How to Teach Others

Characteristics of Adult Learners

This section can help both trainers and learners understand their own learning a bit better.

We have looked at principles of adult learning that help teachers design, deliver and evaluate their programs based on the simple rules of adult education. We are now going to look at specific learner characteristics. These characteristics are what the learning principles are based on because they tell teachers what adults are like as individuals. The characteristics tell teachers that all of their learners are different in their abilities, their needs, their backgrounds and their environment.

Review the list of characteristics to see which ones describe you. Also look to see which ones describe other people you know and what similarities and differences there are between you. It is in understanding the similarities and differences between learners that teachers meet the needs of individual learners.

Everyone, regardless of age, sex, where they live, or how they learned in the past, can learn almost anything that interests them. Their learning depends on their interests, how committed they are to learning, and what kind of encouragement and support they get from their teachers, their families, friends, colleagues and their workplace.

To help other people you need to have a historical, cultural, biographical understanding of your own learning needs, wants and interests. When you understand yourself better and also understand the differing needs, wants and interests of other people, you are more able to select the style and content of learning that best serves you as a teacher.

The following is a brief list of some generally accepted characteristics of adult learners which are consistent with the principles of adult education described in the previous section:

  1. Bullettheir learning is lifelong,

  2. Bulletthey have different learning styles seeing, hearing and doing,

  3. Bulletadults accept responsibility for their learning when given the opportunity,

  4. Bullettheir learning is personal and they have their own motivations for learning,

  5. Bulletthey generally want problem-centered learning,

  6. Bullettheir learning involves change and/or is motivated or sparked by a change in their lives,

  7. Bulletmany adults are self-directed learners who may or may not seek the help of teachers,

  8. Bullettheir learning is partially a function of human development as they grow older they develop different learning knowledge and skills,

  9. Bullettheir learning is directly tied to their belief in themselves as a "good" or "bad" learner,

  10. Bullettheir past experiences can help, or harm, their learning,

  11. Bullettheir learning is partially intuitive,

  12. Bullettheir learning requires reflective thinking about what they have learned and experienced,

  13. Bulletthey evaluate their learning by asking if it is meaningful to their lives and if it can be applied to their lives now or in the near future,

  14. Bulletadults are creators and therefore not solely influenced by their environment,

  15. Bullettheir learning is primarily outside formal higher education,

  16. Bulletadults often learn more than one thing at a time,

  17. Bulletadults have a tendency to narrow down their interests to specialize in several areas before continuing with other areas.

Certainly this generalized list does not include all the individual characteristics of learners. People learn for different reasons and have different characteristics they are born with or have acquired to help them with their learning. This list is to help you examine some of your own reasons for learning.

Exercise 3

Check off the characteristics on the list above that most closely describe you as an adult learner. If there are any characteristics you would like to develop, put a star beside that point.

There are other elements to learning that affect how and what a person learns.

1. Physical differences:

in hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and feeling;

physical abilities and disabilities.

2. Social differences in culture, religion (i.e., someone's cultural and religious expectations of learning), experiences, work, and types of enjoyment.

3. Gender differences.

4. Psychological differences in our beliefs, goals, personal development, intelligence, and self awareness.

5. Economic differences between people may affect formal versus informal learning choices.

  1. 6.Education differences in levels of schooling completed.

All of these elements: physical, social, psychological, economic and educational, influence how you see the world and what you decide to learn in that world. These elements are not limitations to learning. Understanding how these elements affect your learning frees you up to keep, or change, your beliefs about your own learning.

How to Teach Others

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Copyright © 1993, 1999, 2006 Harry van Bommel

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