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10 Characteristics of Adult Learners You Should Know About

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By Scott Winstead

characteristics of adult learners

The saying goes “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” but the truth is adults can (and do) learn new things all the time. However, it’s the unique characteristics of adult learners that instructors need to understand in order to effectively teach an adult class.

Understanding these characteristics of adult learners can help to make a curriculum and learning environment that is more conducive to adults, but it’s important to keep in mind that different characteristics will apply to various types of students within the same age range.

With that in mind, here are 10 common traits many adult learners tend to share.

1. Adults learn at their own pace

This is perhaps the most important characteristic of adult learners – they don’t like to be rushed through the learning process.

They want time to process information and reflect on it before moving on, even if that means a slower learning approach overall.

This doesn’t mean that adults won’t work hard in a class, but it does mean that instructors need to be patient and allow for different speeds of learning.

It’s important to note that while all adults learn at their own pace, this doesn’t mean they all learn at the same pace.

Some will want to race ahead, while others will prefer to take things slowly.

It’s up to the instructor to find a comfortable pace for the entire class.

2. Adults are less likely to be interested in active learning techniques

Instructors need to keep in mind that most adult learners usually aren’t interested in active learning methods such as hands-on activities and role-playing.

An adult learner is more likely to be interested in traditional methods such as reading, writing, and listening.

This doesn’t mean that active learning techniques can’t be used – they just need to be used sparingly and only when they genuinely add value to the class.

3. Adult learners prefer information that is tailored to their interests and needs

Adults like information that is relevant to them and that meets their specific needs. They usually aren’t interested in general topics or in learning for the sake of learning.

Instead, they want to know how the information they are learning will be useful to them.

Instructors should take this into account when designing their curricula and when selecting materials for class where adult learning will take place.

It’s also important to be aware of different adults’ interests and needs. Not all adults are the same, and not all will be interested in the same things.

The instructor should try to find a balance between meeting the needs of the majority of the class and catering to the individual interests of students.

4. Adults need more time to process information thoroughly

Instructors need to be aware that adult learners usually need more time to process new concepts and information than kids and other younger students.

This doesn’t mean that they aren’t smart or that they can’t keep up with the class – it just means that they need more time to reflect on new information before moving on in the learning process.  A slower learning pace helps adults to understand and assimilate the material better.

Instructors need to be patient and allow for different speeds of learning.

5. Memory retention for adults happens better if new material is introduced in intervals

Adults learn better in short intervals than with a bunch of information and new concepts thrown at them at once.

That’s where microlearning can be so useful when creating a course – it gives learners bits of information that can be added up over time to equal a more comprehensive understanding.

This is also where the concept of spaced repetition comes in – as long as information is repeated, retention will continue to work on it, even after weeks or months have gone by.

In this way, new material can be introduced at certain intervals, helping adult learners better retain the information.

6. Adults tend to prefer some self-direction when learning

Adult learners are more independent than adolescents, and for that reason, they prefer a level of independence in their learning.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want or need guidance, but it does mean that instructors should allow them to take responsibility for their own learning.

Adults are also more likely than kids to be interested in figuring out what works best for them when it comes to learning materials and methods.

This is why it’s important to show them what they will be learning before anything else so they can feel confident about their choice.

7. Adult learners are goal-oriented

Generally, adults are interested in learning for a very specific reason, such as gaining new skills to get ahead at work or changing careers. It’s about gaining practical knowledge for their life.

This means that they usually have very specific goals about what they want to learn and how much time they are able to dedicate. They are results-oriented above all else.

Instructors need to be aware of this so they can include objectives related to these goals in their course content. This way, adults will feel like what they’re learning is valuable and worth their time.

8. Adults tend to be less flexible in their thinking

Let’s face it — the older we get, the more likely we are to get stuck in our way of thinking. The more life experiences one has, the more confident they are in their beliefs, and the harder it is to change them.

This can be problematic when it comes to learning, because it means that adult learners are less likely to accept new ideas.

That being said, instructors should not expect an instant easy consensus of opinion from adult students. It’s more important for them to have a dialogue with students than to get everyone on the same page immediately.

Explaining why certain concepts are important and how they can help the individual can help persuade the learner to be more open minded and make the information more relevant to them.

9. Adults learn better when information is tied to their personal experiences

Adult learners have a lifetime of experiences to draw upon, and when they can tie new information to previous life experiences or knowledge, it makes learning easier and more enjoyable.

Trying to find a way to connect adult learners with the subject matter is one of the best strategies instructors can use when developing their courses for this audience.

Even if it’s something as simple as making sure examples are applicable to everyday life or familiarizing them with the types of tasks they will be able to master after completing a course, tying in personal examples will make learning more relevant and interesting for adult students.

10. Adults have many responsibilities to balance outside of class

One of the characteristics of adult learners that instructors can’t overlook is that they likely have a lot of responsibilities to juggle outside of class — many more responsibilities than younger learners.

This could be taking care of their children, balancing multiple jobs, maintaining a home, other family obligations – anything that takes up time and energy.

Understanding this about adult learners can help instructors plan their courses to the realities of an adult’s schedule.

A great course for an adult learning community is flexible and can fit their busy schedule while still remaining results-oriented.

A Final Word on the Characteristics of Adult Learners

Whether you’re an adult learner yourself looking to take a class online or an instructor creating a course for adults, understanding the characteristics of adult learners is important for achieving your goals.

These characteristics are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning more about adult learners, but they are some of the most important characteristics to focus on when designing material for this audience.

Adult learners have many characteristics that set them apart from other types of students, but one thing is for sure: they want to learn.

Have any other insights into the characteristics of adult learners? Share them by commenting below.

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