Characteristics of Adult Learners

When it comes to learning, adults are not over sized children. Maturity brings unique characteristics that affect how adults are motivated to learn. By appealing to the unique qualities of adult learners, we can design more effective and motivating online courses. Here’s a list of generalized characteristics common to many but not all adult learners.

  • Autonomy. Adults typically prefer a sense of control and self-direction. They like options and choice in their learning environment. Even adults who feel anxiety from self-direction may learn to appreciate this approach if given proper initial support.
  • Goal-oriented. Many adults have specific goals they are trying to achieve. They prefer to partake in learning activities that help them reach their goals.
  • Practical. Adults in the workplace prefer practical knowledge and experiences that will make work easier or provide important skills. In other words, adults need personal relevance in learning activities.
  • Competence and mastery. Adults like to gain competence in workplace skills as it boosts confidence and improves self-esteem.
  • Learning by experience. Many adults prefer to learn by doing rather than listening to lectures.
  • Wealth of Knowledge. In the journey from childhood to adulthood, people accumulate a unique store of knowledge and experiences. They bring this depth and breadth of knowledge to the learning situation.
  • Purposeful. Workplace training is often part of an initiative that involves change. Adults want to know the purpose of training and the motivation underlying an organization’s training initiative.
  • Emotional Barriers. Through experience, adults may fear a subject, have anxiety about a subject or feel anger about forced changes in job responsibilities or policies. These emotions can interfere with the learning process.
  • Results-oriented. Adults are results-oriented. They have specific expectations for what they will get out of learning activities and will often drop out of voluntary learning if their expectations aren’t met.
  • Outside responsibilities. Most adult learners have numerous responsibilities and commitments to family, friends, community and work. Carving out time for learning affects adult learners.
  • Potential physical limitations. Depending on their age and physical condition, adult learners may acquire psychomotor skills more slowly than younger students and have more difficulties reading small fonts and seeing small images on the computer screen.
  • Big Picture. Adults require the big picture view of what they’re learning. They need to know how the small parts fit into the larger landscape.
  • Responsible for Self. Adult learners often take responsibility for their own success or failure at learning.
  • Need for Community. Many self-directed adult learners prefer a learning community with whom they can interact and discuss questions and issues.

What other characteristics of adult learners can you add this to list?

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  1. Connie Malamed says

    Your addition of Time Poor is a good one. I thought I had it covered under “Outside Responsibilities” but Time Poor might be a better way to note it as a characteristic. Your article is great and a nice companion to this one. I hope everyone who reads this article will go and see Ryan’s too. Maybe we can write on the same topic on purpose some time!

  2. Peter Reed says

    My problem with this is that many of these could be charactersitics of non-adult learners e.g. kids can be inquisitive and results oriented as well.
    But also, at what point does one move from being a ‘child’ to an ‘adult’ learner. Is it simply by age or by qualification, or something else all together. This goes back to the Pedagogy Vs Androgogy debate.
    And of course the list contains generalisations… not all adults will show these characteristics in learning.
    So whilst I think the list is useful in gaining an idea about adult learners, its important not to take the list as definitive and 100% applicable to all adults.

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes this list is definitely generalized. As to Inquisitive, I’d like to change that to something more accurate that reflects the adult’s need to know why they are taking training. Suggestions?

  4. Leandro Codarin says

    Excellent article. In a context where we read a lot about the technological tools, it’s a great addition as this article discusses practical needs of users.

  5. Connie Malamed says

    It took me a month to come up with a better term for Inquisitive, as Peter Reed pointed out this is a pretty general term for many age groups. I finally thought that “Purposeful” might be better, meaning adults need to know the purpose of their training, where often children just go along with whatever is in front of them at the moment. =) Let me know what you think.

  6. Maria Pere-Perez says

    This is a great article! I’m now learning how to teach adults and the hardest kind: sales people.

