Adult Learners

Excerpts from my keynote speech delivered at the Alpha Sigma Lambda honor society for adult students at Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, IL.  May 6, 2016

I am honored to be here to talk to you about one of my favorite topics – adult learning.

I have been teaching adults in one form or another for most of my career. I formally moved into what we refer to as “adult education” or the teaching of “nontraditional” students over a decade ago, and I never looked back. For me, teaching adults has become a passion, and I have found a home in furthering the agenda of adult education as a field.

You, on the other hand, might not think of yourself as an adult educator.  But in the next few minutes, I hope you’ll see why the principles of adult education have impacted you and can be used in your everyday life. No matter what field you currently work in or plan to enter, you will be working with adults, and inspiring and engaging adults can be a fun opportunity.

You may wonder why our field has an honors society for adult students.  It may seem confusing that we sometimes separate students into two groups – the “traditional” and the “non-traditional.”  After all, adults are students too, and they have many of the same struggles as a “traditional” student.

“Traditional” students stay up late to finish papers and projects. Adult students have probably done that a few times.

“Traditional” students stress over tests. I swear – no one likes to take tests.

“Traditional” students worry about meeting the expectations of their teachers. I think adults worry about this one even more so.

The difference of course is, “traditional” students don’t usually have children pulling at their attention, or bills to pay, or 40 hours of work to fit into their schedule. So, adult students – whether we call them “nontraditional” or “continuing students” or “degree completers” or some other educational lingo – they are different. You know this. You’re living it.

The theory of adult education – yes there is such a thing – outlines why these differences are significant.

  • Adult learners have life experiences and therefore approach learning with these experiences in tow. Makes sense. The experiences you have had to date help you relate to material in a different way than an 18 year old right out of high school.
  • Adult learners often have jobs and/or home responsibilities. This may seem obvious, but consider how your jobs and responsibilities affect your ability to work towards your degree. Education is often not at the top of an adult’s very long list of things to do.
  • Adult learners have needs. They get headaches. They have body aches. They get tired after long days. And the list goes on.

Hence, we in higher education have figured out that separating the “traditional” and “nontraditional” students is probably a good idea. It’s not that the two groups cannot learn from each other, but the adult’s approach may be unique.

And this honor society recognizes you for your unique accomplishments as adult students.

This leads me back to those aches and pains of being an adult student because it is within these aches that I find my work to be the most gratifying.

I think these aches and pains from life are how we find meaning.

In the 1970’s Malcolm Knowles coined a term to help us understand the meaning of adult education. Andragogy is the art of science of adult learning.

He noted five assumptions about how adults approach education.  You’ll likely connect with some of these assumptions.

  • The first is that adult students use their self-concept or self-direction to learn. You are here because something inside you pushed you to come back to school. You likely needed a lot of resources and the teachers and the support of your family, but it is your self-direction that helps you learn.
  • Another of Knowles assumptions is that an adult’s motivation to learn is internal, and the adult student must find this motivation to learn. I am sure you each have your own motivation for being in school and being here tonight.
  • Knowles other assumptions indicate that adults bring their experiences to learning, they bring a readiness to learn, and finally, they must be able to apply their knowledge.

In your own journey towards your degree and towards this honor you receive today, I am sure you have learned a lot about yourself and your personal approach to learning. This is what adults do naturally. It is the reason why so many adults – like yourself – who do find their way back to education find that it is different from when they were younger.

They amaze themselves that they can do it, and that it’s not as hard as they once thought it would be. They juggle all the responsibilities and “fit it in.”

I often tell prospective students that it’s like diving into a pool. You just have to jump, and make sure you start moving your arms and legs.
Adult students amaze and awe me. They push themselves almost greater than I push them. They use that self-direction and internal motivation to make it work. I sometimes find myself telling students, it is okay to get a B. It is okay to miss an assignment. We have life that gets in the way. But most of my students – probably like you – won’t let those obstacles and barriers get in the way.  They strive for excellence  – as I know you do.

One of my students recently wrote me a note that said:

“For me, this is truly a big accomplishment. If you would have asked me twenty years ago if I could do this, I would have never believed it.”

This adult student, and each of you today, have found a pathway to achieve your goal and to do it with honors!  You have worked through your aches and pains to arrive here and we celebrate you.

Be proud of yourself. You have proven you can do it. Keep going and never give up.

And my final charge to you is this:

Go out and teach others that they can do it too.

You have recognized your aches and pains – whatever they are –

and you have turned them into the bug of lifelong learning.


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].

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