PIDP Week 3 – Preparing for Instruction – Characteristics of Adult Learners

Click on the link to read up on the 8 important characteristics of adult learners


Understanding what makes Adult learners learn has been summed up with 8 key characteristics or traits.

Self Directed

Practical and results oriented

Less open-minded and more resistant to change

Slower at learning but more integrated knowledge

Personal experience as a resource


Multi -level responsibility

High expectations

Here I am a gentleman of 54, exemplifying many of the characteristics typical of an adult learner. A prime example is the  personal choice to participate in this learning experience, motivated primarily by an intrinsic desire to be a better educator, by becoming better as a learner.

Adult learning characteristics are different from children as most adults have developed their own habits and styles of learning and although I believe children are more extrinsically motivated to learn than adults, motivation is a key component of all learning.

Most childhood formal learning takes place in the classroom in a traditional learning environment with a set curriculum , the asymmetrical learning model.The teacher the provider of the knowledge.(Knowles et al 1998, 63). Children benefit greatly from the neuroplasticity. 

Although adult brains are malleable and even undergo limited neuorgenesis, the extent of the neuroplasticiy is much lower than in children. This is most obvious in language acquisition, and recovery from brain trauma.

Typical of the adult learner is the expectation that the theories presented and investigated in the learning environment will test out in practical learning situations.

For most adult learners, the expectation is that their participation as a student will “facilitate my work, boost my confidence and improve my skills.” (Knowles) Adult learners are “results oriented”.

Learning environments for children often involve providing an external motivation to encourage the eventual development of the intrinsic motivation to learn. Because of the asymmetrical power relationship between adults and children, as Debbie Miller state in Teaching with Intention(2008)  as teachers “We cannot underestimate the power of our influence – what we choose to say and do in the classroom profoundly affects the ways children view their teacher, themselves and each other.”

Life experience of adults on the other hand, usually lead to being less receptive to the influence of the teacher and is characterized by “rigidity, which is the enemy of learning”. (Knowles)

Further to this dichotomous notion of the difference involved in children as learners as opposed to adults is “The belief  that neurodevelopemental plasticity varies inversely with maturation, so the capacity for for adaptation is greater in childhood than in later years.”(National Research Council Institute of Medicine, “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (2000).

There are further ways that adults as learners are different from children, though Knowles see the models of pedagogy and andragogy more as “two ends of the spectrum”.

He clarifies this by saying that the strategies associated with either of the two models (pedagogy and andragogy) are appropriate to either adult or child learning situation as long as there isn’t the temptation to “keep the learner dependent long after a learner has become able to be self-directing”if one is ideological pedagogue.

Knowles suggested that “climate setting is the most common and easiest starting point”in applying andragogy to practice. I would design the learning environment with this in mind: this would include providing a physical environment that facilitates interaction among the learners, to allow for an ease of feedback, collaboration and cooperation on tasks. This would include comfortable furniture arranged in such a way to encourage conversation.

I would post WALT (We Are Learning To – the learning intention) and WILF (What I’m Learning For -the success criteria) posters, and begin the lesson with group discussion that encompasses these main ideas that epitomize formative assessment as opposed to what adults are most accustomed to – some form of summative assessment.

I would ensure that there was an abundance of appropriate resources including examples of completed work, easily understood rubrics and ‘a path to my door’, where learners feel safe and respected.


creative commons logo from adult site



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