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Kent O'Sullivan: The basics of adult learning


Thursday, 6 Oct 2005 ( #229 )
Safety First
Kent O'Sullivan is a Certified Master Instructor Trainer with The Columbia Compliance Group. Columbia Compliance Group is a safety consulting firm that specialises in offering professional mobile equipment safety training programs & publications throughout North America.



A high degree of instructor-student interaction is invaluable for maximising the amount of information a student retains. Adult students are no exception as they are not usually passive by nature, and therefore appreciate the opportunity to actively participate in the learning process. Adults returning to education are usually diverse individuals. Some may be homemakers who interrupted their studies to raise children; others might be retired business executives who wish to pursue fields in which they were always interested, but had no time to explore. Some mature students possess excellent academic backgrounds, while others reenter the scholastic arena with limited educational experience. They could be financially stressed or monetarily secure. Older students can experience age-related problems, such as diminished hearing or eyesight; while others may enjoy the peak of health.

Regardless of the circumstances, a good instructor will present the subject matter in a manner that ensures all students understand and absorb the material. Some adults engaged in higher education may be anxious and self-conscious about their age and/or performance. Consequently, they are likely to be more modest about their abilities and experiences than their younger counterparts; thus feeling a pressure or obligation to please the instructor. They might also seek frequent reassurance and need to verbalise more than younger students. On the other hand, mature students can be impatient with activities they feel are not useful in their learning, arguing with instructors who present information or ideas inconsistent with their experiences. These are only some the factors affecting the adjustment process for older students. For some, progress is very smooth, for others it is extremely difficult.

Compared to children and teenagers, adult students have special needs or criteria that must be met for them to prosper in a learning environment. Therefore, one of the most important attributes an effective instructor should possess is a solid understanding of their needs and criteria, and the resultant special challenges they might present.

Characteristics of adult learners:
  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed and need the latitude to regulate themselves when and where possible, while remaining within the confines of the learning curriculum. A successful instructor of adult students will also be a facilitator, guiding students through the learning process and fostering an atmosphere in which students feel encouraged to share their perspectives. Students should be given the opportunity to be responsible for presentations and group leadership. A good instructor will always present basic facts or new information in a manner that inspires students to expand their and thus move closer to attaining their goals.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base. The instructor should encourage participants to share relevant experiences and/or knowledge. This will give the instructor the tools with which to relate theories and concepts to the participants while helping student and instructor recognise the present learning value of past experience
  • Adults are goal-oriented. They usually appreciate a well-organised educational program with clearly defined elements. It is importantthat, early in the course, instructors outline course objectives, clearly showing participants how the class will help them attain their goals.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented and usually must see a reason for expanding their knowledge. New information has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Instructors should identify objectives for adult students before the course begins, relating theories and concepts to a setting that is familiar. Where possible, instructors should allow students to choose projects that reflect their individual interests.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job.
Like other students, adult learners must be respected. The instructor should acknowledge the unique wealth of experience and knowledge these students bring to the classroom and ensure they are treated as equals, allowing them to voice their opinions freely.
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