LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

2.2 Principles of Adult Learning

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What will guide us in making sure we can meet the needs and expectations of our adult learners?

It’s not merely important that we teach the right things; it’s important that we teach the right things in the right way. This makes all the difference between success and failure when working with adult learners.

To teach in the right way, we need to keep three things in mind as we prepare.

  1. the distinct characteristics of adults,
  2. what those characteristics mean to adults as learners,
  3. how that information directs us in choosing effective methods and strategies in our teaching.

What are the distinct characteristics of adults?

What makes an adult an adult?

To some, this question may seem like an exercise in the obvious, but being able to identify and describe the characteristics of adulthood is essential if we are to understand what works best for adult learning. So, what are some of the defining differences between adults and children or adults and youth?

Click here to read about the characteristics of adults.

The thing that is so fascinating about learning to understand adult learners is recognizing how the individual stories of each learner’s life have given shape to each learner’s unique expression of the general characteristics of adulthood.

JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?
How well do you know your learners? What is something that you know about each learner that first comes to mind when you ask yourself “What affects this learner’s ability to be the ideal learner?” Consider influences such as: background experience, cultural values and beliefs, physical, mental or emotional well-being, self-esteem, life/home circumstances, attitude towards learning, readiness to learn etc. Record your thoughts in your journal.

What do adult characteristics mean for adults as learners?

Since the characteristics of adults are so very different from the characteristics of children, you might wonder if the learning needs of adults and children are different as well. You would be right. What works well with children does not necessarily (in fact usually doesn’t) work well with adults. It naturally follows, then, that if we can understand what adult characteristics mean to adults as learners, we will be in a good position to arrive at some sound theory about how adults learn best. "We must never assume that...
because LBS learners are learning to read and write at elementary school levels, we can use the same methods and approaches that we use when we teach children. Adult learners are not just grownup children.”

LBS instructor’s comment during a workshop.


Read the next two articles. Although you will see a few areas of overlap, these articles approach what it means to be an adult learner in slightly different ways. Look for how each author links adult characteristics to what she sees as the corresponding, andragogically sound response, i.e. good practice in adult education.

  1. What are the distinct characteristics of adults? to see this article by Susan Imel
  2. Making a Change: by R. Fast - excerpt from an article by Rosabel Fast
SIDETRIP for experienced instructors

The following SIDETRIP is an opportunity for experienced instructors to explore this idea a little more. If you are new to LBS, this link is not essential for your training. If it interests you, however, by all means, take the trip!

If you wish to go deeper into the issues of adult characteristics and the adult learning process, click here to explore an article by Emily Miller Payne. As you read, measure the ideas in the text against your own knowledge and experience with adult learners. At the end of the reading, take the link to the Journal, and follow the prompts to record your thoughts.



...about adults and their ability to choose for themselves:

Although this was alluded to in one of the articles, it bears repeating because it is so true for our adult learners!

Unlike children in school, adult learners are not usually a “captive audience”.  As practitioners say, “They vote with their feet”. They can come and go as they please. They come because they expect to learn something that will help them in some specific way, and they will leave if they do not find that the program is making a difference.

Adults can choose for themselves, but they don’t always have the facts they need to choose wisely.

One learner recently made this comment:

“I just want to let you know that as long as I keep learning, I’ll keep coming to the program.”

The instructor found herself wondering what the learner would see as signs that he was still learning, and signs that he was not.

Although adult learners have the disposition and the ability to self-direct, i.e. make decisions based on what they feel they are getting out of the program, in some cases, their perception of what is happening in the program may not always be accurate. This is something we educators need to consider.

If learners cannot readily see that the activities are relevant to them personally, or if they do not recognize progress when it is happening, they can become learners at high-risk for leaving the program. Understanding this as a potential hazard for learners has obvious implications for how we go about introducing new materials, and how we work with learners in their day-to-day training.  (much more on that later on, in section 2.7)

What are the principles of adult learning?

Principles of adult learning (andragogy) can be recognized when we understand the characteristics of adults, and see the way those characteristics influence how adults learn best. Teachers who follow the principles of andragogy when choosing materials for training and when designing program delivery, find that their learners progress more quickly, and are more successful in reaching their goals.

Click here to see which principles of adult learning flow directly from the characteristics of adults as learners.


Who are adult literacy learners?

Diversity Issues

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