Learners and Learning

Learners and Learning

Barbara A. Frey (D. Ed. University of Pittsburgh, USA), Richard G. Fuller (Robert Morris University, USA) and Gary William Kuhne (Penn State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-865-4.ch003
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Some General Characteristics Of Adults As Learners

An accumulating body of both experience and research has enabled adult educators to draw some important conclusions about what adults are like as learners. Such conclusions, or principles, can provide a solid foundation for designing educational programs for adults. They can also provide insights into teaching that can greatly increase the effectiveness of educational efforts. The ten characteristics summarized below are of particular importance for program designers.

Conclusion #1: Adults Generally Desire To Take More Control over Their Learning than Youth

Adults tend to be self-directed in their lives, although responsibilities with jobs, families, and other organizations can remove a degree of their freedom to act. Adulthood brings an increasing sense of the need to take responsibility for our lives and adults strongly resent it when others take away their rights to choose. This fact is clearly seen in educational efforts among adults. When not given some control over their learning, most adults will resist learning and some will even attempt to sabotage education efforts. They do not like being relegated to a “passive” position. Certainly this implies that program designers should always seek for ways to include the adult in the planning of educational efforts. Certainly we should seek ways to foster self-assessment and evaluation. The very fact that the learners are adults underscores the reality that adult learners generally desire a peer relationship with instructors, rather than a hierarchical one. Most adult also expect greater availability of instructors.

Conclusion #2: Adults Tend To Draw Upon Their Experiences as a Resource in Their Learning Efforts More Than Youth

The adult’s life and professional experiences are a key resource in any learning effort. Adults have a greater reservoir of life experiences simply because they have lived longer and seen and done more. This is a critical distinction between adults and traditional learners. Consciously or unconsciously, adults tend to link any new learning to their prior learning, a body of knowledge that is rooted in their life experiences. They evaluate the validity of new ideas and concepts in light of how the idea or concept “fits” their experience. Certainly this suggests that the designer and instructor schedule the time to get to know more about the experiences of our learners and seek to help them link new ideas to prior learning. The professional experience can also be a resource for learning when discussion is encouraged regarding how new ideas fit the experience of learners.

Conclusion #3: Adult Tend To Be More Motivated In Learning Situations than Youth

This distinctive of higher motivation is probably closely linked to the fact that most adult learning is voluntary. Adults are making personal choices to acquire education, even when such schooling is tied to professional development or job skills. Whenever individual are able to choose to learn, they are much more motivated to learn. One design implication is that instructors can spend less effort trying to motivate adult learners and concentrate time on facilitating the learning they are already motivated to pursue.

Conclusion #4: Adults Are Normally More Pragmatic In Learning Situations than Youth

Adults are particularly motivated to learn information that seems immediately applicable to their situation and needs. They tend to be frustrated with learning abstract “theory” that has no immediate application. Many also tend to resist “learning for the sake of learning” forms of education or training. Certainly there are exceptions to this principle, but the majority of adult learners seem to reflect this pragmatism. This pragmatic orientation can be drawn upon in course designs by being sure to tie the content of programs to the application needs of the learners. Certainly the use of effective needs assessment strategies (covered elsewhere within this book) is supported by the importance of applicability to practice needs that is demanded by adult learners. Another implication is to be sure to lean the content of a course toward the utilitarian more than the theoretical.

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