6 keys to reaching and teaching adult students

6 keys to reaching and teaching adult students

Whenever I talk about training adults, there are really two questions that need to be answered before you can begin diving into the topic: Who are the students, and do you really need to teach adults differently?

Who are the students? The snarky answer is “adults” but the diversity within that umbrella term makes subdivision rather important. Sure, corporate trainers and healthcare trainers teach adults, but do they teach the same way just because they happen to both be teaching adults? These practitioners understand the differences among adults, and the instructional strategies required to inspire them. They understand the importance of connecting the learning to the adult’s life; they practice the art of presenting training material in a way that appeals to the physical and psychological needs of their student.  The needs of the adult student are not feared in these programs and workshops and training sessions.

Why then, do we need to research and present academic scholarship on training and development of adults?

Because adults, much like teenagers and grade-schoolers, are remarkably different and constantly changing. As a corporate trainer nearly two decades ago, I developed expertise in working with adults at various stages of their lives, but if I used the same strategies and materials I did then to teach adults now, I wouldn’t get anywhere with the students. The way teaching has evolved over the past twenty years has dramatically changed my style and choice of media in teaching.

Diversity among adult student groups could be discussed at length, and how this diversity affects the instructional environment would be as varied as the training setting, the training location, the training purpose, etc. Even the categorization of the age of an adult student is a floating reality. Is your 20 year old student an adult? What if the 20 year old has a spouse and a child? How does a 25 year student differ from a 65 year old student? I think we can all agree that there are differences.  The research and academic scholarship surrounding the adult learner helps us better understand these differences in order to better serve the needs of the student.

Andragogy, one such academic scholarship theory, was defined by Knowles in the mid-1960’s, as: “the art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles, Holton and Swanson, 2011).  The theory helps align the unique needs of adult learners with the practice of facilitating learning.  The model presented by Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011) outlines six adult learning principles that trainers or teachers should recognize and foster as they seek to meet the needs of the adult learner.

Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011) six adult learning principles

(1)   Adult learners need to know the purpose of training and must understand why or how the learning affects them.

(2)   Adult learners tend to be self-directed, and the learning environment should create opportunities for self-directed exploration.

(3)   Adult learners bring with them and relate their learning to prior experience.

(4)   Adult learners must be ready to learn, and their personal environments often impact their readiness.

(5)   Adult learners often approach learning from the perspective of problem solving or hands-on application.

(6)   Adult learners are motivated to learn for different reasons but often it is related to internal or external rewards and benefits.

These principles transcend the environment and diversity of the student. Regardless of what life stage they are in or their demographics, these principles can guide educators and trainers to better engage their “adult” students.


Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. (7th ed.). New York: Routledge. [Kindle paperwhite].


Foundations of Adult Education and Training: 7 Definitions

Foundations of Adult Education and Training: 7 Definitions

When does adult education really begin?  In our 20’s? 40’s? 60’s?  Or is the foundation for adult education and training built earlier in our life, possibly as early as our grammar school days?

In the study of pedagogy (theories of teaching and learning) and andragogy (theory of teaching adults) in education and industry, there is much debate as to what constitutes adult learning.  The truth is that from the day we are born until the day we die, we are always learning. Merriam and Brockett (2007) suggest that the definition of an adult learner depends on who you are teaching, where you are teaching and the general context of what you are teaching.

In the study of adult learning, we could go as far back as Confucius, Aristotle and Plato who were teaching adults using a process of mental inquiry and facilitation of cognitive development within the student’s mind (Knowles, Holton, Swanson, 2011).  In 1926, Lindeman wrote about the teacher as a guide to the adult student’s learning process. And modern theorists and even neurological scientists continue to study the way in which adults learn and how this is similar and different to the way a child might learn.

The following seven definitions of adult learning clearly demonstrate the continuing evolution and interest in the field.

Lindeman (1926): “If we are to make the most effective use of whatever quantity of intelligence is available, we shall need to grant the right of each personality to rise to its own level.  This means that increased inventiveness will be required to discover the kind of education which will most effectively meet the needs of varying capacities. Formal educational discipline cannot be accepted as the criterion for ability to learn.”

Bryson (1936):  “Adult education consists of ‘all the activities with an educational purpose that are carried on by people, engaged in the ordinary business of life’” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Knowles (1980): Adult education is “the process of adults learning” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Houle (1972): Adult education is “a process involving planning by individuals or agencies by which adults ‘alone, in groups, or in institutional settings…improve themselves or their society’” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Courtney (1989): Adult education is “for practitioners…those preparing to enter the profession, and…curious others who have connections with the field” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Merriam & Brockett (2007): “Activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those who age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults.”

Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner (2007):  “Adult education is a large and amorphous field of practice, with no neat boundaries such as age, as in the case of elementary and secondary education, or mission, as in higher education. Adult education with its myriad content areas, delivery systems, goals, and learners defies simple categorization.”


Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. (7th ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lindeman, E. (1926). The meaning of adult education. (1989 edition). Norman, OK: Harvest House, Ltd.

Merriam, S. & Brockett, R. (2007). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction.  (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in  adulthood: A comprehensive guide. (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.