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Characteristics Of Adult Learners Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5320 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The paper Teaching Adults is focused on the issue of adult learners. There are mentioned characteristics of adult learners, especially how do adult learners differ from young learners. The next part of the paper is devoted to motivation of adult learners; you can find there the definition of motivation, specific motivation factors and observable indicators of motivation. In addition to that, the paper introduces the role of the teacher in the process of adult students teaching. There are discussed the teaching strategies suitable for adult students, e.g. lectures and demonstrations, role – play, simulation and games, project work etc. The main aim of the paper is to explain the differences in teaching adults and children or adolescents.

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Adult students in the process of ELT build the special group of people socially accepted as mature and who are in a learning process. Teaching adults differs from teaching children in theoretical and practical parts. The field of adult education was pioneered by Malcom Knowles who is one of the founders of andragogy. Andragogy is focused on adults while pedagogy is concerned on children. Unlike children and young people adults have a lot of life experience, which is reflected in the classroom. Probably the single most important concern for the teacher of adults is understanding of the diversity of adult learning principles. Adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions. We have to bear in mind that the instructions while teaching adults should be concerned on the process of what is needed to be learnt. It is important to use strategies such as role playing, simulations, project work and discussions quite often because they are most useful for adult students who are practical, problem -centred and goal- oriented. Teacher adopts a role of advisor rather than lecturer and helps shape the educational unit according to the current situation.

Furthermore, another aspect of adult education is motivation because only when students are motivated they can learn. The best way is to enhance students´ reason for learning. Teachers must plan their motivating strategy.

Finally, we do not have to forget another integral part of adults learning which proper feedback is. We should know when and have to give feedback because good feedback is one of the basic rewards of learning.

Teaching English to adults is different from teaching children and teens and involves a considerable amount of planning and skill to make it understandable and adaptable to all learners.

1. Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adults are people who have the status of maturity in their own and other people´s eyes, but in the teaching process they come in the subordinate position of the learners. It could be very difficult at the beginning, and it depends on individuals how to deal with this situation. A lot of adults can become anxious from being at school and are afraid of their failure and may believe that they are unable to learn.

According to Jenny Rogers, “The conflict is that as adults we already have certain well-developed ideas about life along with our own system of ideas and beliefs. To admit that we need to learn something new is to admit that there is something wrong with our present system.” [1] 

On the other hand, they have an expectation about the learning process and they are able to accept responsibility for the learning. They are self – directed; they are not dependent on other people for direction. Adults as learners are goal-oriented and results-oriented. They know what they want to achieve, and they also have specific results in mind for education. They must see a reason why to learn something. Learning has to be valuable for them; it should be related to their needs and finally fit to their work. In other words, adults seek education which is appropriate for their current lives. They are practical and are focused on the aspects of the lessons; it means they want to know how the lessons will be useful to them on the job. We must not forget that adults have a lot of experience and a wealth of knowledge, and they expect to be treated accordingly. They require learning that makes sense and is connected to their knowledge and experience. They can be also critical of teaching methods.

Furthermore, we can expect that adults are more disciplined that some children and teenagers and are able to sustain a level of motivation. Adults have more developed abstract thought than children; it means we have to choose appropriate activities adapted to use their intellects to learn consciously.

To sum it up, there are a lot of specific features of adult learners which we have to bear in mind in the process of teaching. Compared to children and teenagers, adults have special needs and requirements as learners. Of course, these are generalizations, and there can appear some exceptions in each group of learners.

2. Learners Differences

Each student is different in intellectual abilities, learning and thinking. These differences are related to different thinking styles and learning styles of students. We can distinguish reflective thinkers, creative thinkers, practical thinkers and conceptual thinkers. Reflective thinkers perceive new information subjectively, relate it to past experience and examine their feelings about learning. On the contrary, creative thinkers examine the new information, very often ask “why?” and create their own solutions. Practical thinkers need factual information and try to find the simplest and also efficient way to do something. In other words, they want to apply their new skills to their job. The last group consists of conceptual thinkers who are interested in how things work, not just in the final outcome. They like seeing pictures and want to know the related concepts. [2] 

Equally important are learning styles. Students usually tend to one learning style because they associate it with learning success. There are three general learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic. Visual learners process new information when they can see it. They like graphics, illustrations, diagrams, pictures and demonstrations. Their motto is “Show me”. Auditory learners rely on sounds and voices; they remember new information when it is spoken. They love lectures and discussions. Their motto is “Tell me”. Kinaesthetic learners need to do something to understand it. They want to touch the new information or manipulate it. They prefer written assignments, taking notes and examination of objects. Their motto is “Let me do it.”

