Characteristics of Adult Learners

Knowles’ characteristics of adult learners have been widely discussed by many educators and address a process model of learning for adults, rather than a pedagogical content-driven model.


infogrpahic adult-learning
Legault (2011)


Many articles penned to discuss characteristics of adult learners stem from the assumptions initiated by Knowles:

  • Self- direction and the need to know. Why are they learning something?  What are the benefits learning and/or risks of not learning it?  Adults respond more positively when they can answer how, what, and why.  Adults need to be involved in decisions about these questions.
  • Self-concept. Adults feel they are responsible for their own decisions and are self-directed in learning.  This includes making decisions, being motivated and monitoring learning.  Self-concept is often context-dependent.
  • Life experience. Adults have had more experiences and typically more diverse experience.  They can draw on their own experiences as a resource to enhance learning.  However, prior experience can also lead to bias, single-mindedness, and resistance to change.  Learning should be connected to past experiences, and it should also be active, constructive and collaborative.
  • Readiness to learn and orientation to learning. Learning needs to be timely, relevant, practical and results-orientated. Learning should focus on tasks and problems rather that on subjects.  Contextualized and experiential learning works best with adults.
  • Motivation to learn. Rewards are more likely to be intrinsic, rather than coming from external sources.   Self-satisfaction, choice and seeing the value in what is learned is very relevant as learning is usually voluntary.

Adult learners are busy in so many various facets of their lives.  These multitasking realities of life, where learning plays a secondary or minor role, should be respected and accommodated.  They may lack the confidence to jump into a ‘student’ role.

A group of adults is likely to be more diverse than the same number of children.  Age, life experiences, age-related physical limitations (e.g., vision, hearing, memory) can vary greatly, affecting the learning process.  It is important that they are physically comfortable in their environment.

I appreciated this article  from RIT On-line Learning where the characteristics of adult learners were paired with teaching strategies, acknowledging and addressing those characteristics.

I feel my classroom presents as a very special environment.  Adults register for my course because they have a hearing loss and are experiencing communication difficulties. They share frustrations, successes, and after the sessions, some lasting friendships have been made.  I encourage a friend or family member to register as well, emphasizing that communication is a two-way street.  Speechreading takes place at Vancouver Community College (VCC), and my students range from 20 to 80+ years old.  We have afternoon and evening course options, and we meet once per week for 12 weeks.

What am I doing right?

My classroom instruction addresses many of these issues already:

  • Since we are dealing with hearing loss and communication, the classroom set-up is vital. Our class sizes are small (6-10 students), and the tables are arranged in a horseshoe so they can see one another.  I wear a lapel microphone connected to a sound field speaker, and each student has a tabletop microphone.  This increases the chance that the students are able to hear me and one another.  I place name tents on each table so they are able to see and remember names.  I have made large font handouts for those with visual impairments.  Break times are important to get a break from the classroom.  Students also use the time to get to grab a snack, get know one another, and check in with work or families.
  • My ‘class rules’ are that everyone deserves to hear and understand what is going on. We will work as a team to make sure this happens.  One person speaks at a time.  The class is a place where everyone understands the difficulties associated with hearing loss.  It is a place where everyone can practice strategies and share experiences among supportive partners, that they might not feel comfortable doing yet in the ‘real world’.
  • I include opportunities in every class for students to share communication experiences. Someone might be frustrated with their hearing loss and communication efforts.  We brainstorm problems, with ideas coming from students and myself.  Students also share their communication successes.
  • We talk about strategies that impact situations they experience on a regular basis: in restaurants, on the phone, in the doctor’s office, with co-workers and family.
  • Practice activities are practical and varied- sometimes they communicate with me, sometimes in groups of 2 or 3. I occasionally introduce background noise to simulate real life environments, or we’ll go to the cafeteria to analyze environmental factors.
  • We talk about what assertiveness means, why they need to be assertive (or what happens when they are not), and how to be assertive. Situations are explored through group discussions.

How can I make it better?

  • Explicitly ask about expectations of the learning experience before it begins. Ask about any concerns they have coming to class.
  • Ensure that I make more time to practice strategies that we discuss in class, rather than moving on to a new topic after I discuss the why? and how? Practice and give feedback.  An experimentation with a flipped classroom may provide the time for this!
  • Have all students submit problem situations at the beginning of the course that we can target their actual situations with brainstorming sessions throughout the semester.
  • Make an effort to find online examples and demonstrations of strategies to show, as an alternative (or in addition to) written handouts.

It is good to be pushed to critically evaluate what you are doing in your classroom. Sometimes we do what we do because that’s what we have always done and it works. Efforts, large and small, may make a meaningful difference to an adult learner who has made a leap of faith to participate.


Kuhne, G. (n.d.) 10 Characteristics of Adults as Learners. Retrieved from

Legault (2011) [INFOGRAPHIC] An Overview of the Principles of Adult Learning. Retrieved from

Malamed, C. (n.d.) Characteristics of Adults Learners. Retrieved from

Pappas, C. (2013, May 8) Adult Learners’ Traits. Retrieved from

RIT Online Learning. (n.d.)  Characteristics of Adult Learners. Retrieved from

All retrieved June 24, 2016.

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