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Tips for Teaching the Adult Learner

In general, adults approach learning differently than younger students. They often pursue learning opportunities in response to significant life-changing events such as divorce, job loss, promotion, relocation, retirement, etc. In addition, they seek out learning experiences to maintain or elevate their self-esteem, especially if the life-altering event is particularly stressful. Unlike some younger learners, adults often choose to be in school and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself. Taking into account their motivation, consider the following when designing learning activities for adult learners:

  1. Focus on the relevancy and application of what is being taught. Most adult learners have multiple roles and responsibilities, and need their learning experiences to take this reality into account. If they don’t see the significance and purpose of what they are learning, they will soon become discouraged and disengaged. Using case studies and other participatory strategies will help them see the relevancy, and also allow them to apply their life skills and experiences.
  2. Find out what they already know about the content. If there are knowledge gaps, they will need more time to integrate the new information, so that it overlaps with their current values and beliefs.
  3. Pace learning experiences so that the risk of error is low. Keep in mind that adult learners take failing personally and will opt to learn things slowly and methodically, rather than risk making a mistake, which may ultimately impact their self-esteem.
  4. Design projects that allow them to be self-directed and autonomous so that they can control the pace, and stop and start when they need to, versus when their classmates need to.
  5. Give the adult learner choices about what and/or how they are learning. For example, if you assign a project, allow them to pick a topic that supports their goals and/or interests.
  6. Change things up during class. While the adult learner enjoys hearing from the "expert," he or she doesn’t enjoy being physically and psychologically passive for prolonged periods.
  7. Avoid putting adult learners on the spot or assigning activities they may find embarrassing. They do not want to "lose face" in front of their younger classmates.
  8. Acknowledge their life experiences by providing opportunities for them to share. To draw out their skills and knowledge, ask open-ended questions; and when they are correct, provide positive reinforcement.
  9. Treat the adult learner, who may already have an advanced degree, with respect. They may find punitive or arbitrary rules and regulations demeaning.
  10. Provide timely feedback because it keeps them motivated.

While the above suggestions are based on the research on Adult Learning theory, they can be applied to students of all ages.


Conner, Macia L. "How Adults Learn." Ageless Learner 2007. Web. 20 Mar. 2010.

Leib, Stephen. "Principles of Adult Learning." Faculty Development at Honolulu Community College 1991. Web. 20 Mar. 2010.

Rochester Institute of Technology. "Adult Learners." Teaching Strategies. Web. 20 Mar. 2010.

Zemke, Ron, and Susan Zemke. "30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learning." Faculty Development at Honolulu Community College 9 Mar. 1984. Web. 20 Mar. 2010.

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