Adult Learning

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adults learn somewhat differently than children and have different needs for application of their learning.  Primary among these needs is the desire to partner in and help guide their own learning.  Adult learners are very goal-oriented, think in terms of the relevance of the learning for accomplishing their goals, and tend to be more independent and self-motivated.  Adults bring extensive prior experience to the learning process, and strive to connect that experience with the current learning.  Adults respond more positively when the tasks and goals of the learning are mutually defined or when the specified tasks and goals are clearly designed to help them meet their personal goals.  Adults also tend to be independent learners and to routinely self-assess in order to calibrate their learning and skill development to achieve their goals.

Requirements for Effective Adult Learning

Specific techniques are best suited to helping adults learn effectively, while facilitating their retention of learning, increasing their ability to apply the learning and motivating them to engage in independent, self-correcting and life-long learning.  For example, when adults are actively engaged in the learning process and involved in some meaningful way its development, construction, goal setting and activation, their sense of personal connection (both to the material and to the instructor) boosts motivation to learn and assists with anchoring the new learning to their prior experience and future goals.  This type of integration is more likely to generate in-depth and long-term learning, as well as to foster the skills needed for applying the learning in relevant settings.  In order to fuel this process, students need to be engaged in the setting of goals and/or receive very clear information about the goals and objectives and how those will address learners’ long-term goals.  Adults also require prompt and useful feedback, and frequent opportunities to self-assess and self-correct.  Learning should occur within an open, collegial and mutually respectful environment in which learners feel comfortable discussing and questioning—activities that will strengthen and expand their learning and their ability to apply it appropriately.


  • Brookfield SD. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. San Francisco: Josey-Bass; 1986.
  • Newton BW, Menna JH, Tank PW. How to become an effective course director, 1st Edition, 2nd Printing. New York: Springer; 2009.

Learning Modules

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