15 Top Strategies for Teaching Adult Learners [+ FAQs]

Top Strategies for Teaching Adult Learners

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in education to understand that teaching adults is quite a bit different than teaching children.

The field of education has traditionally viewed students, especially younger ones, as empty vessels into which teachers can pour knowledge. But this is obviously not the case with adult learners, whose knowledge and understanding of the world has been shaped by considerably more lived experience.

Additionally, unlike younger students who are compelled to be in school whether they like it or not, adult learners typically have made a choice to continue their education. This means they may be more engaged in the material and more appreciative of your efforts to help them learn.

There are other differences too, but here’s the most important similarity: No matter who your students are, you’ll still need to establish a connection with them and put in place effective teaching strategies that maximize their learning outcomes.

Therefore, when it comes to adult learners, understanding how they access and process new information is key. Simply stated, teaching adults is most effective when educators understand and apply time-tested adult learning strategies.

What is Andragogy?

Andragogy is the term used to describe a set of principles, methods and practices for teaching adult learners.

Andragogy theory was developed by educator Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, who thought of it as the art and science of adult learning and set forth key principles that today are widely accepted throughout the field of education. (We’ll have a lot more to say about Mr. Knowles below.)

Andragogy vs. Pedagogy

Experienced educators are familiar with the terms “andragogy” and “pedagogy” — the latter describing principles and best practices for teaching children.

The Institute on Aging offers an informative chart comparing the key differences between children and adult learners.

Children

Adults

 Rely on others to decide what is important to be learned.

 Decide for themselves what is important to be learned.

 Accept the information being presented at face value.

 Need to validate the information based on their beliefs and   experience.

 Have little or no experience upon which to draw – are   relatively “clean slates.”

 Have much experience upon which to draw – may have fixed viewpoints.

 Expect what they are learning to be useful in their long-   term future.

 Expect what they are learning to be immediately useful.

 Little ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource to   teachers or fellow classmates.

 Significant ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource to   trainers and fellow learners.

Source: The Institute on Aging

Origins of Andragogy – Founder Malcolm Knowles

The term “andragogy” was reportedly coined in 1833 by German educator Alexander Kapp, but Malcolm Knowles is credited with developing the theories and ideas most closely associated with the term, and introducing it to other English-speaking academics with a paper published in 1968.

Knowles followed that up in 1973 with a book titled “The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species.” Today, some academic courses that help educators successfully teach adult learners use a book co-authored by Knowles as a textbook for such studies. Knowles (1913–1997) is widely regarded as “the father of adult learning theory.”

Knowles’ Five Assumptions About Adult Learners

OK, now it’s time to take a closer look at Knowles’ theories. In his view, understanding adult learning begins with five important assumptions, summarized below by Roundtable Learning:

  1. Self-Concept: Adults thrive in independent learning and training scenarios.
  2. Experience: Adults learn experientially, meaning they learn from first-hand observations and interactions. 
  3. Readiness to Learn: Adults are attracted to learning most when they know clear objectives. 
  4. Orientation to Learning: Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.
  5. Motivation to Learn: Adults are motivated by internal factors rather than external pressures. 

This connects to suggestions that Knowles offers for educators aiming to effectively teach adult learners, summarized below by teacher resource website Educational Technology:

  1. Promote a positive classroom climate centered around cooperative learning.
  2. Research the interests and the needs of each adult learner.
  3. Create learning goals based on the interests and needs outlined above.
  4. Build on each subsequent activity to achieve the learning objectives.
  5. Co-create strategies, resources and methods for instruction.
  6. Review each activity and make modifications where necessary, while continually evaluating the next steps for learning.

