The Diverse Characteristics of Adult Learners

“The more effectively we provide educational opportunities for adults, in all their diversity, the more effective they will be as lifelong learners.”

As the field of adult learning continues to expand through continuing studies programs across major post-secondary campuses (e.g. SFU, UBC, UVIC, DouglasLangara, and VCC), as well as various development programs around Vancouver (e.g. YMCA, Small Business BC, and St. John Ambulance), adult learners are not only becoming more diverse in their age, orientation, preferences, aptitude, background and previous education, but also in their career paths and learning journeys. Accordingly, this growing diversity continue to call and challenge educators to pursue more effective way in providing adult learners the education that they need to advance in their learning and achieve in their career.

In turn, this challenge continues to lead adult educators to examining the diverse characteristics of adult learners in order to determine which strategies, tactics, techniques, and tools are most effective. So I follow the lead of other adult educators and theorists as I learn from their findings to add to my own.

One of these findings I’ve found is written in list form on this article: Characteristics of Adult Learners by Connie Maiamed.

The characteristics of adult learners in the article are based on Malcolm Knowles’ (1980) work on Informal Adult Education, Self-Direction, and Andragogy (His Wikipedia entry only covers biographical information and selected bibliography). Maiamed’s article contains a list of 14 characteristics based on Knowles’ 5 Assumptions and 4 Principles in Andragogy (also available as an infographic). If I try to organize the Maiamed’s characteristics under Knowles’ assumptions and principles, it might look like this:

Knowles’ 5 Assumptions in Andragogy

  1. Self-Concept of a self-directed human being
    • 1. Autonomy
    • 13. Responsible for Self
  2. Experience is an increasing resource for learning
    • 6. Wealth of Knowledge
  3. Readiness to Learn is for developing social roles
    • 7. Purposeful
    • 10. Outside Responsibilities
  4. Orientation to Learning is problem-centered with immediate applications
    • 2. Goal Oriented
  5. Motivation to Learn is internal
    • 4. Competence and Mastery
    • 8. Emotional Barriers

Knowles’ 4 Principles in Andragogy

  1. We should involve adults in the planning and evaluation of their learning.
    • 11. Potential Physical Limitations
  2. We should provide adults opportunities to learn from experience.
    • 5. Learning by Experience
    • 14. Need for Community
  3. We should allow adults to learn what is relevant and applicable.
    • 9. Results Oriented
    • 12. Big Picture
  4. We should help adults solve problems rather than memorizing content.
    • 3. Practical

Granted, some of these characters may not fit directly under an assumption or principle (e.g. Potential Physical Limitations in Knowles’ first principle of Andragogy). In addition, some additional characteristics come to mind (which Maiamed herself asked readers to add): cultural differences, learning styles/preferences, personalities, aptitude, and other factors that should also be considered in adult education, especially in multicultural urban cities such as Vancouver.

That being said, even Maria Montessori developed an individualized approach to child education back in the late 1890s. So adult educators, if anything, are being shown some very good reasons to educate adults as individual life-long learners embedded in community, rather than teaching them as if they were dependent children bathing in knowledge. Of course, there are critiques of Knowles’ Andragogy (e.g. cultural difference, socio-economic status, and educational background), as well as critiques of Montessori’s Method (e.g. freedom/structure, group/individual activities, “too practical”). Therefore, as adult educators who seek more effective ways to teach adults, we should not only carefully consider the diversity in adult learners, but the diversity in adult learning theories well (e.g. Self-Directed Learning, Transformative Learning, and Experiential Learning)

“To become more effective, adult educators need to become lifelong learners themselves, to not only adapt to the diversity of adult learners, but also to the diversity of adult learning.”

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