Characteristics of Adult Learners

Characteristics of Adult Learners
I used Coggle to create this mind-map.

Characteristics of Developed Learners

I have a problem with Knowles’s characteristics of adult learners. I suggest that this framework should more accurately be called the characteristics of developed learners. Knowles makes five assumptions about the differences between adult and child learners. These assumptions are related to self-concept, experience, readiness to learn, motivations to learn, and the orientation of learning. I do not think that Knowles’s framework for describing adult leaners is suitable for all adult learners. Additionally, these characteristics can equally be applied to young learners. It is important to examine the context of each learner, and to take the individual learner into consideration. I will briefly outline each of Knowles’s characteristics and offer a few ideas about each point. Finally, I will conclude with my argument for how a shift in terminology from characteristics of adult learners to developed learners may benefit our teaching practice.

Adult learners’ sense of self-concept involves moving from being dependent towards being self-directed. Adult learners are seen as self-directed, which means “adult students can participate in the diagnosis of their planning and implementation of the learning experiences, and the evaluation of those experiences” (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007:85). It is necessary to provide instruction that enables learners to discover knowledge for themselves. Knowles argues that adult learners need to take initiative and take from the course what applies most to their needs. However, it cannot be assumed that all adult learners are self-directed, and have the necessary skills to plan, implement, and evaluate their own learning. This level of higher order thinking is challenging, and some adult learners may require more guidance than others in assessing their learning needs. Secondly, young learners may benefit from being allowed to make choices in their own learning processes. If this skill is initiated at a young age, it will result in more and more adults having the necessary abilities to be self-directed. Self-direction is only possible once a learner has developed certain skills. Although I do not dispute that learning happens in informal and nonformal settings, the skills required in a formal environment are more stringent in a formal learning environment. A case in point is assessment. Students might believe that they have learned an adequate amount, but they may not be the best judges of whether they have met the necessary standard and quality of work required in a more formal setting.

Secondly, adult learners’ experience needs to be considered (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007:84). As people mature they gather a great deal of different experiences that are an important resource for learning. The backgrounds of learners should also be taken into consideration: learning materials and activities should allow for a wide range of different experiences. Whatever the level of the class offered, many students can bring some of their own experiences into the class. However, I would argue that it is a mistake to assume that all experience is good. Some adults may have had negative experiences, which affect their learning processes. This needs to be addressed before meaningful learning can take place. Adult learners may need to unlearn bad learning behaviour, or alter views that may be unsophisticated. Wynne argues that adults have established views which “cannot be dismissed and must be respected” (para.3). This is a valid point, but I believe it is just as relevant to young people. I do not see why young peoples’ views should be dismissed any more than adults’ should. On a different note, holding an opinion for many years does not give it any more value than having one for a short time. The quality of the view should be addressed, and adults should be prepared to change their views based on new information and new experience.

Thirdly, adult learners’ readiness to learn becomes increasingly directed towards the developmental tasks of their social roles (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007:84). Instructions need to be task-oriented: adult learners should not be memorising facts; they should be learning how to apply knowledge to practical situations. The information learnt needs to be relevant to adult learners’ lives. If we assume that learners want to learn something that is practical, why would young learners not benefit from learning something that is directly relevant to their lives? In addition to this, there are multiple reasons why people engage in the learning process. Some may learn because of practical reasons like desiring a promotion or changing careers, some may enjoy the social aspect of learning, whereas some may simply be learning for learning’s sake. Adult learners may not really require learning to be practical in order for it to be meaningful, depending on their reasons for participating in learning.

Fourthly, motivations to learn become increasingly internal rather than external (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007:84). It is presumed that the adults attending the course are doing so out of their own volition; therefore adult learners are more internally motivated to learn. Young learners who are attending school may have no choice in the learning process whether regarding the subjects studied or the places where they learn. Adult learners on the other hand, are assumed to have more freedom with the learning process. However, in reality, many adults may participate in adult learning programmes because of pressures to remain up to date, because they are required to by their employers, or because of an increasingly competitive work environment. While people may appear to be participating out of their own choice, it is external pressures that are limiting true freedom of choice. Finally, I would argue that it more accurate to say that learning will always be a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, although the ideal would be to develop intrinsic motivation.

Fifthly, the orientation of learning shifts from subject-centredness towards being problem-centred (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007:84). Adult learners have a differing view on time; knowledge is viewed in relation to immediate application rather than future application of knowledge. As such, adult learners want to learn content that can be applied in their daily lives and can improve their lives. Again, I think this can equally be applied to learners of all ages. Surely young learners would be more internally motivated if they found what they learned relevant to their lives? Wynne argues that adult learners are “practical and problem-solvers” (para. 10). Surely young leaners would benefit from practical, problem-solving activities? Wynne argues that adults have logistical considerations and may feel tired from “juggling classes with work, family, etc.” (para. 11). I would suggest that young learners are just as affected by the multiple roles they play as adult are. It would be beneficial to ensure that, from a young age, learners develop the necessary skills to balance the different facets of their lives. I would tentatively suggest that many young people are already developing these skills and learning how to fulfil different roles.

I will conclude by outlining two reasons why Knowles’s distinction between adult and young learners is problematic. On the one hand, many adult learners may have never had the opportunity to develop the skills outlined in Knowles’s framework. It is for this reason that I respectfully suggest that the characteristics of adult learners should rather be considered as the characteristics of mature or developed learners. On the other hand, I do no think these characteristics should not only be considered relevant to adult learners. These characteristics should be fostered in learners of all ages. A culture of lifelong learning does not develop with the flip of a switch. The roots must be developed in the young in order that they may bear rich fruit in the adult. Thus, we should strive to sow the seeds of developed, life-long learners at all levels.


Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: a comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Wynne, R. Characteristics of adult learners. Retrieved from (Accessed 22 March 2015).


2 thoughts on “Characteristics of Adult Learners

    1. It’s a simple enough question, but I think the answer is dependent on different perspectives.

      Technically speaking, adult learners are people whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults.

      A few further defining features include the following. Adult learners:
      – Study part time while working full time or fulfilling family obligations
      – Prefer alternative learning environments that allow for the freedom from the space and time constraints typical in traditional learning environments
      – Do not enrol in post-secondary education right after finishing high school

      In higher education, students are usually aged between 18-22 and enrol directly after school. They would often be financially dependent on their parents. Adult learners do not follow the traditional pattern of attending postsecondary institutions directly after school and are usually self-sufficient so they pay for their studies themselves. Obviously they can also get student loans and bursaries.

      I highly recommend Merriam, S.B., Caffarella, R.S., Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: a comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass. It gives a solid overview of adult learners and adult learning theories.


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