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Adult Learning Styles

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The number of adult learners returning to college has steadily increased during recent decades. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES), in 2007 approximately 38i percent of enrolled undergraduate students were over the age of 24ii. Add the millions of adult students in graduate school and the percentages increase even more. Given this shift in student demographics, educators may need to rethink their teaching practices to ensure that they meet the learning styles and needs of their adult student population.

According to Malcolm Knowles, who coined the term andragogy (the study of adult learning), adult learners come to the classroom with vast experience and are eager to add new knowledge and skills to their current understanding of the worldiii. They want their learning to be relevant and immediately applicable. They are what Horton refers to as impatient learnersiv.

These learners are highly motivated and voluntarily seek out personal advancement through higher education. They are goal oriented and know what they want. They go to college out of their own volition, taking on the responsibilities of school in addition to their busy, full lives. Finding a balance between school, work, and personal life is a continual challenge. Adult learners want choice and autonomy in their learning. These learners will often continue to work on one particular area of interest as they travel from course to course shaping their learning along the way. Boxing them in without the opportunity to shape their own learning outcomes causes frustration and inhibits learningv. Choice allows for personalization and accomplishing one’s educational goal.

Adults, like all learners, want to be respected for who they are and what they bring to the classroom. If you could crawl inside an adult learner’s mind you would hear, Respect me, my ideas, my work experience, my opinion, my culture, my life experience, my age, my generation, my gender, and what I have to offer the world. Respect my struggles and the adversities that I’ve overcome. Ask me what I want, what I know, what I want out of my learning. Provide me with some flexibility. The greater the respect received, the greater the learning.

So how do we teach in ways that addresses the learning styles and needs of adult learners? Brookfield suggests when teaching adults bring out their life experiences and use it to make meaning out of the topic or content being taughtvi. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model is one way of doing thisvii. Using an adaptation of this model, instruction can be structured in four incremental steps:

  1. Reflect on current experience
  2. Tie new knowledge to current understandings
  3. Practice new knowledge
  4. Apply new knowledge to relevant contexts

For example, first provide reflective questions that help connect the learners’ experience to the course concepts. Allow them to probe into the similarities, differences, and explore the relationships between their experience and the concepts being taught. Capture their thoughts and discuss as a group. Compare to the readings and make connections. Help them understand the content through their own experience and understand their experiences through the content.

Next, build upon their current understanding of the concepts as it relates to their experience. Assume they already read the readings and then help build new knowledge and understanding of the content through examination and sharing. Have them work in small groups to examine the content, distill it, refine it, put the pieces together and teach it back to their classmates. This can be done with mini-presentations, poster sessions, student-designed learning labs, wall or gallery walks, and other collaborative presentational work. When doing so they take ownership of their learning.

The next step is to have them practice their new learning. This is where new thinking skills really begin to stick. Let them play with their new knowledge. Provide opportunities to create, build, experiment, organize, categorize, and sort. Immerse them in a variety of incrementally increasing complex exercises allowing them to hone their emerging skills and make mistakes along the way. Be present to guide and provide ongoing feedback.

Lastly, once the learning becomes crystallized through various application exercises and feedback, provide the opportunity to apply their new thinking skills to something relevant, personal, and real for the students. Connect to their learning needs and goals. It might be the upcoming graded assignment or the student’s own real-world situation. Ask the learners, how does this apply to your social roles in life? Reflect on how you will handle particular problems, issues, and situations given their new skills. How is this approach better than what you’ve done in the past? Use learning technologies to capture their thoughts, reflections, applications, and spark discussion. E-journals, blogs, wikis, discussion boards are just a few ways to do this.

The bottom line when teaching adults is to make it real; make it applicable. Connect learning to the adult learners’ needs and goals. Become a learning coach and apply learning theories to guide your learners along to where they can uncover the material through personal connection, practice, and relevancy. In doing so, we honor our adult students and provide a bridge to their personal and professional goals and beyond.

About the Author

Dr. Sue Hines is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and Associate Professor in the Doctor of Education in Leadership Program and teaches in the M.A. in Educational Leadership Program at Saint Mary's University’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs. She has over 30 years of combined teaching experience at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral level. Her career has primarily included college teaching, faculty development, program development, program accreditation, and academic research with a focus on faculty development program evaluation.


i National Center for Educational Statistics; Institute of Education Sciences, Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2007; Graduation Rates, 2001 & 2004 Cohorts; and Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2007. Accessed 10/28/15

ii National Center for Educational Statistics; Institute of Education Sciences, Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions, Fall 2007; Graduation Rates, 2001 & 2004 Cohorts; and Financial Statistics, Fiscal Year 2007. Accessed 10/28/15

iii Knowles, M., Holton E., & Swanson, R. (1998). The adult learner; The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (5th ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

ivHorton, W. (2006). E-learning by design. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

v Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

vi Brookfield, S. (1990). The skillful teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

vii Kolb, D. (1983). Experiential learning; Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.