What’s Different About Teaching Adults?

Puzzle pieces form a head.

Adult students have unique needs compared to traditional-aged students, meaning teachers and educators must focus on different aspects of teaching to effectively achieve solid learning outcomes. Plus, the National Center for Education Statistics projects that the number of students 25 and older will grow to 8.8 million by 2026, up from 8.1 million in 2015, making it ever more important for teachers to understand best practices for teaching adult learners.

In broad strokes, adult learners are looking for content that is relevant to their degrees, and ultimately, their career goals. It’s important to this audience to understand the value in what they are learning.

Teachers working with this population should remember adult students’ backgrounds and incorporate that information to ensure lessons are relevant and timely. Additionally, educators should:

  • Encourage exploration in topics
  • Integrate emotion into classes
  • Make assignments convenient and offer consistent feedback

While these techniques can help make adult pedagogy more effective, understanding how and why adults learn is critical to implementing change in the classroom.

What’s Different About Teaching Adults?

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles was a respected educator and researcher, focusing on adult learning. He was even associated with establishing the term “andragogy,” the art and science of adult learning.

Back in 1980, Knowles made four assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners that are different from child learners. Four years later, he added a fifth assumption.


As an individual matures, his or her concept of self develops from being a dependent personality toward being a self-sufficient one. For example, child learners rely on their parents and teachers to teach not only basic concepts in core content, but also social skills and societal norms. Adult students, on the other hand, know how to learn and can dive deeper into a subject.

Adult Learner Experience

As a person matures, he or she accumulates experiences that are used as resources for learning. These experiences, for example, may pertain to proper study habits or the simple memory of how many protons are in a hydrogen atom.

Readiness to Learn

Adults are often ready to learn things they need to know in order to effectively deal with life situations. Adult students, therefore, are more interested in subjects that are relevant to their lives and impact their goals and careers.

Orientation to Learning

As an individual matures, his or her time perspective changes from that of postponed application of acquired knowledge to immediate application. Adult students are more motivated to learn if they know it will help them improve their lives and careers, as opposed to learning something that they may not benefit from for years.

Motivation to Learn

Through maturity, a person’s motivation to learn becomes internal. Adult students need a reason to learn something before doing so.

An illustrated version of Knowles' 5 Assumptions of Adult Learners.