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Adult learners: 6 key characteristics and how they influence learning

Adult learners: who are they?

Learning is not something new, it has been a constant since the beginning of our lives, when we started to learn how to talk, walk, write or read. However, maturity brings new characteristics that affect and influence the way we acquire knowledge and skills. Being aware of these unique characteristics leads to more effective and motivating training programs, adapted to the cognitive and social features of adult learners. 

Adult learners’ characteristics

Practical and goal-oriented

Adult learners prefer practical learning experiences that will improve the way in which they perform their professional tasks, which leads us to the assumption that they require personal relevance in learning activities. How can a training program accomplish this necessity? The answer is quite predictable: start planning a learning activity based on the needs and the knowledge gaps of the target audience. Put differently, give them the knowledge they actually want to gain. 

adult learners 1
Adult learners

Closely connected to their need for practical training programs, adult learners are also goal and result-oriented, which means that they have specific objectives that they want to achieve, which is why the course should be delivered by means of an utilitarian content. A piece of advice here? After every course, you should provide learners with feedback forms, so that you know whether or not a specific training program has met their expectations in terms of results. 


Adult learners prefer autonomy instead of guidance, as they want to have a sense of control and self-direction in their learning activities. This doesn’t mean that you let them learn whatever they want and whenever they want, but rather that you design a training plan based on flexibility and accessibility, where they can contribute to designing a learning path that best meets their needs. 

Also, in comparison to children, adult learners need to have the big picture view of what they are learning, which means that they require to know how the small parts fit into the larger view. That’s why learning paths exist: to give learners access to all the steps of the learning process, emphasizing the final outcome and the practicality of a certain piece of information. 

Less flexible thinking

Adult learners are more resistant to change, as their way of thinking has become more rigid due to various experiences they have encountered. Thus, they need both the why behind a specific training program and a connection between the new ideas and the existent contexts in which they can implement them, aiming at an improvement in that context. This means that you should introduce learning by experience as a method to deliver information, in order to make them see for themselves how knowledge can be turned into relevant skills for their development. 

Need for community

Lots of adult learners prefer learning along with their colleagues or a learning community where they can ask questions, share learning insights and come up with solutions to real professional challenges encountered in the day to day work. This can be accomplished by means of the communities of practice, which are implemented into some eLearning platform in order to enforce the social learning aspect. Also, in times of change, when working remotely is no longer a choice, but a necessity, any tool that enhances connectivity is highly appreciated.

Some (final) thoughts

To sum up, adult learners are characterized by a series of unique features that influence their learning, such as being more practical and less enthusiastic to change, more goal-oriented and self-directed, all of these affecting their motivation and their ability to learn, which makes it mandatory for L&D specialists, trainers and instructional designers to be aware of these characteristics.

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