Adult Learners – Photo courtesy of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)- photographer: George Armstrong(126595)Credit: Photo courtesy of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)- photographer: George Armstrong

Employers are better served when they take into account the characteristics of their adult learners and what motivates them when developing company workshops.  Many jobs require ongoing trainings and employees often are at odds about attending these trainings.  Employers often make assumptions based on their employees’ seemingly lack of noncommittal attitudes.  What is needed is the basic understanding of an adult learner. 

Four Critical Elements of Learning

When teaching student, lesson plans entail four critical elements for successful learning.  When considering adult education and instructing adult  learners, these four elements must be present as well.

  1. Motivation.  If the participant does not recognize the need for the information, the instructor’s efforts to assist the participant to learn will be in vain.  The instructor must establish rapport and prepare them for learning.  Participants need feedback and rewards (not necessarily monetary) on the results of their learning.
  2.  Reinforcement.  Instructors are attempting to change behavior with the trainings.  Reinforcement is a necessary component of learning.  Positive reinforcement rewards positive or good behavior.  Negative reinforcement results in extinction of a “bad” behavior; however, it must not be confused with punishment or “extinction” behavior modification technique.  Negative reinforcement is taking a negative stimulus away to increase a “good” behavior.  Punishment refers to adding something aversive to decrease a behavior. Extinction is when something is removed to decrease a behavior.
  3.  Retention.  In order for participants to gain any benefit from training it is imperative that they are able to retain at least some of the information.   To do so, the participants need to see a purpose for the training and then an understanding of the training material.  The amount of retention will be directly affected by the degree of original learning.  In other words, if the participants did not learn the material initially, they will not retain it.   Practice during learning will also directly affect retention.
  4.  Transference.  This means the ability to use the information in a new setting.  There are two types of transference: Positive when the participant uses the behavior taught in the training; negative when the participants simply do not do what they are told not to do.  Transference will likely occur when the participants can associate the new information with something they already know; it is similar to material they already know; the degree of original learning was high; or the information contains elements that are extremely beneficial (critical) on the job. 

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adult learners present specific characteristics not necessarily found in young school students.  In regards to training in the job setting, adults show the following characteristics in the learning environments:

  •  Autonomous and Self-directed.  Participants need to have some input on topics and be actively involved in the learning process.
  •  Accumulated foundation of life experiences and knowledge.  Foundation may include work-related activities, family events and responsibilities and any previous education.  On the Job Training – photo courtesy the United States Navy- photographer: Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods(126594)Credit: photo courtesy the United States Navy- photographer: Mate 3rd Class John E. WoodsParticipants need to be able to connect the learning to the base.  The Instructor needs to draw out the participants’ experience and knowledge that is relevant to the topic.  Theories and concepts must relate to the participants in some manner.
  •  Goal-oriented.  Early on the instructor needs to show the participants how the training will help them attain their goals. 
  •  Relevancy-oriented.  Adults must see a reason for learning; how it applies to their work or other responsibilities that are important to them.  It is important that instructors demonstrate the connection between the training topic and the participants work or other responsibilities important to them.  Theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to them.
  •  Practical.  The material presented must be useful to the participants.  Most adults will not be interested in knowledge for knowledge sake.  Interests are generally impacted by the topic’s usefulness to their jobs.  It is important that the instructor demonstrates how the material is going to be used in practical application.
  •  Need to be shown respect.  Everyone wants to be respected.  When adults are in learning environments, it is important for the instructor to acknowledge the experiences and current knowledge of the participants.    

Motivation Factors of Adult Learners

Adults are generally motivated by different aspects of life than elementary, middle or high school students.  It is beneficial for instructors to understand what motivates adults who are receiving on the job training workshops.  Adults are generally motivated by one or more of the following:

  •  Social relationship.  Workshops are a good way to meet like-minded people; to make new friends or acquaintances and to network.
  •  External expectations.   In the work environment; most adult learners fall under this category because they are learning in order to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority, such as a supervisor; to fulfill a requirement for job or status (license).
  •  Social welfare.   Some learners are more altruistic and choose to learn to improve their ability to serve the community either locally, nationally, or globally.
  •  Personal advancement.  Many adult learners do so to achieve higher status or salary in a job, secure professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors. 
  •  Escape/Stimulation.  Adult learners may seek relief from boredom, by learning something new.
  •  Cognitive Interest.   Some adult learners seek additional training simply for the sake of learning; to satisfy an inquiring mind.  Some people are inquisitive and curious enough about something that they desire to simply know more about it for no other reason than to simply know more.

 Though the reasons for engaging in learning is varied; in the workplace, better understanding of the adult learner’s characteristics can aid employers in streamlining the continuing training that is often required for the company’s employees.   When treated with respect and acknowledgement of the adult learner’s assets, both parties benefit.



 Knowles, M. The Adult Learner: a Neglected Species. (4th ed.) Gulf Publishing: Houston, Tx. 1990 “Adult Learners.” (accessed March 6, 2010) “Principals of Adult Learning.” (accessed March 6, 2010)


The copyright of the article “Who are Adult Learners” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.