Module 1: Adult Learning Principles

Part of being an effective teacher involves understanding your learners and how they learn best. Adult learning posits a set of assumptions about how adults learn. If you’ve had experience teaching adults, you’ll find that it can be a very different experience from that of teaching children. Learning philosophies and certain techniques may overlap, but approaches will differ.

Whereas information seems to be soaked up by children like a sponge, adults may find that they can’t learn things as quickly as they did when they were younger. My friends and I always remark about how our memory retention has ebbed over the years though researchers would probably debate this observation.

Knowles makes these five assumptions of adult learners:

Self-directed:    As a person matures, he/she is less likely to be coerced into participating in learning activities. They are more autonomous and are not going to be dependent on the teacher for the next lesson, the next assignment and the next activity. They have expectations and will most likely have set up their own learning goals.

For the educator, this means less structure and oversight yet still providing the student with the challenge by promoting inquiry instead of just leading them to the answer. Since adult learners have their own goals and are self-motivated, they’re more interested in completing these goals than getting a numerical value to quantify their learning. The teacher must therefore provide regular specific feedback which reflect and acknowledge goal completion. This coincides with Edwards’ hypothesis on using criterion-based as opposed to norm-based measurements.

Experience:        Adults bring to the table a vast wealth of life experiences which they draw from and which help them make sense of new information. This is when it could sometimes be very tricky. Children will readily rely on the experiences of the teacher since they have limited experience as a resource for learning. As such, learning becomes easier for kids because they have no experience to negate whatever the teacher has said. For adults, some would have life experiences which lead to certain notions and biases. In this case, the educator must be able to point out these biases or even allow the student to reflect on these biases in order to move them to allow different perspectives which would help them accept new information. Adults could be very bullish with new information which contradicts with their experiences.

In my case, anything that involves numbers causes my brain to shut down because I’ve had a traumatic experience learning maths when I was growing up. Among my students, I find that their own experiences and backgrounds have led them to grow up thinking that English is only for the elite and learning the language is limited to answering a few worksheets in class and ends in the four corners of the classroom as it has no application to real life. Their exposure in the workplace challenges this notion and makes them realise otherwise.

This hypothesis can also be used to support Vygotsky’s theory of Social Learning which posits for a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). Though children and adults would benefit from social learning, adults will naturally have a higher degree of prior knowledge owing to his/her breadth of experience.

Goal-oriented and Relevancy-oriented                :               Adults see learning as a means to an end. Whereas going to school is mandatory for kids, adults pursue learning because it helps them meet their goals. Thus, the training has to be worthwhile.       With regard to relevance, both children and adults would like to feel that learning is relevant to their lives, especially as I got to  high school. At that point, I started wondering why it was I needed to learn  certain topics or subjects like math. I felt  complete disdain and a lack of interest for subjects which I believed were not relevant to me in my daily life.

After finding out about these assumptions of the adult learner, andragogy suddenly seems to be quite a daunting task. For one, adult learners rarely see rewards the way children do, and giving them candy doesn’t work. They have a lot of things in their minds, and learning courses is but one of them. Unlike kids who know they move up grade levels, adults learners take learning courses to enhance their skills, keep their job, get a job, switch careers or continue further with their career plans. The goal is loftier and the stakes are even higher.


4 thoughts on “Module 1: Adult Learning Principles

  1. Hi She,
    I remember that when I used to tutor English to Korean students, the younger ones ( I would say below 30) picked up the language much faster that my older students (most of them were between the ages of 21 and 35). I also noticed a difference between my male and female students depending on their age. My college-aged female students were not as motivated to learn English compared to their males counterpart. The young male university students were much more eager to improve their English language skills because they were going to use this as an advantage if getting a job after graduation; those who already finished university were learning English to get promotions or change jobs. I wouldn’t call my young female students lazy, it’s just they don’t have the same desire nor need like the young men. Males as expected to well in university so that they will have a competitive edge; Females (based on what they told me) are expected to get decent grades but not be too smart as their culture doesn’t like their women to be “too” intelligent; they attend good universities in order to meet eligible boyfriends to become their husbands. There is the extreme pressure on them to look good and be dainty.
    I’ve also had females students over 35 who were extremely motivated to learn English in order to work outside of Korea. These older women were doubly motivated than the younger ones. They are called “old maids” in their society and are not treated well. Being an old maid in Korea is a stigma. My female students who never got married use this stigma as a motivation to learn another language and move to another country where they wouldn’t be regarded as “left over women”.

    Just sharing my views. Cheers.


    • Those are interesting things you’ve shared about the Korean culture that I wasn’t aware of. I guess the “pressure” to do good and make something of oneself would push one to perform than their unencumbered counterparts. The East Asian culture really is something. The desire to excel is really innate in them, that’s why they perform so well in standardised tests. But that internal motivation among adult learners is what really sets them apart from non-adult learners. Most children are content to be just going through the motions of school so they lack the drive to excel.

      Thanks for sharing!


  2. Hi. Ms. Sheryll

    I think your blog is entertaining and very insightful.

    I also think that you have successfully distinguished the difference between children and adult learners. It helped me comprehend our module clearly.

    Thank you 🙂



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