    Sales people in any corporation have a bit of an arrogance of their importance to the company. As well as, they have a certain competitive personality. And…. they seem to have a type of Attention Deficit Disorder. They want you to get right to the point and be brief. If you ramble, or provide too much analytical detail, they lose attention.

    Therefore, here’s my contribution to your article. For sales people:

    “Bite Size” – Keep it short. Ideally, create little factoid modules that are not more than 10 minutes long. The rest of the time is better spent via thoughtful debate and discussion. As you mentioned, they like to learn by doing. And sales people love to talk.

    I think it’s ok to have several bite-sized modules to cover an entire subject, but it’s good to give it one spoonful at a time.

    Thank you,

  7. Christina D says

    I think the main differences between adults and younger people are that adults have responsibilities and time constraints unlike younger learners. I think these challenges help provide an ability to focus.

  8. VirtualProf says

    Christina D says:
    “I think the main differences between adults and younger people are that adults have responsibilities and time constraints unlike younger learners. I think these challenges help provide an ability to focus.”

    I would also suggest that younger people have responsibilities and time constraints as well. The difference is that theirs are not usually work and family (although I have many online students in the 18-22 age range who are juggling both of those responsibilities with school).

    Younger people who do not have full time work and family obligations feel strongly that their recreation and sleep and party time are just as important to them as work and family obligations are to older adult learners. I have yet to persuade any of them as to the error of that thinking!! :-)

    That said, every semester I teach 6 classes with an average of 25 students in each. In the past four years, I have never had more than 3 younger full time students who do not work or have families. And most of the work at least part time.

    I do have a lot of stay-at-home moms in the upper teens to mid-20’s age range.

    My young learners, for the most part, demonstrate the same characteristics as my adult learners, especially the young learners who work full time and go to school.

  9. Connie Malamed says

    Hi VirtualProf,
    I think it’s good that you’ve pointed out that a lot of younger adults have work and family responsibilities too. It’s good to keep in mind that they have their own set of responsibilities. The differences are greater between adults and children, of course. And even then, there is always overlap.

  10. Nayda says

    Knowles (1980) said: …adult educators must be primarily attuned to the existential concerns of the individuals and institution they serve and be able to develop learning experiences that will ve articulated with these concerns.

  11. Janet Vernon says

    In addition to Knowles, he developed the seven andragogies which exemplifies the adult learner contributes to its development. For example, motivation, one of Knowles’ andragogies stress how important motivation is in any aspect of learning. The question reigns, how can the facilitator incorporate motivation into the adult learner’s learning environment successfully?

    Self-directiveness is another one of Knowles andragogy. Maning that preserverance is becoming successful as an adult learner. In other words, we start from the bottom and rise to the top. Hence, leading towards the future learning design of the journey of adult learning (hood).

  12. Marta says

    Dear Connie,

    Thank you for your insightful posts. I love your website and enjoy your writing style. I am an “adult learner” studying Instructional Design & Technology at Walden University (online program). And this post is actually part of my assignment on the topic of “Cognitive Information Processing” we covered this week.

    I agree with all the characteristics, particularly with the Big Picture point. Whether it’s an adult characteristics or my own personality, I always need to know how what I am doing (whether in education, work, or personal life), fits in to the big picture; in other words, my effort has to add-value to something.

    What I will also add to the list is Willingness to Learn. Of course it may not apply to everyone, but I think because of longer life experience, as adults, we understand the importance of learning and are more willing to learn. I am enjoying school and eager to learn this time around more so than I did in undergraduate school.


    Student at Walden University – M.S. in Instructional Design & Technology


  1. […] Motivation is the force that drives people to fulfill a need. If you can tap into a learner’s intrinsic motivation—where an individual is rewarded by the learning itself or an internal goal—you’ve got it made. But in both workplace and academic environments, people are often unmotivated because they are required to take courses in which they have no interest.That puts designers and developers of learning products in a tough position. We need to work hard at creating experiences that get audiences engaged and motivated. Here are some strategies you can use to motivate adult learners, based on their characteristics. […]

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