3. Motivation for Adult Learning

Motivation is everything what helps to wake up and keep someone´s interest to do something. Students come to education for many reasons. All reasons are acceptable because any motivation is better than none. If learners are not motivated, they are not able to learn. Most adult students are at the classroom because they want to be. There are called “want to” learners. Some of them are there because they need it for their job. They are “have to” learners. We can distinguish intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is our internal need to do something. Extrinsic motivation represents all other external factors not directly connected to the issue being learnt.

There are a lot of motivation factors. Some of the most common are:

Promotion- depends on passing an exam or doing a course.

Personal advancement – people want to get higher status at work.

Social relationships – people want to make new friends.

Escape/Stimulation – people want to avoid boredom; learning can interrupt the daily routine at home or work.

External expectations – people try to fulfil the expectations of someone with formal authority.

More money – after passing a course or successful graduation you can expect to earn more money.

Social welfare – effort to improve ability to be beneficial to mankind and participate in community work.

Cognitive interest – people who are interested in learning, they want to receive new information and seek knowledge for its own sake.

According to Raymond Wlodkowski, we can distinguish four principles that motivate adults to learn:

Inclusion means that learners respect each other; they have no fear of threat or humiliation. It is related to positive social climate.

Attitude is a combination of concepts, information, and emotions. Attitude causes a powerful effect on human behaviour and learning. (E.g. Negative learning experience can affect people´s attitude, participation and expectations.)

Meaning – making, understanding, and changing meaning is a fundamental aspect of adult education. Deep meaning causes that the experience or idea is connected to an important goal. Meaning sustains involvement.

Competence is an effort to effective interaction with the world. Adults have a strong innate disposition to be competent. They want to apply everything what they have learned to the real.

“Competence allows a student to feel confident when they know that they are adept at what they are learning. Confidence again supports and motivates more extensive learning.” [3] 

This can result in a spiralling dynamic of competence and confidence.

Teacher should increase, sustain and direct student motivation. We should organize the essential motivational conditions. If we want to establish inclusion, we need to create a positive learning atmosphere, full of respect to each other. Next task is to develop attitude, it means creating a favourable disposition to learning through personal relevance and choice. To enhance meaning is important to create challenging and thoughtful learning experiences which include learners´ perspectives and values. Furthermore, we should engender competence by creating an understanding of learner effectiveness.

How do we know if learners are motivated? There are some observable indicators of intrinsic motivation:

Learners do activities without resistance.

Learners spontaneously relate learning.

Learners ask questions.

Learners go beyond required work.

Learners are proud of their learning and its consequences.

Adults have to balance a lot of responsibilities which can lead to the barriers against participating in learning. The most common problems are lack of time, money, confidence, interest, lack of information, scheduling problem and problems with child care and transportation. As teachers of adults, we have to plan motivating strategies which show learners the connection between training and final promotion.

4. Giving Feedback

“The old saying that practice makes perfect is not true, but it is true to say that it is practice the results of which are known which makes perfect.”(F.C. Barlett)

Feedback, criticism, praising and commenting are very important in the teaching process. Teaching adults is complicated because of the difficulty of criticising. There are two dangerous: giving feedback in the wrong way and not giving enough. Without proper feedback, the learner performance cannot improve. If performance cannot improve, all learners quickly lose their interest. Good feedback is one of the basic rewards of learning and critical part of the learning cycle goes like this:

In comparison with children and teens, adults find it harder to acknowledge that they have made a mistake, and it is harder for them to unlearn it. The same mistake can be repeated again, therefore is important to give feedback immediately or as soon as possible. The problem is not only to correct errors made on the spot, but to find out some basic misunderstandings from the past, e.g. when we teach grammar, students sometimes have no idea what parts of speech are. Until all the misunderstanding from the past is identified, no progress can be made. A lot of students seem it difficult to learn the rules of English spelling properly. It can be a combination of mechanical and psychological reasons. It is particularly hard to correct again repeated mistakes. The solution how to avoid it is prevention; it means make sure that on the first occasion of a new piece of learning the adult gets the right answer – “right first time”. [4] 

It is known that people learn by making mistakes. It is true but we should recognise when assessing that prise make us feel confident, whereas negative criticism makes us self-doubting. Good feedback is given promptly, contains encouraging words, gives detailed comment on each performance, praises the good points before criticizing the bed, is focused on criticizing the performance, not the person, is concentrated on just a few mistakes at a time and is clear.

