Adult Learning: Understanding How Adults Learn

According to Malcolm Knowles, originator of adult learning, adults move from dependency to self-directed learners. Therefore class instructors and facilitators must design the curriculum(s) and the classroom structure specifically for adult learners.
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 Adults learn differently from children, teens, and traditional students. Teaching adults can be quite challenging for some. The best methods for teaching adults (andragogy) involve understanding and supporting how adults learn most effectively.  According to Malcolm Knowles, originator of adult learning, adults move from dependency to self-directed learners. Nowadays, most colleges and other learning institutions have made tremendous advancements in accommodating the adult learner by offering classes and degree programs that meets their needs.  Therefore class instructors and facilitators must also design the curriculum(s) and the classroom structure specifically for adult learners. Malcolm Knowels’ theory of adult learners suggest that:

  • Adults are self -directed learners and need to be actively involved in the learning process
  • Learning must be of value to the adult learner
  • Adults need to connect learning with life experience based upon prior education, work experiences, and family life
  • Adults need to know how they will benefit from the learning outside of the classroom
  • Adults are intrinsically motivated to learning new things
  • Adults are goal-oriented and will select classes that reflect their interest
  • Instructors should show respect to each student

Classroom structure - First and foremost, the instructor must show the students respect from the very beginning of the class and should continue to do so throughout the term. One should keep in mind that adult learners bring their level of knowledge and expertise to class and want to be acknowledged for such. Instructors should allow students to contribute their intellect at some point during the class sessions. Instructors should aim to deliver effective facilitation techniques that engage the students and should construct a comfortable learning environment for all. Therefore, instructors must arrange the classroom seating in such fashion so that each adult is facing one another and not viewing the backs of their cohort’s head.  Instructors should stand or sit facing the class so that each student can make eye contact with the instructor. When the students face each other they can interact with one another more effectively.  Also, students need to feel that they are equal to the instructor and not less intelligent. Most instructors have discovered that both conference style and U-shape style seating arrangements are most effective for lecturing adults rather than the traditional classroom style seating. Of course, instructors must maintain control over the class, but they should allow students the freedom to express themselves when the opportunities arise. Furthermore, instructors should not expect the students to raise their hands to get permission to go to the restroom, or to make a phone call, take a smoke break, etc.  Instructors must also allow for breaks as needed. Bottom line, adults want to be treated as adults. In return, the students must remember to show equal respect to the instructor and to one another.

Designing the Curriculum - Instructors should design a set of courses that relates to adults’ life experiences, knowledge, and skills.  Design courses and class exercises that motivate students to tap into their hidden potential.  Design class activities that instruct students to collaborate with their cohorts and openly elaborate on the class subjects. Allow students the freedom to direct themselves and civilly voice their opinions during class discussions.  Curriculum must clearly explain class expectations and define how the courses will help students obtain their goals.  Use appropriate textbooks, pertinent material, and other forms of modern technology to educate students. Avoid straight lecturing and find ways to actively involve the students in the learning process.

In conclusion, so we understand that it’s not that adults lack the intellectual ability to learn, they just learn differently. Instructors who thrive in teaching adult learners are those who understand how adult’s learn- thus provides a comfortable environment and deliver content that meets their needs. In other words, when the instructor creates a learning environment that is conducive for adult learners, designs the curriculum exclusively for adults, and demonstrates effective facilitation skills, he or she will be very successful in teaching adult learners.

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