How to Work with Adult Learners

What to keep in mind when teaching your peers.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Malcolm Knowles was perhaps the foremost proponent of adult learning in the United States. He advanced the theory of andragogy, otherwise known as the methods applied in adult learning. Knowles believed that the skills involved in adult education were distinct from those used in pedagogy.

Knowles work on andragogy encompasses six principles focusing on diverse adult motivations.

Adult Learners Place Different Value on Education

Once formal education ends, it can be difficult to convince adults to reenter the classroom.

Adults need to know the reason for learning something. It’s no longer enough to be told that they must. They strive to understand the ‘why’ behind everything they learn. As adults, there are always considerations put into place for how time is best spent. Between the responsibilities of work and life, it’s challenging to find time to relax. So, the time spent learning needs to be justified.

Prior knowledge provides the foundation for all future learning. What makes this particularly tricky is that, sometimes, knowledge is encoded with errors. And, if you’re trying to teach adults something that goes against their understanding, they’ll undermine your authority.

In general, adults strive to direct their own learning. They desire to develop a healthy self-concept that allows them to be in charge of their education. Adults often want to be a part of the planning and evaluation of their learning.

When learning, adults must find immediate relevance. If what their learning won’t help them reach their goals, the need to learn is immediately lessened. This can change based on the social constructs of a person’s life; a new job, relationship, or responsibility.

Adult-learning focuses on problem-solving rather than developing an understanding of content. Adults may be pleased to learn enough material to solve a single problem and no more. This can be particularly challenging because as soon as adults solve their issue, they may immediately “check out.”

Adults are best motivated by internal concepts rather than external. For instance, an interest in the subject will go further to drive an adult than a monetary incentive.

Understanding the different motivations of adult learners is critical for coaches, mentors, managers. If you can determine what will motivate your employees or students, you’ll see a much larger return on your effort.

Considerations to Keep in Mind

It’s not “Just.”- When we’re teaching, it can feel right to try and lighten the difficulty of a task by using the word “just.” But, the word “just” is often used to trivialize behaviors. When we use “just,” and students don’t understand, it can feel like we’re shutting down questions because they should follow our simple process. It’s crucial to keep in mind how stress undermines cognition. It can make small tasks seem overwhelming. So, even a simple guide can feel like too much work.

Adult learners like to know “why” — This is something that great explanations will strive to include. Typically we’re all about “how” we can make things work. If, in our description of “how” we can explain “why” things function in a particular manner, then we’re on the right track.

Stress — Our customers are often seeking our help because they’ve become stuck in a situation. Whether they’re expressing it in their tone or not, getting to a point where you don’t understand your job can be stressful. Just as we experience Impostorism, so do our customers. It’s essential to consider this if customers seem panicked or curt.

Adult learners aren’t prioritizing learning — In certain situations, a training or presentation can simply be a meeting “to get through.” Energy, interest, and attention are so low that your students are clearly disengaged. It’s pivotal to keep this in consideration when in front of a group of adult learners. They may only be in the room because of their manager.

Explaining Single Concepts

As adult-learners like to solve issues at the moment, I find it beneficial to understand the tools I can leverage to focus on individual concepts. In my own work, I often have to engage with customers who are new to our product. They may be using the wrong words or simply be uncomfortable fully explaining their situation.

  • Check for Knowledge Gaps — It’s possible a customer or student doesn’t understand an explanation because they don’t understand their product. Asking knowledge gap questions can help you start/focus your answer. You may ask something like, “Have you used x before” or “What’s your comfort level?”
  • Clarifying Questions — Sometimes, the most useful thing to do with adult learners is to make sure you’re on the same page. The last thing we want to do is frustrate someone by taking them down the wrong path. Again, adults view their time as incredibly valuable. Having to backtrack can make you seem inexperienced and undermine your authority.
  • Additional Clarification — Ask students what YOU can clarify about anything you’ve said. It can be intimidating for some customers to have to ask you to explain an explanation. Putting the onus on you is a great way to ease the tension.
  • Side by Side Support — This is one of the trickiest components, in my opinion. It can be incredibly tempting to do the work for a student or customer. But, this means they’ll learn to lean on you when they need help. Direct assistance is an incredibly thin line between doing the work for someone and supporting as they do it themselves.
  • Explanations — What can you change about your first explanation to provide a new example? How can you further clarify your answer? Students may need information presented in a new way to understand it fully.
  • Paraphrase — Ask the student to repeat back what they understand. This allows you to identify where they lost track. This way you don’t have to go over the entirety of your explanation again, just where they lost track.

In the end, we always want to ensure our students can get by without us. This is a simple truth for children and adults. What I’ve outlined above should serve as an excellent guide when starting out in the professional world.