Giving feedback demands skills as well as tact. We should create a friendly atmosphere for constructive feedback. After giving feedback, we should check that the learner has understood the message by asking open-ended questions. Avoid closed (yes, no) questions, e.g. Have you understood? It is better to begin questions with “Tell me”, “How”, or “Why”.

Finally, a lot of teachers overestimate the quantity of feedback they give. To avoid it, try to find ways to offer every learner some feedback in every lesson. As teachers of adults we should minimise the bed effect of criticism although there are a lot of possibilities for misunderstanding because without feedback students cannot learn and teachers do not teach.

5. Role of the Teacher

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” (A Buddhist proverb)

As we said in one of the previous chapter, a lot of adult students can feel anxious when they go back to school after a few years being out of the classroom. Our job as a teacher of adult students is to be positive, friendly and encouraging. Patients help too. It is sometimes important to know that older students need more time to respond if we ask a question.

Encourage your students to use their own life experience in the learning process too. As teachers we should minimise the fair of failure and the bad effect of past learning experiences by offering activities which are achievable for our students and correspond to their level.

Not only students can have some worries. There can be a problem for some teachers and it is age. School teachers are always older than their pupils and have the advantages of longer education. Not so teachers of adults. They can be younger than their students and may even be less intelligent. It is correct to have some worries about a new group of students, but both the problem and the solution are in our own hands.

What makes a good teacher? As Rogers says, effective teacher has these characteristics :

A warm personality – accepts all students and understand them, be helpful.

Social skill – ability to connect the group together without being dominate.

Organizing ability – administration is smoothly handled.

Skill in spotting and resolving learner problems.

Enthusiasm – a lot of eye contact, varied voice inflexion.

Not only can the personality of a teacher but the leadership style lead to the success or failure of learning. We can distinguish three different types of leadership: authoritarian, where the leader is strict, bossy, encourages competitiveness and makes all important decisions himself; laissez-faire where the teacher does virtually nothing unless he is directly asked a question; and democratic, where the learners decide what they will do, and the teacher is someone who can affect individual solutions of problems. In the group where the teacher behaves authoritatively the learners are submissive and well behaved, but often mishear instructions, are competitive, mutually disparaging and show signs of aggression and tend to abandon work when the teacher leaves the room. On the contrary, the laissez-faire group does almost nothing whether or not the teacher is present. Under democratic leadership, the learners work well together without fare of one outdoing the other. There occur little tension or aggression and the temporary absence of the teacher make no changes in the amount of work the learners do. [5] 

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It is clear that creativity is more encouraged in groups where the teacher does not dominate. There can develop pleasant social relationships; more students talk to one another and respect each other. On the other hand, dominant, aloof, authoritarian teachers tend to produce either very hostile or subdued group of learners who are individualists and do not want to co-operate.

6. Teaching Strategies

Any activity that gets students involved is very useful and makes the learning experimental. This includes e.g. small group discussions, role play, writing or drawing something specific, skits etc. Activities that involve getting up and moving about can also keep students energized. Try to use a variety of teaching materials and methods and do not forget individual differences of your students. It is known that individual differences increase with age. Take into account that your students have a lot of life experience which they can bring to the classroom, provide them as many opportunities for dialogue as possible and ask open-ended questions so that they can use their knowledge and experience. Treat all questions and comments with respect. Tell your students the expectations of the teaching process and familiarize them with the syllabus, but do not be disappointed when they do not completely agree with your plan. You can discuss it together and make some changes in accordance with the needs of your students. They can help you to design the learning process. Because adult students are problems centred, let them know how the newly acquired knowledge can be used in specific situations. As a teacher, you should balance between presentation of new material, discussion and participation among students and your course plan. Teaching strategies for adults are more effective if it is learner-centred than instructor-centred. [6] 

