Preparing for Instruction 1 – Characteristics of Adult Learners

Malcolm Knowles is credited with coining the term ‘andragogy’, which has become synonymous with the education of adults.  From 1980 – 1984 he proposed 6 assumptions regarding adult learning.  Using these assumptions, I thought about my recent (and not-so-recent) experiences in the classroom as a student, and reflected on what I valued as an adult learner.  Some of the things I felt most strongly about as an adult student included:

Self-concept:  As a person matures his/her self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being

While I certainly feel more independent and self-directed as an adult learner, I have found the approach of self-evaluation has been a big challenge for me, as I find sometimes find it easier to be critical rather than feeling like I’m ‘Tooting my own horn’. My goal for the evaluation component of this course is to try to come up with concrete examples of what I feel I’ve excelled at this course, as well as honest, accurate feedback as to what I feel I could do better.

Adult Learner Experience:  As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

This was very apparent to me in my most recent training, an Instructor Skills Workshop.  As part of the workshop the class was required to teach three mini-lessons.  The class as a whole drew not only from their educational training, but also their life experience.  There were lessons that reflected some individuals chosen career path (IT Security, marketing, engineering), as well as hobbies or personal interests (Taekwondo, date growing, concussion prevention).  Through the duration of the workshop, it became quite apparent that people were able to both instruct (and learn) from their individual learning experiences.

Readiness to Learn:  As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.

In my experience as an adult learner, I relate strongly to this.  Over my working career I have been employed in many different fields, including business, social services, and most recently Information technology.  As my career in IT has changed from a support role to a supervisory role, my focus on learning has shifted from technical-based (network, server, security) to a more leadership and soft-skills based education (project management, leadership skills, service management and delivery).

Orientation to Learning:  As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject- centeredness to one of problem centeredness.

As an adult learner, I find that my desire to learn is primarily based on how applicable the topic is to my day-to-day work or home life.  Will this subject matter enhance my existing skill sets in some way, or teach me something new that I have an existing or new requirement to know?  I recently was required to have a surgical procedure and in the weeks leading up to the procedure I spent a considerable amount of time learning about the surgery, the latest scientific developments in the surgery, as well as potential complications.  My knowledge in the specific area quickly became vast enough that when questioning the surgeon I brought up new advancements that the hospital staff had not yet been trained in or availed of.

Motivation to learn: As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal, rather than external.

This assumptions is pretty well illustrated by some of the above reflections. Why do you want to learn?  Personal growth?  To better your career or possibly create new job opportunities?  Due to a new need or requirement in your life?  While not all learning as an adult is driven by internal motivation, being able to recognize the value of the learning can make the learning opportunity more rewarding and effective.

Rationale for learning: Adults need to understand the reason for leaning a topic.

Associated with the motivation for learning is the rationale for why we learn. Adult learners desire to know why the learning is required, as well as how the learning will be applied.  I find this resonates very strongly in how I approach learning as an adult.  If I can see a value in the need to learn something I am MUCH more likely to show interest, work hard, feel engaged, and show that interest by asking questions.  Conversely, if I see no value in the learning opportunity or feel a lack of engagement, I find myself distracted, not interested and generally feel the opportunity is a waste of my time.

Looking at the above, it’s easy to see how important it is for the instructor to recognize the characteristics of the adult learner in order to be able to tailor coursework that will give value to, as well as engage the adult learner.


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