A variety of sources provides us with a body of fairly reliable knowledge about adult learning. This knowledge might be divided into three basic divisions: things we know about adult learners and their motivation, things we know about designing curriculum for adults, and things we know about working with adults in the classroom


  1. Adults seek out learning experiences in order to cope with specific life-changing events- -e.g., marriage, divorce, a new job, a promotion, being fired, retiring, losing a loved one, moving to a new city.

  2. The more life change events an adult encounters, the more likely he or she is to seek out learning opportunities. Just as stress increases as life change events accumulate, the motivation to cope with change through engagement in a learning experience increases.

  3. The learning experiences adults seek out on their own are directly related - at least in their perception - to the life-change events that triggered the seeking.

  4. Adults are generally willing to engage in learning experiences before, after, or even during the actual life change event. Once convinced that the change is a certainty, adults will engage in any learning that promises to help them cope with the transition.

  5. Adults who are motivated to seek out a learning experience do so primarily because they have a use for the knowledge or skill being sought. Learning is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

  6. Increasing or maintaining one’s sense of self esteem and pleasure are strong secondary motivators for engaging in learning experiences.


  1. Adult learners tend to be less interested in, and enthralled by, survey courses. They tend to prefer single concept, single-theory courses that focus heavily on the application of the concept to relevant problems. This tendency increases with age.

  2. Adults need to be able to integrate new ideas with what they already know if they are going to keep - and use - the new information.

  3. Information that conflicts sharply with what is already held to be true, and thus forces a re evaluation of the old material, is integrated more slowly.

  4. Information that has little “conceptual overlap” with what is already known is acquired slowly.

  5. Fast-paced, complex or unusual learning tasks interfere with the learning of the concepts or data they are intended to teach or illustrate.

  6. Adults tend to compensate for being slower in some psychomotor learning tasks by being more accurate and making fewer trial-and-error ventures.

  7. Adults tend to take errors personally and are more likely to let them affect self-esteem. Therefore, they tend to apply tried-and-true solutions and take fewer risks.

  8. The curriculum designer must know whether the concepts or ideas will be in concert or in conflict with the learner. Some instruction must be designed to effect a change in belief and value systems.

  9. Programs need to be designed to accept viewpoints from people in different life stages and with different value “sets.”

  10. A concept needs to be “anchored” or explained from more than one value set and appeal to more than one developmental life stage.

  11. Adults prefer self-directed and self-designed learning projects over group-learning experiences led by a professional, they select more than one medium for learning, and they desire to control pace and start/stop time.

  12. Nonhuman media such as books, programmed instruction and television have become popular with adults in recent years.

  13. Regardless of media, straightforward how-to is the preferred content orientation. Adults cite a need for application and how to information as the primary motivation for beginning a learning project.

  14. Self-direction does not mean isolation. Studies of self-directed learning indicate that self-directed projects involve an average of 10 other people as resources, guides, encouragers and the like. But even for the self professed, self-directed learner, lectures and short seminars get positive ratings, especially when these events give the learner face-to-face, one-to-one access to an expert.

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