Adults are characterized by maturity, self-confidence, autonomy, solid decision-making, and are generally more practical, multi-tasking, purposeful, self-directed, experienced, and less open-minded and receptive to change. All these traits affect their motivation, as well as their ability to learn. So let’s see the adult learners' cognitive and social characteristics, and what instructional designers need to know in order to create the right course content and structure, and adjust their attitude.

Adult Learners' Traits

  1. Self-direction
    Adults feel the need to take responsibility for their lives and decisions and this is why it’s important for them to have control over their learning. Therefore, self-assessment, a peer relationship with the instructor, multiple options and initial, yet subtle support are all imperative.
  2. Practical and results-oriented
    Adult learners are usually practical, resent theory, need information that can be immediately applicable to their professional needs, and generally prefer practical knowledge that will improve their skills, facilitate their work and boost their confidence. This is why it’s important to create a course that will cover their individual needs and have a more utilitarian content.
  3. Less open-minded And therefore more resistant to change.
    Maturity and profound life experiences usually lead to rigidity, which is the enemy of learning. Thus, instructional designers need to provide the “why” behind the change, new concepts that can be linked to already established ones, and promote the need to explore.
  4. Slower learning, yet more integrative knowledge
    Aging does affect learning. Adults tend to learn less rapidly with age. However, the depth of learning tends to increase over time, navigating knowledge and skills to unprecedented personal levels.
  5. Use personal experience as a resource
    Adults have lived longer, seen and done more, have the tendency to link their past experiences to anything new and validate new concepts based on prior learning. This is why it’s crucial to form a class with adults that have similar life experience levels, encourage discussion and sharing, and generally create a learning community consisting of people who can profoundly interact.
  6. Motivation
    Learning in adulthood is usually voluntary. Thus, it’s a personal choice to attend school, in order to improve job skills and achieve professional growth. This motivation is the driving force behind learning and this is why it’s crucial to tap into a learner’s intrinsic impetus with the right thought-provoking material that will question conventional wisdom and stimulate his mind.
  7. Multi-level responsibilities
    Adult learners have a lot to juggle; family, friends, work, and the need for personal quality time. This is why it’s more difficult for an adult to make room for learning, while it’s absolutely crucial to prioritize. If his life is already demanding, then the learning outcome will be compromised. Taking that under consideration, an instructional designer needs to create a flexible program, accommodate busy schedules, and accept the fact that personal obligations might obstruct the learning process.
  8. High expectations
    Adult learners have high expectations. They want to be taught about things that will be useful to their work, expect to have immediate results, seek for a course that will worth their while and not be a waste of their time or money. This is why it’s important to create a course that will maximize their advantages, meet their individual needs and address all the learning challenges.

What other characteristics of adult learners would you like to add?

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Least but not last, I highly encourage you to see the following short video from the PC3 team focusing on Malcolm Knowles' theory of andragogy or adult learning.