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Important aspects of the adult learner

What defines an adult learner? First of all they are above 18 years, considering this is the legal age for being an adult (in most countries). But this is just an arbitrary number. In this article, we’re looking closer to specific important qualitative aspects of the adult learner.

(translated excerpt from my final research paper on NT2, Dutch as a second language, in my teacher’s course, references are at the bottom of the article, references in the text have been removed for the readability; for specific references on passages and citations, please contact me)

What defines an adult learner? First of all they are above 18 years, considering this is the legal age for being an adult (in most countries). But this is just an arbitrary number. In this article, we’re looking closer to specific important qualitative aspects of the adult learner.

As well as in theoretic as in practical studies, it is clear that adults need a different approach than children and youngsters. Even if there is place for minor nuances, about twelve important aspects return when the adult learner is looked into.

In short we can summarise them like this:

(summary used from Van Der Kamp, 1992, pp. 191-192)

  1. All adults have an ability to learn.
  2. Adults want to learn and learn effectively when they have a strong inner motivation. Intrinsic motivation is a key factor in effective learning.
  3. Adults resist learning when they are told they must learn something.
  4. Adults tend to learn effectively if they consider the material relevant to their needs and interests.
  5. Adults seek to learn what can be applied; they are generally problem-oriented learners.
  6. Adults value information which is meaningful and useful to them: information related to their expectations and previous experience.
  7. Adults have a desire to know the outcomes of their learning efforts; they require positive reinforcement and performance feedback.
  8. Differences in learning abilities are larger within than between age cohorts. Older people tend to learn a little slower, but often learn more meticulously and with more intensity than young people.
  9. Learning abilities are determined more by previous experience of education and experience of work than by age.
  10. Different educational needs are associated with different stages in life career.
  11. Adults exhibit diverse learning styles, that is, the unique ways and means by which individual learners gather, process, and internalize information.
  12. Previous learning experience can influence current learning, both positively and negatively. The readiness of adults to learn depends on their previous learning experience.
12 aspects of adult learning, ability to learn, mitivation, resit learning, learn effectively with relevant material

(1) Good news, adults still have an ability to learn! I hope this wasn’t a surprise to you. Learning is something you can do your whole life and it should be a joy to do so.

(2) Then there is the motivation. The will to learn is crucial in the learning process. Without motivation, the adult student cannot go on, because motivation is the necessary drive to keep up the discipline to study. Two main categories have been distinguished. On the one side, there is the extrinsic motivation, that is everything that comes from outside of the student, such as the promise of a job or a nationality regularisation. On the other side there is the intrinsic motivation. The latter one is harder to identify and is more about personal development, with or without social interaction. This can be seen as one of the most important motivations though. The joy that results from learning can also be classified as intrinsic motivation.

Did you know adult learners sometimes refuse to learn at all?
Did you know adult learners sometimes refuse to learn at all?

(3) Don’t tell me what to do! You have probably thought this more than once, as an adult, orders are scattered around all the time: your employer, the government, your partner… If one starts to say you also have to learn something, it may be a first reaction to resist. To overcome this, we need to return to the second and the next aspect to give sense to what we’re learning.

(4) The fourth element for the adult learner is that they learn more efficiently when they consider the materials as relevant for their needs and interests. This is why the teacher absolutely needs to be aware of their motivation so he or she can anticipate on it. There are some researchers though that consider this aspect not always relevant. I feel it goes quite together with the next point and I believe strongly in it.

12 aspects of adult learners they learn what can be applied, meaninful and useful, desire to know the outcomes, differences in learning abilities

(5) The next point of attention is that adult learners are always looking for knowledge they can apply, their focus is mainly on problem resolving learning. When a student can’t find a practical application of the materials in his daily live, he could create a negative opinion on the classes and eventually even refuse to participate anymore.

(6) They also prefer meaningful and practical information, which means, they want to be able to connect the learning materials to their expectations and previous learning-experiences. For example, when you recognise a word, because it resembles a word in your mother tongue, it is easier to remember. Or, someone is enrolled in a work related workshop, they expect to learn more about a specific topic. This person will be pleased if that expectation is fulfilled and even more if the formal setting is acceptable and recognisable. An extreme failure could be: organising a chemic training for laboratory technicians in a kindergarten, together with the children. The form and content don’t match.

keep chemistry away from babies
Please, keep chemics away from babies…

(7) The adult learner finds it essential to receive a clear image of their progress. Positive and constructive feedback to explicit their acquired competences and knowledge keeps them motivated. To support this aspect, a clear description of the goals and repeated clarification of them during the learning process is a good practice. Keeping track of the progress shows their efforts are not in vain.

(8) It happens that I hear adult learners say that they are too old to learn a new language and that their brain cannot process it anymore. In general there is actually no extreme decline assessed in the adult memory. But it does go slower to process new information.

We can suppose that the short term memory works less efficient, for which it is necessary to work on a more thorough way than only oral transmission of information. If adult students don’t have a written version of the learned materials, there is a big chance that the seen information gets lost. Adapted exercises and a lot of repetitions help to fix new learning materials in the memory. A good addition for classes is computer applications, they permit the student to repeat as often as they want and on their own rhythm.

