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Table of contents
Written by:
Martin Barrett
Last Updated:
What Is An Adult Learner?

What Is An Adult Learner?

Adult learners are a diverse group – typically age 25 and older – with a wide range of academic and cultural backgrounds, adult responsibility, and job experience, but what is an adult learner and who are they?

They typically do not follow a traditional path of enrolling in college immediately after high school.

Instead, they often return to school to continue their education, pursue a degree program, complete continuing education requirements, or prepare for a career transition.

In addition, adult learners sometimes take classes on a part-time schedule, balancing coursework with work and other obligations.

While some adults learn primarily for personal fulfillment, others want to improve their skills to remain competitive in the workforce or prepare themselves for a career change.

Whatever their reason for returning to school, adult learners face unique challenges in finding quality instruction and connecting with peers.

Characteristics Of Adult Learners

Adult learning is one of the most complex topics in education because it touches upon many aspects of our lives. At school, we study how to become adults, while at work we strive to become mature individuals. 

The adult learner is characterized by his/her desire to learn, adaptability, independence, motivation, curiosity, openness to experience, and willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. See how to improve your learning experience as an adult.

These characteristics are reflected in the way he/she learns, what he/she wants to know, how he/she chooses to acquire knowledge, and how he/she uses the acquired knowledge.

In general, adults tend to be less open-minded than younger people. However, there are exceptions.

For example, some adults become very open-minded once they start working but also, but many adults do not like to change anything unless they feel absolutely sure about it.

Adult learners are different from younger learners because they have been exposed to information throughout their lives.

They often know what goals (see learning goals vs objectives) they want to achieve and can hone into those independently. This means that they often make their own decisions about how they learn.

In contrast, children and teenagers tend to be dependent on others, especially parents, teachers and peers. Their interests and motivations change over time and they often need guidance and direction to help them reach those goals.

Learning techniques and styles of Adult Learners

Adult learners do want to participate in their learning, and it’s important that teachers encourage this.

They like to feel involved in what they are doing, and they enjoy making choices about how they learn. In fact, adult learners tend to prefer more autonomy over traditional teacher-led instruction.

When asked whether they preferred a lecture style class or one where they could choose the topics, methods and materials used, 73% of adults chose the latter option.

➡️ Learning App For Adults

This doesn’t mean that adults don’t value structure. On the contrary, they appreciate having clear expectations set out for them. What it does suggest, however, is that they prefer to take responsibility for their own learning.

As such, it makes sense to give them some choice and flexibility when it comes to planning and delivering lessons.

Active learning

Active learning

The goal of active learning is to trigger critical thinking skills and encourage learners to apply what they’ve learned, and work together towards solving problems.

This type of education allows learners to take ownership of their learning and helps them develop into lifelong learners.

In contrast, passive learning relies heavily on teachers lecturing and presenting the information. Students sit passively listening while being told everything that needs to be done.

They are rarely given the opportunity to ask questions or demonstrate understanding. Instead, they must simply absorb information without ever really engaging with it.

This method of instruction is very common in schools because it works well for younger learners. However, adults learn differently than young people do, and this approach doesn’t always translate to adult learners.

Motivating adults  

One of the biggest challenges facing educators today is motivating adult learners. Adult learners are often unmotivated because they don’t feel like they belong in school anymore.

They might even feel like they’re being punished for having achieved certain goals. This makes it difficult to teach them anything new.

The good news is that there are ways to motivate adult learners. Teachers just have to know how to do it. Here are some tips for teachers: 

  • Focus on one topic per lesson. If you try to cover too many topics in one lesson, you risk losing the interest of your students.
  • Make sure you tailor each lesson to the needs of your individual learners. For example, if you want to teach someone about the weather, you could ask him/her what he/she wants to learn about. Then, use that information to determine what type of lesson you should give.
  • Be aware of your audience. Adults tend to process information differently than young people. To keep them engaged, you’ll have to think outside the box.
  • Keep things fun. Children love games and activities but likewise, adults appreciate learning experiences that are enjoyable.
  • Use visuals whenever possible. Studies show that visual aids are much better at capturing the attention of adult learners than reading alone.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of humor. Humorous videos and images can really bring out the best in your learners.


Adult learners face unique challenges. They may lack the time needed to devote to study, or they may simply find it hard to fit studying into a hectic work schedule.

Regardless of the reason, there are ways to overcome these difficulties. One of the most important things to remember about adult learners is that they’re just like everyone else.

Many students struggle to balance schoolwork with family obligations, and others simply prefer to learn at their own pace without having to worry about keeping up with a traditional classroom setting (see: online learning vs traditional learning).

In summary 

As you can see an adult learner is anyone past school/college age who retention an educational setting.

By using the right methods teachers can engage adult learners, but also ensure that they retain the knowledge they need to succeed and learners can confidently enter school with a positive mindset.