Characteristics of Adult Learners

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Physical Characteristics

We would all agree that as we've gotten older, our bodies and minds seem to have gone through some changes. We don't see or hear as well as we used to. We may not have the same level of stamina we had to be able to study and read for longer periods of time as when we were younger. Our physical bodies seem to stiffen up quicker if we remain seated in one position for too long of a period. Adults can detect and be influenced by even slight changes in comfort. Adults are more attuned to comfortable surroundings, more sensitive and reactive to discomfort. Teachers must do what they can to compensate for these differences as best they can. Here are some suggestions:

To compensate for visual difficulties:

  • Carefully consider how you can make words, charts, objects, even yourself, clear to all your participants.
  • Set up your room so that no one has to look directly into sunlight or view information through a glare.
  • Use large letters on visual aids.
  • Arrange seats so that students can see each other thus encouraging them to engage in discussions and learn more from each other by being able to see each other.

To compensate for hearing difficulties:

  • How you can arrange the room so all participants can hear you.
  • Select a room that is reasonably free of outside street noises, or noises from other rooms.
  • Listen for interference from heaters and air conditioners, coffee pots, or other systems or appliances (hum of a florescent light).
  • Arrange seating so participants can hear clearly from each other (relates to visual arrangement).

To compensate for physical discomfort:

  • Remember the wise old saying, "The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure," so be aware that as student's discomfort level increases, their ability and desire to pay attention or learn decreases proportionately.
  • Don't make a presentation go too long before allowing students a break. A good rule of thumb is to give a 10 to 15-minute break every hour or so of instruction.
  • You may not have much control over the types of chairs or tables but if possible, arrange them in such a way as to allow placement of personal items out of the way.
  • Sit in a student's seat to get a feel for the comfort level.

Intellectual Characteristics

Intellectual characteristics relates not to how smart someone is but rather how someone is able to process or analyze information. Although our bodies may come to the learning situation not always in prime shape, the same is not true concerning our intellectual abilities. Intellectually, adult learners are eager to learn and possess many skills to facilitate the learning process. Adult learners do not begin any learning situation as "empty vessels" so respect and draw upon their prior skills, knowledge, and experience.

A readiness to learn

All adult learning is voluntary, even with social or peer pressure. This is a natural growth process in which self-study, personal inquiry, or self-directed learning is welcome after one's "formal schooling" is completed. Most adults view their adult learning experiences as separate from formal schooling, and approach them differently. This is due in part to not only being ready to learn, but also recognizing the need to learn.

Problem orientation

Education for children is often subject centered, concentrating on basic foundational topics that do not clearly demonstrate an immediate application to the student. A characteristic question often heard is, "Why do I have to learn this stuff? I'll never use it." Adult learning on the other hand is centered on solving or addressing a particular problem and provides more satisfaction if it applies to their everyday experiences, is practical, and is current. Our desire to solve problems causes a greater concern for specific, narrow topics of relevance over generalized or abstract subject.

Time perspective

As we've matured, we've come to realize that time becomes less expendable and more limited, and thus, more valuable. In the learning environment adults prefer what can be learned today or soon to what can be learned over a longer period.

A readiness to learn, problem orientation and specific time perspective provide a higher motivation to learn in adult students.

Social or Environmental Characteristics

To learn, adults must be emotionally comfortable with the learning situation. Any teacher, whether for children or adults, must try to create an emotional climate that supports a positive self-image for students. Although it may not be accurate or rational, often a poor self-image exists in many adult students. The causes for a poor self-image may stem from natural feelings of inadequacy and growing older ("You can't teach an old dog new tricks").

Encourage a good attitude in adult learners by helping them see the relevancy of the information. Spend time early in the class by determining what the learners want from the class. Then use this insight in what and how you present the materials.

Teachers can also foster a better self-image in learners by helping them achieve small successes along the way. There are many ways to do this. For example, ask questions that learners can respond to in a favorable way. Don't make it obviously simple or "dumbed down" but certainly don't ask algebra questions in a basic "checkbook mathematics" class. In Bible class situations, we can ask questions about the context of a scripture or what someone feels is the key point in a passage. By allowing learners to demonstrate their knowledge or skill you help them see that they can be successful.

Emotional Characteristics

A significant social characteristic in adults is the abundance and variety of experiences. This alone causes teachers to take different approaches when teaching adults.

Adults come to the learning environment with vastly different backgrounds, occupations, types of upbringings, ethnic heritages, and geographical origins. These differences create a variety of perceptions. Perceptions of school based on previous schooling experiences (traditional vs. non-traditional; poor performance vs. good performance; completed education vs. truncated education).

Group interactions is another element to consider. We must consider whether someone views participating in group interaction as a positive or negative experience and their expectations of their role in the group (leader, follower, desired participation level).

Teachers must also consider the subject itself. This includes someone's perception of the subject whether disinterested or interested, previous negative or positive encounter with the topic, etc. We are often more comfortable with something we're familiar with or like rather than something unfamiliar or complex. A good example is studying the book of Acts as opposed to studying the symbolic language of Revelation. Personal preferences have a role in this as well.

All of these socio-environmental characteristics blend together with what normally goes on in an adult's life as they try to further their knowledge and skills in a particular area. When teachers take the time to create a positive learning environment and remove barriers to learning, the likelihood of success of the learning event will increase.