Adult Education - How adults differ from children in the learning process

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Malcom S. Knowles, a recognized leader in the field of adult and continuing education, outlined several defining characteristics which he posited as differentiating adults from children in terms of learning processes (1980). These include:

  • the necessity of understanding the reason for new learning
  • the desire to be independent, self-directed responsible for and involved in the process of designing and participating in training and development
  • the importance of an adult’s experience base which can be the foundation for new learning
  • the readiness to learn as related to practicality and application
  • the desire for real-world, “here and now” orientation in training programs. These characteristics have important implications for the planning and delivery of training and development programs.

In order to address the adult learner’s desire to understand why certain learning is necessary, trainers should, from the outset, appropriately context the learning opportunity by developing relevant and meaningful purpose statements and instructional objectives. Simply soliciting from participants their “self-diagnosis” of competency level and areas for improvement can involve trainees in the program. In this way, trainees will better comprehend and therefore more likely own for themselves, the “need to know” aspect of the training. Adults will feel more committed to a decision or activity that they have had a role in developing. Additionally, providing the trainee with the opportunity to contribute and/or direct as many aspects of the training as possible addresses the desire for self-direction as well as utilizing the relevant experience of the adult audience. Whenever possible, allowing the participants to assist in the formulation of goals and objectives as well as in specific details such as scheduling and activity selection, helps trainees feel responsible for their own learning and decreases the likelihood of resistance.

In terms of maintaining a real-world focus, activities and illustrations should move away from the purely theoretical and include believable examples of practical, real life application. Analysis of actual case studies or role-playing typical workplace scenarios can emphasize the value and applicability of the program content. Likewise, this real-world approach can capture the “teachable moment” where adult learners envision the value and worth of instruction by comprehending its immediate application. If possible, the incorporation of an actual workplace problem or project to which the training relates can help ensure interest, commitment focus and supportive learning among trainees. When participants themselves can understand the transfer of learning process they will more likely embrace the activity and cooperate in the learning process. In delivery of the product (i.e., the specific training) it is necessary to never lose sight of the audience.


Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Cambridge Adult Education.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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