Thinking About Adult Learners

Much of the cognitive and learning science research that is undertaken is conducted on young people and adolescents. These students are usually compulsory attendees and they are studying a curriculum that is prescribed. Further, the faculty are adults who are in positions of both authority and expertise. Community college students choose to attend enroll and are generally taking classes that are associated with their program of study. Faculty in colleges are less likely to be perceived as authority figures by their students compared to how k-12 teachers. Combined with the fact that adults have a much more extensive life experience which affects their motivation and cognition, there are some realities of adult learners of interest to community college faculty.

Adults learners rely on their existing knowledge to a greater extent than younger learners. This is reasonable given the fact they have so much more knowledge. When new learning allows them to build upon that knowledge, adults tend to be more successful than when they cannot rely on their existing knowledge.

Older learners tend to be motivated by different aspect of the environment than younger learners. For example, older learners persist with activities they believe is contributing to their learning, but not those that they do not perceive as contributing. They also prefer positive feedback that is interpersonal rather than focused on performance. Adult learners are motivated, they are selective of the environments and activities they pursue. Many community college faculties find their classrooms filled with a variety of learners, so they must be prepared to vary their methods according to the nature of the students.