Adult Learning

Seminal research among adult learning theorists (e.g., Knowles, 1973; Merriam and Caffarella, 1999; Merriam, 1993) has revealed that:

  • adults continue to learn after completing their formal education
  • adults learn differently than children
  • adults learn in purposeful, self-directed ways

Malcolm Knowles is a big name in adult education. He argues that adults...

  • need to know why they need to learn something
  • need to learn experientially
  • approach learning as problem-solving
  • learn best when the topic is of immediate value

Understanding the motivation and needs of the adult learner can go a long way to helping you design activities and courses that will work for adults: establish relevance, provide meaningful, problem-based activities that are useful to their real lives. Often including opportunities for choice in assignments and readings can go a long way to meeting these needs.

Facilitators often have to take into account the paradoxes adult learners present. On one hand, adult learners are accustomed to feeling competent and in-charge. On the other hand, they may harbour feelings of insecurity about their ability to perform in "school". While they may have years of work experience and informal learning, they may not have been involved in formal learning for several years.

How do we meet the needs of adult learners online?

Certain strategies and approaches seem to work well, including providing choice and inviting adult learners to leverage their experience, using coaching, dialogical models, and team-based learning reinforce a facilitative rather than directive approach to instruction. And meeting adult learners where they are, with active (experiential), relevant, applicable learning experiences will go far to support engagement and ultimately learning.