Adult Learners – their Characteristics and Needs

Adult Learning or Andragogy is a theory developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968. He studied how adults learn and how it differs from children. His approach revolves around ‘the notion that adults learn best in informal..

As I most frequently work with adult learners in their working context, I thought I would share a bit of info about Adult Learners and Adult Learning Theory with you.Let’s start with a bit of theory. Adult Learning or Andragogy is a theory developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968. Knowles studied how adults learn and how it differs from children. His approach revolves around ‘the notion that adults learn best in informal, comfortable, flexible, non-threatening settings‘ (Knowles, 1990, p.54), organising and self-directing their learning.

Andragogy was further explored by other researchers who looked at it from many angles. Lawson (1979) lists attention to learner needs and a learner-centred approach where teaching is perceived as a journey through learning situations among the features influencing adult education. Other pedagogies adopted in work-learning share a very similar set of concepts deriving from andragogy. An emphasis on personal reflection linked with the notion of previous knowledge is argued to be the primary condition for learning to occur (Slotte and Herbert, 2008; Sundararajan, 2010; Tynjälä and Hakkinen, 2005). Problem orientation and adult learners’ preference for authenticity transpire through links with real-life problems (Leyking et al., 2007; Littlejohn, 2014; Tennant and Pogson, 1995). Finally, learning involves sharing and exchanging information and knowledge. It can be self-directed, but in most cases, it is socially situated and involves the presence of others (Slotte and Herbert, 2008; Tennant and Pogson, 1995; Illeris, 2003). George Siemens (2005) places learning in the digitally connected, connectivist world influenced by technological innovations. The connectivist nature of adult learning transpires in the work environment, where meaning and understanding come from accessing and connecting clusters of information (Carlile and Jordan, 2003).

For those of you more into bullet points and lists, I list the main characteristics and adult learners’ needs. Pay attention to these factors, as they can help you to motivate adult learners – most adult learners are looking for in training courses

Adult learners expect

  • Autonomy
  • Self-direction
  • Flexibility
  • Practical outcomes
  • Learning by experience
  • Purpose and goal-oriented
  • Life long process building on previous knowledge and personal reflections
  • Social, collaborative learning
  • A problem-based or challenge-based approach
  • Authentic real-life problems
If you want to know more about motivating adult learners, read this post outlining three motivational models (link to the blog)


  • Carlile, O. and Jordan,Aa., (2003) ‘It works in practice but will it work in theory? The theoretical underpinnings of pedagogy. Available at: 1/carlile-jordan-it_works_in_practice_but_will_it_work_in_theory.html [Accessed 26 June 2017].
  • Knowles, M.S. (1990) The adult learner: a neglected species. 4th ed. Houston: Gulf Pub. Co.
  • Lawson, K.H. (1979) Philosophical concepts and values in adult education. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.
  • Slotte, V. and Herbert, A. (2008). ‘Engaging workers in simulation‐based e‐learning’ Journal of Workplace Learning, vol. 17, no. 5/6, pp. 318-336.
  • Leyking, K., Chikova, P. and Loos, L. (2007) ‘Competency and Process-Driven e-Learning – a Model-Based Approach’ Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 5(3) pp.183-194. Available at: ERIC [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018]
  • Siemens, G. (2005) ‘Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age’ International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1), pp. 3-10. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jul. 2018].

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