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What Supporting Adult Learners Really Means

Whether we are seasoned or new faculty, understanding the dynamics, background, and motivations of the students in our classroom (both traditional and online) is critical. It is projected that by 2020, there will be approximately 24 million college students, and 10 million will be over age 25, compared to 1970 when there were 8.5 million college students, but only 2 million were over age 25 (U.S. Department of Education, 2011). Simply put, the composition of our classroom is changing.

Who are these adult students? We label them as non-traditional students, adult students, or adult students. While exact definitions vary, the typical qualifiers for quantifying adult students are:

  • Over the age of 25
  • Work full-time or part-time
  • Independent
  • Have families and children
  • Enrolling in school to advance their career, change careers, hone or learn new skills.

And, according to Knowles, Holton, and Swanson (2015), these adult students often share several similar internal characteristics:

  • Need to know (why, what, how)
  • Self-concept (autonomous, self-directing)
  • Experienced
  • Readiness to learn
  • Problem-solving
  • Motivated (intrinsic, personal payoff).

Most importantly, adult students are highly motivated to learn things relevant to their workplace or career. Frequently they prefer problem-solving activities over lectures and efficient instruction that utilizes real-world life experiences when possible.

These adult students are often busy people; many have families, children, and employment obligations that they have to balance with their educational pursuits. To put it another way—study time is after the children go to bed, or during lunch, listening to a content podcast while driving to and from work (or school).

Do you like infographics? If so, check out this one for adult learning.

Given this, what can faculty do to better align their classrooms and curriculum to help adult students? Consider these ideas:

  • Experiment with a flipped classroom or flipped learning teaching methodology
  • Problem-based curriculum and problem-solving activities using real-world scenarios
  • Role-playing and simulations
  • Time for self-reflection and self-assessment
  • Take advantage of adult students' life experiences in relation to your course
  • Use social media taking advantage of the social aspect of learning
  • Meaningful learning activities, explaining the why to show relevance and importance
  • Emphasize mastery over memorization
  • Experiment with gamification
  • Chunk the material into bite-sized pieces and use scaffolding to build on concepts
  • Practice makes perfect, use activities that are repetitive learning
  • Leave the sage on the stage and become a facilitator of student learning

Perhaps the easiest thing to do is this: consider yourself as a student in your own classroom. Do you think the material is suited to your experience? Can you relate to the ideas and concepts based on your own life experience? If not, it might be the right time to consider trying something new.


Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2015). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (8th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

U.S. Department of Education. (2011). Table 200. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex, and age: Selected years, 1970 through 2020. National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS). Retrieved from /tables/dt11_200.asp

About the Author

Currently, I am a Senior Lecturer and Course Coordinator in the Computer Information Systems & Quantitative Methods Department at Texas State University. Technology is here, and it is our responsibility to help students find their comfort zone with technology as it applies to their career and life goals. I have multiple research interests such as understanding American spending and saving habits, or lack thereof. Also, understanding why students fail a course, specifically technology courses using technology adoption models (TAM), technology diffusion theory, and technology self-efficacy. For fun, I work with small local nonprofit organizations to organize and manage their computer networks and accounting functions. My other love is spending time with my daughter on horseback.

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