Motivating and Engaging Adult Learners

When it comes to teaching adult learners, it’s all about motivation. An adult has chosen to learn, and needs to remember why they are undertaking a qualification in order to remain motivated. Engaging them through the work and promoting active learning should keep them motivated to achieve their learning goals.

First, it should be noted that further education as an adult is usually voluntary. It’s a personal choice of each learner to improve their job skills and achieve professional growth. An instructor can only engage with an adult learner so far, before it becomes the responsibility of the learner to invest their own time and energy into actively engaging and learning. If a learner thinks the benefits of the course are worth it, they will persevere.

Presenting the benefits of the course to the learners your first meeting with them will remind them of their main motivation for being there; “This course will make you more productive at your job/allow for upwards movement within your organisation/qualify you for a job in your desired field.” It can be beneficial to keep noting the real world benefit of the content of each learning module. This allows learners to see the purpose of each unit or module and remain engaged.
Adult learners want to feel that everything they are learning has can be applied outside of the classroom. An adult doesn’t want to be stuck in a classroom if they feel like their time could be better spent elsewhere. If the information does not seem relevant it will be much more difficult for the learner to feel engaged.

Adult learners gain knowledge most effectively when they are actively participating in the learning process. An instructor cannot just provide the correct answers, they are there to facilitate learning and should encourage active learning through class discussions, and allowing the learners to find the answers themselves. Teachers should not neglect the previous knowledge and experience of the individuals in the classroom. Learners will feel more engaged and be more engaging when they have the opportunity to share their own knowledge on a topic, rather than being subjected to a lecture. The learners should feel empowered by what they are learning and how they are learning it.

Malcolm Knowles, a leading educator in adult learning, had five assumptions of what made adult learners different than child learners:

  1. Self-concept
    As a person matures his/her self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being
  2. Adult Learner Experience
    As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.
  3. Readiness to Learn
    As a person matures his/her readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his/her social roles.
  4. Orientation to Learning
    As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject- centredness to one of problem centredness.
  5. Motivation to Learn
    As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal.

Malcolm Knowles’ book ‘The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (4th edition),’ where he extrapolates on this concept, can be found here: