By Stephen Lieb
Senior Technical Writer and Planner, Arizona Department of Health Services
and part-time Instructor, South Mountain Community College
from VISION, Fall 1991
Adults As Learners
Part of being an effective instructor involves understanding how adults
learn best. Compared to children and teens, adults have special needs and
requirements as learners. Despite the apparent truth, adult learning is a
relatively new area of study. The field of adult learning was pioneered by
Malcom Knowles. He identified the following characteristics of adult
• Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct
themselves. Their teachers must actively involve adult participants in the
learning process and serve as facilitators for them. Specifically, they must
get participants' perspectives about what topics to cover and let them work
on projects that reflect their interests. They should allow the participants
to assume responsibility for presentations and group leadership. They have
to be sure to act as facilitators, guiding participants to their own
knowledge rather than supplying them with facts. Finally, they must show
participants how the class will help them reach their goals (e.g., via a
personal goals sheet).
• Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge
that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and
previous education. They need to connect learning to this
knowledge/experience base. To help them do so, they should draw out
participants' experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic. They
must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize the
value of experience in learning.
• Adults are goal-oriented. Upon enrolling in a course, they usually know
what goal they want to attain. They, therefore, appreciate an educational
program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must
show participants how this class will help them attain their goals. This
classification of goals and course objectives must be done early in the
• Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning
something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other
responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must
identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins. This
means, also, that theories and concepts must be related to a setting
familiar to participants. This need can be fulfilled by letting participants
choose projects that reflect their own interests.
• Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to
them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own
sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be
useful to them on the job.
• As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must
acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the
classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and
knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in class.
Motivating the Adult Learner
Another aspect of adult learning is motivation. At least six factors serve
as sources of motivation for adult learning:
• Social relationships: to make new friends, to meet a need for
associations and friendships.
• External expectations: to comply with instructions from someone else; to
fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal
• Social welfare: to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service
to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work.
• Personal advancement: to achieve higher status in a job, secure
professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors.
• Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom, provide a break in the routine of
home or work, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life.
• Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge for
its own sake, and to satisfy an inquiring mind.
Barriers and Motivation
Unlike children and teenagers, adults have many responsibilities that they
must balance against the demands of learning. Because of these
responsibilities, adults have barriers against participating in learning.
Some of these barriers include lack of time, money, confidence, or interest,
lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems, "red
tape," and problems with child care and transportation.
Motivation factors can also be a barrier. What motivates
adult learners? Typical motivations include a requirement for competence or
licensing, an expected (or realized) promotion, job enrichment, a need to
maintain old skills or learn new ones, a need to adapt to job changes, or
the need to learn in order to comply with company directives.
The best way to motivate adult learners is simply to enhance their reasons for
enrolling and decrease the barriers. Instructors must learn why their
students are enrolled (the motivators); they have to discover what is
keeping them from learning. Then the instructors must plan their motivating
strategies. A successful strategy includes showing adult learners the
relationship between training and an expected promotion.
Learning Tips for Effective Instructors
Educators must remember that learning occurs within each individual as a
continual process throughout life. People learn at different speeds, so it
is natural for them to be anxious or nervous when faced with a learning
situation. Positive reinforcement by the instructor can enhance learning, as
can proper timing of the instruction.
Learning results from stimulation of the senses. In some people, one sense
is used more than others to learn or recall information. Instructors should
present materials that stimulate as many senses as possible in order to
increase their chances of teaching success.
There are four critical elements of learning that must be addressed to ensure
that participants learn. These elements are
Motivation. If the participant does not recognize the need for the
information (or has been offended or intimidated), all of the instructor's
effort to assist the participant to learn will be in vain. The instructor
must establish rapport with participants and prepare them for learning; this
provides motivation. Instructors can motivate students via several means:
• Set a feeling or tone for the lesson. Instructors should try to
establish a friendly, open atmosphere that shows the participants they will
help them learn.
• Set an appropriate level of concern. The level of tension must be adjusted
to meet the level of importance of the objective. If the material has a high
level of importance, a higher level of tension/stress should be established
in the class. However, people learn best under low to moderate stress; if
the stress is too high, it becomes a barrier to learning.
• Set an appropriate level of difficulty. The degree of difficulty should be
set high enough to challenge participants but not so high that they become
frustrated by information overload. The instruction should predict and
reward participation, culminating in success.
In addition, participants need specific knowledge of their learning results
(feedback). Feedback must be specific, not general. Participants must also
see a reward for learning. The reward does not necessarily have to be
monetary; it can be simply a demonstration of benefits to be realized from
learning the material. Finally, the participant must be interested in the
subject. Interest is directly related to reward. Adults must see the benefit
of learning in order to motivate themselves to learn the subject.
Reinforcement. Reinforcement is a very necessary part of the
teaching/learning process; through it, instructors encourage correct modes
of behavior and performance.
• Positive reinforcement is normally used by instructors who are
teaching participants new skills. As the name implies, positive
reinforcement is "good" and reinforces "good" (or positive) behavior.
• Negative reinforcement is normally used by instructors teaching a
new skill or new information. It is useful in trying to change modes of
behavior. The result of negative reinforcement is extinction -- that is, the
instructor uses negative reinforcement until the "bad" behavior disappears,
or it becomes extinct.
When instructors are trying to change behaviors (old practices), they
should apply both positive and negative reinforcement.
Reinforcement should be part of the teaching-learning process to ensure
correct behavior. Instructors need to use it on a frequent and regular basis
early in the process to help the
students retain what they have learned. Then, they should use reinforcement
only to maintain consistent, positive behavior.
Retention. Students must retain information from classes in order to
benefit from the learning. The instructors' jobs are not finished until they
have assisted the learner in retaining the information. In order for
participants to retain the information taught, they must see a meaning or
purpose for that information. They must also understand and be able to
interpret and apply the information. This understanding includes their
ability to assign the correct degree of importance to the material.
The amount of retention will be directly affected by the degree of original
learning. Simply stated, if the participants did not learn the material well
initially, they will not retain it well either.
Retention by the participants is directly affected by their amount of
practice during the learning. Instructors should emphasize retention and
application. After the students demonstrate correct (desired) performance,
they should be urged to practice to maintain the desired performance.
Distributed practice is similar in effect to intermittent reinforcement.
Transference. Transfer of learning is the result of training -- it
is the ability to use the information taught in the course but in a new
setting. As with reinforcement, there are two types of transfer: positive
• Positive transference, like positive reinforcement, occurs when the
participants uses the behavior taught in the course.
• Negative transference, again like negative reinforcement, occurs when the
participants do not do what they are told not to do. This results in a
positive (desired) outcome.
Transference is most likely to occur in the following situations:
• Association -- participants can associate the new information
with something that they already know.
• Similarity -- the information is similar to material that
participants already know; that is, it revisits a logical framework or
• Degree of original learning -- participant's degree of original
learning was high.
• Critical attribute element -- the information learned contains
elements that are extremely beneficial (critical) on the job.
Although adult learning is relatively new as a field of study, it is just
as substantial as traditional education and carries and potential for
greater success. Of course, the heightened success requires a greater
responsibility on the part of the teacher. Additionally, the learners come
to the course with precisely defined expectations. Unfortunately, there are
barriers to their learning. The best motivators for adult learners are
interest and selfish benefit. If they can be shown that the course benefits
them pragmatically, they will perform better, and the benefits will be