Preparing for Instructions 1 – Characteristics of Adult Learners


Your Adult Self Doesn’t Learn the Same as When you Were a Child


Since Malcolm Knowles introduced andragogy, his initial assumptions on the ‘Characteristics of Adult Learners’ were cited by numerous authors (i.e. Meriam and Bierma, 2014, PBS TeacherLine, 2007, Smith, M.K., 2002).


Adults learners are characterized by ‘Self-concept’ or as being ‘Self-directed’ – “As a person matures his or her self-concept moves from that of a dependent personality toward one of a self-directing human being” (Meriam & Bierma, 2014). Children, on the other hand, “are dependent on their teacher to lead the learning, deciding what the child will study” (O’Hara, 2015).


The second characteristic of adult learners is “Experience” – “An adult accumulates a growing reservoir of experience, which is a rich resource for learning (Meriam & Bierma, 2014). Webster, Zachariah, McFaury, and McMullin (n.d.) suggest that even though the children have fewer experiences than adults, they still “need to have opportunities in their learning to reflect on their life experiences-to explore concepts of family, culture and nature in their own way” (Webster, Zachariah, McFaury, & McMullin (n.d.)).


In my experience, these two characteristics of adult learners have become the biggest obstacle in conducting the company mandated training. These training modules are based on “must know” rules and regulations, with an additional requirement for “re-fresher” training sessions to occur annually or biennially. Knowing these facts, some of the long-term employees would immediately put on “What are you going to teach me that I do not already know?” face. In order to achieve the maximum from the trainees, I had to involve them in discussion (usually achieved through the real examples such as customer complaints, product non-conformities, problems that occurred in production), engage them in talking about their own experiences/concerns and show them how they will benefit from the training. Moving the training plan from “Instructor – Students” to “Facilitator – Learners” setting in which the employees provided the examples (thus allowing the other employees to learn the first-hand) and also proposed the solutions for the problems seems to work the best in our company. The only draw-back we experience in conducting this type of the training sessions is the training length, which sometimes exceeds the allocated time.


The next characteristic that makes the clear distinction between the adult learners and the young learners is a “Readiness to learn” – “The readiness of an adult to learn is closely related to the developmental tasks of his or her social role” (Meriam & Bierma, 2014). Even though the well-known fact is that the children are born ready to learn, their “readiness to learn, generally, has been thought of as the level of development at which an individual (of any age) is ready to undertake the learning of specific materials” (Lewit & Schuurmann Baker, 1995).


“Orientation to learning” – The adult learner’s time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and, accordingly, his orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem-centeredness. (TeacherLine, 2007). Unlike adults, “children often learn about skills that may be useful “one day in the future” (Webster, Zachariah, McFaury, & McMullin (n.d.)). This of course does not apply to the skills the children are learning in order to achieve their own goals, as we all know at least one child that knows how to fix the bicycle, or to cook the great food, or to tend to their pet in a need.


“Motivation to Learn” – As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal (TeacherLine, 2007). Since the children education is directed by their parents and governmental programs, they “are usually motivated by external pressures and the consequences of failure. Children are also usually told what they need to do in order to work their way up to the next level” (O’Hara, 2015).


The last three characteristics of the adult learners make the training interesting and also allow you as a trainer to use your creativity. There is nothing I like more than an employee who is ready and willing to learn new tasks and take on new responsibilities. The whole world of possibilities exists that will allow both you and the trainee to achieve the new levels.

Some of the training activities that we use in our company are based on the experience. For example, we occasionally have a very upset customer/operator who could not be reasoned with. There are a few employees who are trained to handle similar situations. In such instance, when the group meeting is held, the experience is shared with other employees, including all details of the conversation and how the situation was handled. Everybody is required to reflect on the situation and provide an input how they would handle the situation. The new employees are requested to think about the issue and the ways they would handle the upset customer. In order to better prepare them for conflicting situations, we would role play the situation to make sure that all employees are confident in handling upset customers.


And finally, here is something to think of. If you read my previous blog on Trends in Adult Education, you probably noticed that I touched upon something much deeper than the adult education in the western world. Whilst characteristics of adult learners are readily available to study, an interesting aspect of adult learning in different cultures can be found here: “Adult Learning across Cultures”.


Happy reading.



Lewit, E.M. & Schuurmann Baker, L. (1995) CHILD INDICATORS: School Readiness. In: Critical Issues For Children and Youths Volume 5 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1995. Retrieved on: February 06, 2016. From:

Merriam, S. B. & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons

O’Hara, S. (2015). Your Adult Self Doesn’t Learn the Same as When you Were a Child. In Future School. Retrieved on February 06, 2016, from:

PBS TeacherLine. (2007). Characteristics of adult learners. Retrieved on February 06, 2016. From of adult learners-reading.pdf

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy’. The encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved on February 06, 2016. From:

Tulloch, A. (2014). Adult learning across cultures. Blog in: Neuroanthropology – Understanding the encultured brain and body. Retrieved on February 06, 2016 from:

Webster, K., Zachariah, M., McFaury, J. & McMullin, L. (n.d.). Questions and Answers on Adult Education. Retrieved on February 06, 2016. From:

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