6.1. Lectures and Demonstrations

Lectures and demonstrations are the most common teaching methods in adult education. They are sometimes referred to as an economic way of teaching because they do not need almost any technician or administrative support. As a teacher use these methods thoroughly. First, keep them short. Lectures should take fifteen or twenty minutes and limit for demonstration is even shorter, five minutes. Second, your talk should have a clear beginning, middle and end; it means that it is clear to your students and if it is clear defined, it can help students to know what the objectives are before beginning. This technique has a lot of possibilities how to be used. You can introduce short intensive presentation, which is followed by practicing. You can immediately see if your students understood your lecture. Adults learn best through participation and activity, so your lecture or demonstration can be interspersed with group discussion, individual projects, and audio-visual material. In the lectures or demonstrations try to keep to simple main points. A lot of adult students need to have a written support of a new piece of learning, but it is known that adults do not take notes very often. Making notes during presentation can be a diversion from understanding; therefore it is better to instruct your students not to write only listen to you. Prepare well-designed printed handouts for them, not very long because it could discourage your students from reading it. It is better to distribute handouts after a lecture than before; it is less distracting. If you are demonstrating, be certain that all learners are able to see from your point of view. If the demonstrations are seen from the front, the student must mentally reverse all the processes.

In general, lectures and demonstrations are probably best used in short sections, with frequent recourse to discussion, individual practice, project work etc.

6.2. Role – play, Simulation and Games

Simulation, role- play and games play the same or similar roles in language teaching. They help bridge the gap between the classroom and the real word. These activities offer a variety of ways how to make the learning process more interesting, challenging and lively. As we said in earlier chapters, adults need to avoid being told how to do something; they need to try it out for themselves.

Role-playing refers to the changing of one’s behaviour to assume a role. It is any speaking activity when you either create someone else (The President, a millionaire, a pop star etc.), or when you put yourself into an imaginary situation (‘At the restaurant’, ‘Checking in at the airport’ etc.)

“Role-playing is proposed as an ideal technique to teach language because it prepares learners for the unpredictable nature of real-life communication, teaches appropriate language use, and boosts self-confidence.” [7] 

Learning takes place when activities are engaging and memorable. It is always better to bring situations to life and keep them real and relevant.

Some role playing is simple and does not need any special preparation. It is a normal extension of work done practising dialogues and drills; on the other hand, role play can be prepared in advanced when the teacher sets up the scene. The material must be relevant, brief and credible. Before starting the role play, introduce any new vocabulary expected in the topic. After finishing the task, spend some time on evaluation. This process should help learners to be satisfied with themselves, so be careful and do not analyse every mistake made while speaking. Students should feel that they can use their knowledge of the language for something useful. Ask your students opinion about the role-play, e.g.: What did you think of the way you handled X? How did it compare with the way you deal with this in real life? The aim is to discuss what has happened in the role and what they have learned. Finally, do not forget to thank and praise the players for their efforts.

Example of role play:

We can play the video where the characters are doing something. The students watch it and then can repeat some dialogues. Then the teacher divides students into groups, and they play the characters from the movie trailer, but extend the dialogues according to their own fantasy. After correction and discussion they play the same scene again.

Simulation could be defined as a reality of function in a simulated and structured environment. Simulation in ELT motivates learners because simulation activities can involve them in language use. Everyone can participate and practise the language by interaction, either verbal or non-verbal, in spoken or written form. The realistic atmosphere in the simulation is achieved through the careful preparation of the stimulus material. Students take roles where they behave as people in a wider variety situations which are close to real life. Simulation encourages creativity although it begins with the information given to learners. They need to be ingenious to generate the idea and to complete the simulation.

Example of simulation:

Title: To make a bid

5 participants (each student is given a role card with some information about a role and with guidance what to do: Finance Manager, Factory Manager, Sales Manager, Office Manager, and Director)

Situation: The company is making available 3000 euros for upgrading only one of the four departments. Each department leads a manager (as in the above). Each department can make a bid and explain the reason why they need the money. The Director will then announce the successful bidder.