12 aspects of adult learning 9 to 12 abilities are determined by experiences differnt stages in life, adults have diverse learning styles

(9) A teacher needs to take into account the past of the student. Studying is not only about the learning material, but also about the whole personality of the student. Adult learners have a tendency to keep more critical attitudes and it helps to make use of that. By linking the learning material to their own world, to permit the student to bring and use their own materials, they stay involved. This is called “framing”, a practice in which a recognisable framework is created to allow the student to give new information a place.

(10) Students can be at different points in their lives, this leads to the need of a different approach of the learning material. They have to be able to link the material to earlier acquired knowledge. This is called “bridging”, from the image of building a bridge between known and unknown information. The teacher should try to find out what the student already knows and can do. Subsequently it is possible to broaden this information in the same or another field and repeat it thoroughly to permit the students to build on this and fix the new learning material in their memory.

What is your learning style person reading from tablet
Do you know your learning style?

(11) Just as children, adults show different learning styles. Their background can make one a faster or a slower learner and the personal preferences change how they collect and process information. In groups it is therefore indispensable to differentiate so all students feel addressed. Providing enough exercises, remediation or extension in different fields, keep them motivated. David Kolb talks about 4 kinds of competences from which we can distinguish different learning styles “ […] Concrete Experience abilities (CE), Reflective Observation abilities (RO), Abstract Conceptualisation abilities (AC) and Active Experimentation (AE) abilities [sic]” (Kolb & Fry, 1975 in Tennant, 1988, pp.100-101).

(12)  The last aspect considers the learning experiences adults have. This lead to an often fixed idea about how they should learn, even if it may not be the most efficient method. Previous school or work experiences may also have led to fears, ideas about not being able to learn, a personal conflict. Providing new study and learning techniques and explaining how they could help, may bring a fresh look and help them to improve. Certain adult learners benefit from knowing how they process information and giving some metacognitive information could also be a surplus. The idea behind this is that the students becomes more autonomous and can continue the learning process independently.

when was the last time you dreamt about being a superhero? boy as superhero
When was the last time you dreamt about being a superhero?

(13) One, less mentioned aspect is that of “arousal”. Activating methods keep the adult learners concentrated and focussed, especially if they study after having worked the whole day. This joyful aspect helps to put their fatigue and worries aside and motivates them to participate. This is certainly not to be neglected.

I also believe these twelve, thirteen findings should be thoroughly integrated in adult (language) education. For many years education has been focussed on transmitting knowledge and not so much on applying new competences to encourage independent learning. But step by step the view on education has been changing for the better! Of course, certain aspects are already present, but for others, such as the joy element and the personalised materials, it is often hard to execute as a teacher when dealing with larger groups. With individual language coaching it is more evident to take these aspects into account.

Click here to read more on my language coaching program.

References (contact me for the detailed references on passages)

  • Appel, R., & Vermeer, A. (1994). Tweede-taal verwerving en tweede-taal onderwijs. Bussum: Coutinho.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (1986). Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: a comprehensive analysis of principles and effective practices. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. pp. vii-xiv, 1-146.
  • Carney, R. N., & Levin, J. R. (1998). Mnemonic Strategies for Adult Learners. In M. C. Smith, & T. Pourchot (Red.), Adult Learning and Development: Perspectives From Educational Psychology (pp. 159-175). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • De Corte, E. (1992). Fostering the acquisition and transfer of intellectual skills. In A. C. Tuijnman, & M. Van Der Kamp (Red.), Learning Across the Lifespan: Theories, Research, Policies (pp. 91-107). Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd.
  • Jarvis, P. (2004). Adult education & lifelong learning (3de dr.). Londen: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Kormos, J., & Smith, A. M. (2012). Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences. Bristop: Multilingual Matters. pp. 103-144.
  • Lohman, D. F., & Scheurman, G. (1992). Fluid abilities and epistemic thinking: Some prescriptions for adult education. In A. C. Tuijnman, & M. Van Der Kamp (Red.), Learning Across the Lifespan: Theories, Research, Policies (pp. 73-89). Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd.
  • Rogers, J. (2001). Adults learning. (4de dr.). Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Schommer, M. (1998). The Role of Adults’ Beliefs About Knowledge in School, Work, and Everyday Life. In M. C. Smith, & T. Pourchot (Red.), Adult Learning and Development: Perspectives From Educational Psychology (pp. 127-143). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Schuller, T. (1992). Age, gender, and learning in the lifespan. In A. C. Tuijnman, & M. Van Der Kamp (Red.), Learning Across the Lifespan: Theories, Research, Policies (pp. 17- 32). Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd.
  • Simons, P. R.-J. (1992). Theories and Principles of Learning to Learn. In A. C. Tuijnman, & M. Van Der Kamp (Red.), Learning Across the Lifespan: Theories, Research, Policies (pp. 159-171). Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd.
  • Tennant, M. (1988). Psychology and adult learning. London: Routledge. pp. 41-106.
  • Torff, B., & Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Changing Mind, Changing World: Practical Intelligence and Tacid Knowledge in Adult learning. In M. C. Smith, & T. Pourchot (Red.), Adult Learning and Development: Perspectives From Educational Psychology (pp. 109-126). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Van Der Kamp, M. (1992). Effective adult learning. In A. C. Tuijnman, & M. Van Der Kamp (Red.), Learning Across the Lifespan: Theories, Research, Policies (pp. 191-203). Oxford: Pergamon Press Ltd.

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