September 10, 2013

Why adults are fantastic leaners

Returning to education after a long hiatus can be a challenge. Given this, it’s understandable that educators – and adult learners themselves!- may worry about it.

What they too often fail to take into account is that adult learners are used to challenges, especially if they dropped out of education early. They’ve often had to make their way through life on difficult terms and there’s no reason why they can’t apply the skills this has taught them in the classroom.

One of the first things to understand about adult learners is that, with rare exceptions, they’re there because they want to be. They haven’t ended up there by default because they’re not ready for other responsibilities. They’re not there because of parental pressure. They have made an active decision to improve their qualifications, often entailing quite a big financial commitment. Given this, they generally have no intention of wasting their opportunity. Having people with this attitude in a class can energise the whole group.

  • Used to hard work

Adult learners usually have plenty of experience of hard work and self-discipline. Many will also have at least rudimentary research skills, and they’ll be used to asking others for help when facing particularly difficult or unfamiliar problems. What they might not know is how to apply those skills in an academic environment, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to need extra help all the time. All that’s needed is a simple, clear explanation of how the system works. Even a handout detailing where to turn for advice can be sufficient, causing no delay or disruption for others in the class.

  • Ready to learn

An increasing amount of research is challenging the idea that we find it harder to learn as we get older. Adults with challenging lives – including those with young children – are generally used to having to pick up new skills, and can be highly adaptable. They also have valuable life experience to bring to the classroom, which can lead to useful insights and encourage general discussion. Once they have familiarised themselves with the educational environment and its rules, they can be keen participants in debate, ready to challenge received wisdom. This connection of academic wisdom and external experience can prompt everyone to think about issues in new ways.

  • Used to manage responsabilities

Some educators worry that adult learners will get out of their depth not due to any innate lack of ability but simply because they have so much going on in their lives. Can they really work, raise families, handle other social responsibilities and study at the same time? The key here is to recognise that most adults are used to juggling multiple responsibilities – in fact, they’re generally better at it than young people who might easily be overwhelmed by minor problems. They know how to pace themselves and will not usually return to education unless they feel they can commit themselves to it. All they need is an environment that respects that commitment.

Far from being a burden, adult learners can enrich an educational environment with their wide-ranging knowledge, their insight and their passion. Working with them can be a richly rewarding experience.


Back to Blog