Language functions: Explaining, justifying, defending, opposing.

Time: 1 hour lesson.

Students are divided in groups of 5. At the end of the lesson, the Director reports on the decision for each group.


It can be thought that many adults do not enjoy games, but it is not true at all. Adults almost like it if they know what the purpose of the particular game is. They need to know what are they practising (grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure etc.), or what skill they can learn or improve by using the game. If students know and understand the reason of the activity, they will be more active and enjoy the learning. Games are almost fun, and they can help to create the positive and supportive atmosphere in the classroom. Using various games suit to all learning styles: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic. While playing games students spend the lesson time by active conversation in English.

There are some links where you can find a lot of games for adult English learners:



The important advantage of all above mentioned activities is that they are entirely active methods of learning. Another benefit is that their real value is often in the social skills they teach.

6.3. Project Work

“Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.” (Chinese proverb)

Project work is a means of communication and enjoyment based on the combination of theory and practice. A project is a piece of work where almost everything is made by the learners who work in groups to solve an authentic problem. Learners can choose the topic and the activities leading to a problem processing. Project work is suitable for all levels from beginner to advance. There can be involved all learners mixed in ability, confidence and experience. The projects are very creative. The authors of the projects collect information from a variety of sources, analyze and derive knowledge from it and then put everything together. It is based on students´ needs and interests. Teachers can help their students as guides or advisors, they should not direct or manage students´ work.

How to start? Teach your students how to do project work. Start with concrete, small-scale activities. Decide the presentation form and the criteria for its evaluation. Projects need to be seen or read so plan the last project session as a presentation.

Types of projects:

Production project

Performance project

Collection projects

Informational projects

Orientation projects

Social welfare projects.

Each project needs to be evaluated. You can prepare some comments on content, design, language work and also the final presentation. It can be discussed with all students from the class or group.

Advantages of project work are:

It increases motivation because all learners are personally involved.

All four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking are integrated.

Learning outcome – students have a final product.

Project is an authentic task and therefore the language input is more authentic.

There are developed interpersonal relations through working in a group.

It is learner centred – contend and methodology can be decided between the learners and the teacher.

A break from routine. [8] 

6.4. Discussion

Discussion is one of active teaching methods which encourages students to find out solutions and develop critical thinking abilities. During discussion, all participants speak to each other, explore, exchange views, and learn from each other, students from teacher, teacher from students. Discussion is a situation where students and teacher can and do make an open, equal and personal response to a book, current social problem, fashion, films, politics etc. which needs interpretation to take it beyond a factual statement. In a good discussion, most members of the group feel willing able to speak when appropriate. Even in a group where everybody contributes, there will be people who talk more than others. Dominant members of groups are often able and energetic people, whose initiative can be used for other group members, either in the ideas they contribute to general discussion, or in some special assignments, extra research or short lectures they can undertake. Silent member or people who speak rarely in a discussion can be silent as a way of showing disapproval of what the rest of the group are saying or they can be shy, diffident or lazy or because they prefer to listen to other people rather than to talk themselves. Problems of over-dominant and too silent students can be solved by splitting the group into smaller groups for some part of the class time. People who never speak in the large group can say a lot in the smaller one.

Before discussion, you can encourage your student to prepare for it. They can think about a topic, read some materials and write notes and comments. It is normal that for the first couple of minutes, the discussion is slow and difficult to manage, but if your students are prepared for it and you create a friendly atmosphere, it can soon warm up. If your aim is a discussion which involves everyone, it is important to range chairs in a circle. It is the best way as people can see each other and speak together easily than in sitting lecture- style in straight lines. [9] 


In conclusion, teaching adults should be different from teaching children and adolescents. As we said, teachers of adults should use a different style of teaching which is based on the theory of andragogy which suggest that adults expect learner – centred settings where they can determine their own goals and organize their learning according to their present life needs. The teaching techniques should be chosen with regard to needs of all learners. We should consider what approach and methods seem to be appropriate for our students. We have to respect our students’ different learning styles; we should encourage them, motivate them and give them proper feedback. When the students know that everything what they learn can be used in a practical way, they will perform better. A good teacher of adults is able to respect all of these specific factors and work with them for the benefit of students. This is your challenge as a teacher of adults.


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