Desired Outcomes of Adult Learning

According to Educational Technology, Knowles also put forth a the following detailed set of desired outcomes for adult learning:

  1. Self-knowledge. Knowing their “needs, motivations, interests, capacities, and goals” allows adults to better understand themselves, which leads to personal growth, self-knowledge and self-respect.
  2. Global citizenship. Ideally, adults should learn to differentiate between people and ideas and learn to respect others while allowing for mutual disagreement. Ultimately, the goal is to promote acceptance, show empathy and help others in need.
  3. Positive attitude. Being open and accepting changes develops resilience in adults, which allows them to see each moment as a learning opportunity.
  4. Seeking truth. Often people react to the outcome, or symptom, of a situation. Mature adults seek to understand the root of the [situation] and, therefore, find a solution that addresses the cause of the [situation].
  5. Personality. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and adults should capitalize on their strengths by learning skills that support their [goals]. Education can offer many avenues that support each individual to their fullest potential.
  6. Essential values. Adults should not only respect the common values of the society in which they live but understand that they are binding. Shared ideas and traditions are a key component of “the heritage of knowledge” and are collectively valued by each community.
  7. Social order. Not only is it important to understand the rules and values of the society in which we live, but adults must also contribute as productive citizens. Demonstrating intelligence and being able to mobilize social change show that you are an effective contributor to society.

Learning Styles of Adults

The subject of adult learning styles is thoroughly explored in “5 Principles for Teaching Adult Learners” by General Assembly, an experiential education resource. The article asserts that adult students learn best when:

  • They understand why something is important to know or do.
  • They have the freedom to learn in their own way.
  • The learning is experiential.
  • The time is right for them to learn.
  • The education process is positive and encouraging.

Educators are encouraged to be mindful that adult students may have different learning styles that connect to how they absorb and process information. As the article explains:

Visual learners “prefer to be shown a lesson through graphs, diagrams, and illustrations. They rely on what the instructor is doing and often sit in the front of the classroom to avoid visual obstructions. The best form of communication is providing worksheets, white boarding, and leveraging phrases such as, ‘Do you see how this works?’”

Auditory learners “listen carefully to all sounds associated with the lesson. ‘Tell me’ is their motto. They will pay close attention to the sound of your voice and all of its subtle messages, and actively participate in discussions. You can best communicate with them by speaking clearly, asking questions and using phrases like, ‘How does that sound to you?’”

Tactile learners, also called kinesthetic learners, “need to physically do something to understand it. Their motto is ‘Let me do it.’” They trust their feelings and emotions about what they’re learning and how you’re teaching it. Tactile learners are those students who will get up and assist instructors with role-playing in the classroom.

15 Strategies for Teaching Adult Learners

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Let’s conclude with a quick punch list of teaching strategies for adult students:

  1. Keep your lessons relevant
  2. Tell stories as you’re teaching
  3. Break up the information to avoid cognitive overload
  4. Get everyone involved
  5. Keep them engaged
  6. Focus on your learners’ life experience
  7. Be mindful of different learning styles
  8. Make your material visually stimulating
  9. Let them explore on their own
  10. Encourage questions and discussion
  11. Provide feedback
  12. Offer encouragement
  13. Be flexible
  14. Be passionate
  15. Smile and have fun

Resources for Teaching Adult Learners

For those interested in learning more about andragogy and how to most effectively teach adult learners, here is some additional research and reading material.

Are you more of a visual learner? Here are several YouTube videos on the topic of adult learning:

Are you an educator who would benefit from taking an online course on expanding your understanding of how to teach adult learners? If so, you may wish to check out several courses that we offer here at the University of San Diego’s Division of Professional & Continuing Education: 

Adult Learning FAQs

What is andragogy?

Andragogy is the term used to describe a set of principles, methods and practices for teaching adult learners.

Who is Malcolm Knowles?

Widely regarded as “the father of adult learning theory,” Malcolm Knowles is credited with developing the theories and ideas most closely associated with the term andragogy.

What courses are available for educators seeking to learn more about teaching adult learners?

Here at the University of San Diego’s Division of Professional & Continuing Education, we are expanding our course offerings on the topic of teaching adult learners. The first in our series of three courses is titled Understanding the Adult Learner – Theory and Skills to Become a More Effective Professional Learning Designer and Facilitator