Skip to main content

Best Practices

The LTO Best Practices

Issue No. 53: Teaching Adult Learners

Welcome to the fifty-third issue of The LTO Best Practices. Each month, the Learning & Teaching Office will be spotlighting a timely topic in education. This February, our topic is "Teaching Adult Learners."

Check out our page of Teaching Tips handouts for more downloadable documents on a variety of teaching topics.

For more information on effective methods for teaching adult learners, and for the citations for the research cited in this newsletter, download our Teaching Tips document on Engaging Adult Learners [pdf]


Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adult learning theory has developed a series of characteristics that define the difference between adult learners and “traditional” learners. These characteristics determine the teaching methods that will most successfully promote learning in an older population of students.

  1. Adult learning is selective. This means that adults learn will learn what is meaningful for them. They are “not very inclined to learn something they are not interested in, or in which they cannot see the meaning and importance” (Rubenson, 2011, p. 49).
  2. Adult learning is self-directed. Adults take responsibility for their own learning. Malcolm Knowles defined self-directed learning as “a process by which people identify their learning needs, set goals, choose how to learn, gather materials, and evaluate their progress” (Rubenson, 2011, p. 53).
  3. Adult learners also bring years of previous knowledge and experience to the classroom, as well as an established system of values and beliefs governing their thought (Jarvis, 2004, p. 144). They expect to be treated as adults.
  4. Adults often have a problem-centered approach to learning, and are interested in content that has a direct application to their lives. They want to see immediately how the course content is relevant to their current problems or situations (Rochester Institute of Technology).
  5. Finally, adult learners have been away from formal schooling for many years, and may have had negative experiences with school. These adult learners may be reentering schooling with anxiety and low self-esteem (Rubenson, 2011, p. 53). Adults may also associate traditional classroom environments with something that is appropriate for children, therefore they may “prefer to learn in contexts that are… as little like ‘school’ as possible” (Davis, 2013)


Characteristics of Effective Teachers

When teaching adult learners, there is a shift in the relationship between faculty member and students, and a shift in the way that learners will perceive the effectiveness of different teaching methods (Karge et al, 2011). Hill has defined three areas where adult learners have identified specific teacher traits that they found beneficial to their learning (2014). These three areas are teaching competencies, relationships with students, and teacher attitudes.  

  1. Teacher competencies included having relevant practice knowledge—“providing relevant, real time information” and “teaching practice applications as well as theory—and teaching material that is up-to-date and evidence based. Adult learners were appreciative of instructors who were able to structure classroom learning, implement a variety of teaching techniques, and stimulate discussion. They expected instructors to follow the syllabus, and had very little patience for instructors that were unprepared for class.
  2. In forming relationships with their instructors, adult learners valued instructors who were approachable and available, and were flexible both in regard to deadlines and class activities. They found it important that instructor value and validate their experience, as well as be sympathetic to the demands placed on them by jobs and family.
  3. With regard to teacher attitude, adult learners appreciated instructors who were “fun and enthusiastic” and who listened to students, viewed “students as having knowledge” and didn’t “treat them like blank slates.” (Hill, 2014)


Effective Teaching Methods

Using the adult learner characteristics listed above, several teaching methodologies have been determined to be effective when teaching adult learners. These methods can be divided into five categories: self-directed, active, experiential, collaborative, and narrative.


Self-directed learning is independent—it provides the learner with the ability to make choices, to take responsibility for their own learning, and “the capacity to articulate the norms and limits of learned society, and personal values and beliefs” (Goddu, 2012). In self-directed learning, the instructor shifts from the leader of the learning experience to the “facilitator of learning,” becoming “a source to be tapped, as required by the learner” (Robotham 1995, as cited in Goddu 2012). Self-directed learning provides students with the “opportunity and freedom to choose the means of acquiring knowledge that is best suited” to them based on their own self-knowledge (Alex et al., 2007).


Active learning provides students with opportunities to enhance skills, improve their critical thinking, and “gain knowledge in an efficient way” (Karge et al., 2011). Active learning provides students with opportunities to apply their own background knowledge or prior experience, and instructors with the opportunity to assess existing student knowledge.


Experiential learning allows adult learners to make practical use of their knowledge and apply it in a context similar to the way that knowledge would be used in real life (Goddu, 2012).  Experiential techniques, such as discussion, simulation, case method, and problem solving, tap into the experiences of the learner, engaging adult learners (Caminotti & Gray, 2012).


Collaborative learning is effective for adult learners because it allows them to use their “shared connections and experiences to explain and build upon concepts from class in ways instructors cannot” (Davis, 2013). Adult learners have reported their appreciation for the “interactive learning environments” created through collaborative learning (Scherling, 2011).

For adult learners who already hold professional positions, “collaborative group work sharpens current skills.” Furthermore, it benefits the class by leading to “group affiliation and the development of academic identity” (Davis, 2013). In the online classroom, collaborative projects, like group work, “promote a supportive learning environment,” providing the “communication and interaction needed to reduce isolation and build group engagement” (Scherling, 2011).


In narrative learning, adults are given the opportunity to form a link between “lived experience and curricular content. Because adult learning has to do with meaning making, these autobiographical connections are integral to the process” (Clark & Rossiter, 2006). Autobiography encourages learners to identify where their value systems line up or diverge from the new concepts or ideas being presented in the course content (Clark & Rossiter, 2006). Learners are encouraged to see how they are situated within the narratives created by family, organizations, cultures, and societies. Personal stories “serve not only to link the concept to students’ life experiences, but also to transcend those experiences and see the larger social and cultural structures that shape their lives and their meaning-making” (Clark & Rossiter, 2006).


Next Issue

"The LTO Best Practices" is produced monthly by Michelle Schwartz, Research Associate at The Learning & Teaching Office of Ryerson University.

Do you have any thoughts, suggestions, or best practices that you would like to see appear in this newsletter? Please send all submissions to We look forward to including your contributions in our next issue!

Contact Us

Location: Kerr Hall West, room KHW373.
Phone: 416.979.5000 x6598