Adult learning

Adult learning: a toolkit for teaching adults

From daycare through secondary school, educators must more often than not possess certain certifications and accreditation’s to be considered eligible to teach a specific age group. However, when it comes to adults at a tertiary education level, professors are expected to hold a Ph.D., contribute innovative research and multiple publications to their university, and little else. I’m sure we have all come across acclaimed professors who have been unable to connect with students and pass on their endless knowledge in an interesting, interactive, useful and entertaining manner. Hence, it is crucial for educators focused on teaching professionals to receive training and read up on the most efficient and productive ways by which grownups absorb information and continuously reassess their teaching methodologies to adopt those that best fit each student’s learning style.

How do adults learn best? There are several key factors educators must keep in mind when adapting their teaching methods to suit adult learners.

Time is of the essence to adults. Long-winded, lengthy lectures and courses will be of little interest to professionals who are pressed for time. Delve deep into the material but be as concise as possible. Productivity, efficiency and effectiveness when teaching are key.

Adults are responsible, self-motivated individuals who do not want to be forced to learn. 
Generally, professionals join courses or trainings out of their own accord. Educators should encourage adult students to openly express their opinions, ask questions, pursue their interests, and achieve their goals. In turn, educators should build a strong bond with their students by showing interest in their work, providing constructive criticism and positive feedback, and engaging them in discussion. To professionals, educators serve as facilitators of learning rather than content transmitters.
Adults are practical; they have goals and want to acquire the tools necessary to achieve them. Similarly, developing problem solving skills are crucial to adult learners. It is imperative to tie in the knowledge being disseminated to your students’ personal or professional goals and their ability to solve problems. Theoretical meanderings that are hard to apply to your students’ realities will be of little use to them. Make sure you ask your students what their goals for the course are and constantly touch upon ways in which the information provided can help them achieve them. The use of case studies that link theory to practice are particularly useful to goal-oriented individuals.

Adults prefer experiential learning. A hands-on approach to education best suits adults. While lecturing and assigning readings have their own merits, adults gain the most when they learn by doing. In-class exercises, group projects, discussions, debates, role-playing, and fieldwork, among other experiential activities, are paramount to adult education. Finding the right balance between visual, auditory and kinesthetic teaching, however, is one of the main challenge for adult educators.

An informal, casual teaching environment is best suited for adults. 
A formal and regimented class environment does not bode well for most adult students. Adult learners should have the freedom to openly express their own opinions, engage others in debate, stray away from the subject matter to bring up other pertinent information, and question the knowledge being presented. Interruptions in adult courses are frequent yet many times enlightening. Educators should be flexible and receptive and treat their adult classes as open-ended discussions.

Adults want to be respected. 
Educators must remember that they are dealing with grown-ups, not children. Condescending and other disrespectful attitudes towards adult students will turn them off to the class rather quickly. Educators must take dynamic interest in their students’ opinions, ideas, activities, professions, etc. Furthermore, they need to keep in mind that adults bring plenty of experience to the table. At every opportunity, educators should encourage students to share their stories with the class. In other words, the relationship established between educators and adult students should closer approximate that between colleagues.

Adults have accumulated a whole range of experiences throughout their lives and these will impact how they learn. 
It is important to find ways by which students can channel these experiences into their learning. Students should be encouraged to use these experiences to improve their understanding of the information provided, facilitate problem solving and/or reassess their overall decision-making, habits and biases. Furthermore, if students have had bad experiences with particular styles of teaching or methods of communication, make sure these are excluded from the class.


Marios Siathas, General Manager, EIMF