How We Learn as Adults

“Small groups of aspiring adults who desire to keep their minds fresh and vigorous; who begin to learn by confronting pertinent situations; who dig down into the reservoirs of their secondary facts; who are led in the discussion by teachers who are also seekers after wisdom and not oracles: this constitutes the setting for adult education the modern quest for life’s meaning.”

(Eduard C. Lindeman, The Meaning of Adult Education)

The way adults learn differs significantly from the way children learn. Adults are generally self-motivated and practically oriented in the classroom, which means that they are primarily interested in learning information that they can actually use. Since they already have knowledge and experience, they learn best by applying new information to what they already know. The role of a teacher is to facilitate the learning process, rather than to force content in students’ heads. Teachers should use students’ experience to make the learning content more relatable and emphasize its practical relevance.

Learning Styles

There are many different learning styles adults use, reflecting their preferences in memorizing information. The teacher should pay attention to the preferred learning style of their students. Although learning styles are often divided into auditory, visual and kinesthetic, numerous studies have shown that it is not true that some of us memorize information most effectively as we listen, whereas others are visual or practical learners. Instead, we memorize information by organizing it in a meaningful way and we use all the relevant sensory information in the process. Teachers should take this into account when discussing learning preferences with their students.

Understanding meaningful content and problem-solving are at the core of adult learning. It is very important for adult learners that the problems be as realistic as possible and that the knowledge gained be applicable to real-life situations. In addition to simply gaining new information, adults want to know how they can use the information, and why it should matter to them.

Learning Techniques

There are various techniques that can be used with adult students. Adults respond well to discussing problems and solutions and are willing to actively participate in the classroom. They are also easily motivated to do additional research on their own. On the other hand, they don’t respond well to classical pedagogical rote learning techniques requiring them to memorize large textbooks.   

For the best results, adult learners should be encouraged to reach solutions on their own by answering questions, solving challenges, sharing experience and analyzing examples in the classroom, rather than passively listening or reading. The learning benefits of each exercise should always be clear to students, or they might lose the motivation to continue with the course.  

Also, the social aspect of learning should always be encouraged, as sharing of knowledge and working together to find solutions creates an atmosphere of trust and speeds up the acquisition of knowledge for all students.


Adults enroll in a course because they want to learn a new skill. It is paramount to show them that they can actually use the knowledge they gain in the classroom. Teachers should ask adult students about their expectations and previous knowledge, and adjust the material and challenges accordingly. They should show respect for the individual needs of their students, and treat them as equals when discussing progress and planning further activities with them.   

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