top of page
  • Writer's pictureSarah Ancel

5 Characteristics of Adult Learners (and How We Can Serve Them Better)

When postsecondary institution discussions center on adult learners, common themes often emerge - adult learners lead complex lives with competing obligations and limited time, all of which make it difficult to carve out the necessary time and space to complete a postsecondary degree. All of this is true and are necessary considerations when institutions develop interventions specific to this population.

However, it is less common for these conversations to explore the depth and breadth of the adult learner community as a whole, including how they show up in the classroom and the characteristics they often display as members of a campus environment.

Here are five things you should know about adult learners, the best way to reach and teach them (referred to as andragogy), and how postsecondary education institutions and practitioners can adapt to serve them better:

Adults show up with a strong sense of purpose. While there are many articles published about the importance of self-discovery in higher education, when it comes to adult learners, many have already “found themselves.” They often have clear career goals in mind and understand the value a degree could bring to their personal and professional growth. They aren’t there to simply check a box or get a piece of paper. They truly want to learn and grow their skills. Faculty who teach adult students love the way this sense of purpose shows up in the classroom and the way it serves as a great example for younger students.

Adults learn best by doing. When we are young, and learning is our primary focus, we expect to use the knowledge we are gaining at some point in the future. Malcolm Knowles, leading scholar around teaching adults, pointed out that older learners expect to immediately use the knowledge they are gaining, which leads them to be more problem-focused instead of content-focused. Instead of passive lectures, adults thrive when they are actively learning by engaging in projects, collaborating with others, and solving problems.

Adults learn best when abstract concepts are rooted in real-life context. Learning for the sake of learning is great, but adult learners (many of whom are making sacrifices in order to complete a degree) want their learning to be relevant and applicable to their career and personal growth. When it comes to teaching adult learners, it is important to articulate the “why” of coursework and apply learning in real-life context and application.

Adults have life and work experience that can make classroom content more dynamic. Adult learners may enter the classroom after service in the military. They may bring with them long careers in a variety of fields. They may have spent years raising and providing for a family. Bottom line: they have life and work experience that shapes the way they approach learning and their ability to apply learning to their lives. They should be encouraged to share when their experience as a person, professional, or parent is relevant to the classroom material. This is good for adults and younger students alike. It helps adults create for themselves the context mentioned above and shows younger students that there is real-life applicability to what they are learning.

Adults come to campus having already learned college-level, credit-worthy content. Adults may contribute their life and career experience to positively transform classrooms, but they shouldn’t be in those courses if they have already fully mastered the material. Robust credit for prior learning (CPL) policies should be the standard at institutions across the country, and proactively offered to all students who enroll. CPL policies provide multiple avenues for adults to translate learning that happened outside of the college into transcripted college credit, saving them time and money in their path to graduation and improving their overall outcomes.

While these five characteristics are not often acknowledged by the broader postsecondary education community, practitioners who are focused on this population know there are strategies that can embrace them and greatly increase the number of degrees and certificates earned by adult learners.

First, faculty must learn the art of andragogy, the practice of teaching adult learners. Andragogical teaching approaches explain to students why they are learning what they are, provides hands-on experiences and centers problem-solving, and provides immediate value to the students.

Institutional leaders must implement and systematize a generous, well-publicized and supported approach to CPL. Doing so improves adult learner outcomes, and can have very positive impacts to the institution’s bottom line.

Adult learners can use their voices, perspectives, and experiences to share with faculty and other institutional stakeholders how they like to learn and feel empowered to contribute their life experiences and learning to the classroom. The nation’s colleges, universities and classrooms will be more inclusive and vibrant because of it.

374 views1 comment

1 Comment

Dec 01, 2023


Great article. I think your point about the fact that most have already "found themselves" is so important. Post-traditional learners are self-directed and ready to learn (Knowles). We as educators need to see how we can capitalize on their energy and enthusiasm.

Well done!


bottom of page