certain high school and college age learners toward what we have formerly considered “adult” learning styles? But I digress….

According to Dr. Jarret Thoms the Sage on the Stage is out:

Andragogic sessions vary significantly from pedagogic classes. While there continues to be an increase in the number and degrees of active learning activities taking place in K-12, the college and training arenas may far surpass the learners’ understandings of what may and may not be negotiated as far as objectives, activities, etc. According to Laird (p. 126), andragogy raises interesting questions about the role of the instructor. As stated previously, in andragogy, the role of the instructor is to manage the processes, but not to manage the content. Two-way communication and feedback is critical. Instructors may serve as facilitators rather than lecturers. They may routinely switch between teaching strategies. For instructors, this change to the andragogic level of teaching may require a major adjustment to their teaching strategies.

Accordingly, the modern instructor or instructional designer has to be able to switch gears to meet the attitude, aptitude, learning style and experience of the adult learner.

Dr. Jarret Thoms sees the essence of adult learning represented in 12 basic precepts:

  • present information in a manner that permits mastery.
  • present new information if it is meaningful and practical.
  • present only one idea or concept at a time.
  • use feedback/frequent summarization.
  • practice learning as a self-activity.
  • accept that people learn at different rates.
  • recognize that learning is continuous/continual.
  • believe that learning results from stimulation.
  • enhance learning through positive reinforcement.
  • follow the concept that people learn by doing.
  • desires the “whole-part-whole” learning strategy.supports the team environment to improve learning.
  • knows that training/education must be properly timed.

Dr. Jarret Thoms goes on to suggest that six resultant issues surface that affect the development of successful adult training programs:

Learning is not its own reward. Children and adults learn for different reasons. Adults are not impressed or motivated by gold stars and good report cards. Instead, they want a learning outcome which can be put to use immediately, in concrete, practical, and self-benefiting terms. Adult learners want practical, hands-on training sessions over general, theory-oriented classes. For example, the best way to motivate adults to learn a spreadsheet software package is to show them how they can use it in their own environment.

Adult learning is integrative. The adult learner brings a breadth of knowledge and a vast array of experiences to the learning situation. Adults learn best when they use what they already know and integrate new knowledges and skills into this bank of knowledge. In the event this new knowledge or skill is in direct opposition to what the learner already knows or believes, there is a possibility of conflict, which must be addressed immediately.

Value adjustment. Because training changes how work is processed, the adult learner must understand why the learning is useful and why these new skills must be mastered. Value adjustment means understanding why work that has been done a particular way in the past will not be performed in the same way in the future. Adult learners must be convinced this change is for the betterment of the organization.

Control. Adult learners want control over their learning experiences. In K-12 learning, the teacher tells the students what to do, being very specific about assignments and expectations. Adult learning encourages collaboration with trainees about the pace and the content of the training curriculum. Adult learners in a college classroom can frequently be given more flexibility in determining their assignments, with the understanding that the basic criteria for the assignment must be met.

Practice must be meaningful. Repetition for the sake of repetition just does not “cut it” with adult learners, and it is unlikely that learning will take place. If repetition, however, does have meaningful results, then learning will take place. Adults frequently tend to be slower in some physical, psychomotor tasks than children. The adults are also less willing to make mistakes (someone might see them make this mistake), and they often compenstate by being more exact. In other words, they may take less “chances” with trial-and-error activities, thus making few mistakes. Send these adult learners home to their work station or with an assignment that will parallel what they have just learned. Because the adult learner does not want to make mistakes, especially on an assignment, might explain why adult learners tend to ask for clarification on assignments more often than traditional learners.

Self-pacing. Because adult learners acquire psychomotor skills more slowly than younger students, adults should be given the opportunity to proceed at their own pace, often in a self-paced learning package. Can self-paced activities always be integrated into the curriculum? No, and this is definitely a challenge to an instructor where there is a mix of adult and traditional learners.

Finally, the characteristics of an optimal instructor emerge. The effective (motivating) instructor:

offers expertise, both in knowledge and preparation.

has empathy, which includes understanding and consideration.

shows enthusiasm, for the course, content, students, and profession of teaching.

demonstrates clarity, whether it be in classroom teaching, explanation of assignments, or classroom discussion.

For further reading, the Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference can be found here.


Arnold, W. and L. McClure. (1995) Communication Training & Development. New York: Harper & Row.

Creating Dynamic Adult Learning Experiences. (1987) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Sound recording. Stephen Brookfield interviews Malcolm S. Knowles, Raymond J. Wlodkowski, Alan B. Knox, and Leonard Nadler.

Gilley, J. and Eggland, S. (1989) Principles of Human Resource Development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Jarvis, P., J. Holford, & C. Griffin. (1998) The Theory of Practice and Learning. London & Sterling, VA: Kogan Page/Stylus.

Knowles, Malcom. (1998) The Adult Learner : the Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (5th ed.). Houston: Gulf Pub. Co. Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, Richard A. Swanson.

Knowles, Malcolm. (1984) The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. (3rd ed.) Houston: Gulf Pub. Co.

Knowles, Malcolm. (1984) Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Laird, D. (1985) Approaches to Training and Development (2nd). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Loden, M., and J. B. Rosener. (1991) Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource. Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin.

Nadler, L. and Z. Nadler. (1994) Designing Training Programs: The Critical Events Model (2nd). Houston: Gulf Pub. Co.

O’Connor, B., M. Bronner, & C. Delaney. (2002) Cincinnati: Delmar/South-Western Thomson Learning.

Vella, J. (1994) Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: the Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wlodkowski, R. (1993) Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Guide to Improving Instruction and Increasing Learner Achievement. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wlodkowski, R. J., and M. B. Ginsberg. (1995) Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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