Focus on These 12 Traits for Effective Adult Learning

The process of teaching adults is very different than teaching children. Even if the skills and subject matter are new, adults bring their experiences, perceptions, and prejudices into the classroom–whether or not they realize it. To design an effective adult learning curriculum, it’s important to understand the 12 traits that make adult participants unique.

The Theory of Adult Learning

20th century educator Malcolm Knowles is credited for bringing the theory of andragogy, or the process by which adults learn, to the forefront of educational science. This theory rests on five assumptions about adults as learners:

  1. Self-concept: Adults move from being dependent on others to self-direction as they mature.
  2. Experience: Adults gain experience as they grow that, in turn, becomes a valuable tool in learning.
  3. Readiness to learn: The priorities of adults shift as they begin to increasingly value and are therefore more ready to learn about his or her role in society.
  4. Orientation to learning: Adults change their perspectives on learning as they grow, moving from procrastination to immediate application and from subject interest to problem-solving.
  5. Motivation to learn: Adults move from extrinsic towards intrinsic motivation as they grow and mature.

As part of his theory, Knowles also provided suggestions for how to put these assumptions into practice in the classroom to improve learning outcomes.

These 12 traits and the resulting strategies to engage adult learners are summarized in the following infographic.


Profile of an Adult Learner


Transcript of the infographic

Profile of an Adult Learner

Put adult learning theory to work in your next course! Create an effective learning environment by understanding Malcolm Knowles’ concept of Andragogy and the unique needs of teaching adults.


an·dra·go·gy noun: andragogy; plural noun: andragogies
the method and practice of teaching adult learners; adult education.

Profile of Adult Learners

Adults Bring

  • Prior experience and knowledge to the classroom
  • Preferences and prejudices that may need to be overcome

Adults Enjoy

  • Solving problems
  • Active learning
  • Small group exercises
  • Moving around the room

Adults Expect To

  • Use the concepts they learn immediately
  • Be respected in the classroom

Adults Need To

  • Know why a concept is important
  • Feel like an active part of the learning process
  • Learn at their own speed
  • Receive feedback and constructive criticism

Strategies for Effective Adult Learning

Action Learning

Allow participants to work in small groups on a real project. Diversity of the group is critical to the learning process.

Experiential Learning

Give attendees the opportunity to set goals, plan and turn decisions into action. Follow up with time to review and reflect on the outcomes.

Project Based Learning

Create real-life scenarios for learners to solve that relate to their actual work environment. Promote teamwork by encouraging students to work in groups.

Self-Directed Learning

Encourage students to integrate learning into their daily routine. Teach learners to determine their own learning needs and identify positive outcomes.