Motivating Adults to Learn

Adult learning is an interesting beast.  It is complex, and requires many different ingredients in order to be successful; appropriate timing, an understanding of why the learning is important, flexibility, and relevance to the individual’s life.  Adult learning requires a very different approach than the learning of children and youth.

In elementary school, for example, children arrive in the morning and join classes filled with other children who have been dropped off by parents or school buses.  They then sit at their desks and open their books to where the teacher tells them and learn the subjects for that day.  If a child is rowdy, or refuses to do their work there are consequences such as loss of recess, detention, or calling the parents.  Even if the child doesn’t want to go back, chances are good that they will remain in that class, and things will be discussed, worked upon, and adapted to ensure that they learn all that they need to in order to progress to the next level of education.

Adults generally decide to pick up learning projects out of personal interest or for personal gain, rather than for a reason such as simply being told they need to.  They may, in fact, be told that they need to by an employer, however this doesn’t guarantee that the adult learner will acquiesce for fear of consequence.  It is not like a child in school who must continue to attend; an adult has the freedom to leave their job if they disagree with the employer.  Instead, an adult must have some degree of personal motivation in order to engage in their learning.

Adults tend to require a number of conditions be satisfied before effective learning can take place.  There must be a motivation; this can be either internal such as learning something new for the sake enjoying of learning itself, or external such as taking a course in order to receive a raise at work or improve work efficiency. They must understand why it is important to learn something, or it will not be viewed as relevant learning.  Adults require flexibility in methods of delivery.  They have been doing things their own way, and over the years their strategies have become more and more concrete.  This means that teaching methods must incorporate a variety of styles in order to ensure that tactile, auditory, and visual learners all have the opportunity to understand course material equally.  The experience needs to be a positive one.  In order for adults to remain motivated and engaged in material, they have to obtain some sense of achievement and success.  Feeling like a failure is not likely to motivate an individual to continue learning (Adult Learners, 2016).

These conditions for learning are important to consider when planning for delivery of lessons in adult education sessions.  There are a variety of strategies that can be incorporated to ensure that they are fulfilled and each learner feels engaged in their learning.  For example, at the start of a course or program the instructor could hold an introduction session and ask the students what they hope to gain from their learning.  This would ensure that the instructor could tailor their curriculum so that not only is the important information being shared, but it is being shared in a way that is relevant to the students’ lives. Another strategy to ensure adult students are learning to their maximum potential is to deliver material in a variety of mediums.  This could mean that visual learners are accommodated with the use of slideshow presentations, auditory learners with a comprehensive lecture and time for asking questions, and tactile or experiential learners could be accommodated with time for group work with a case study or experiment.

There are many differences between young and adult learners.  It is important for the adult educator to understand and adapt teaching styles in order to ensure that learning occurs to its maximum potential.



Adult learners: How to engage & motivate themn to learn (2016).  Retrieved from

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