What the Research Says About Teaching Adults
John Knowles established six principles of adult learning, or andragogy, in the early 1970’s. He established the idea that adults have different learning needs than children, and should have a learning environment tailored to those needs. The key, according to Knowles, is the fact that adults are internally motivated and do not need to be “taught” in the same way as children. His principles are:
- Need to know. Adults need to know why something is important, so instructors need to make this clear to them.
- Foundation. Adult students build on prior learning, including their mistakes, so it is important for instructors to establish what their students know and connect with it rather than assuming everyone is at a remedial stage.
- Readiness. Adults want to learn relevant things, and the most relevant things help them with their jobs. It is good to remind students that writing essays improves their job-ready skills, and they will need to do this when they go into the working world.
- Self Concept. Adults are responsible and accomplished beings, and they need to be trusted with deciding about their own educational objectives and goals. Allow your students to decide what to study and when where possible so they “own” more of their education.
- Orientation. Adults want to learn around problems, rather than abstract content. Where possible, employ an active learning activity that lets students engage with an actual problem from your discipline and build their skills, rather that passively absorb information from a text or lecture.
- Motivation. Adults are internally motivated, and they want to do well. Work with that desire to succeed and make the criteria for success as clear and attainable as possible.
John Knowles (1973) The Adult Learner.
To this R. Wlodkowski added important insights on what motivates adults to learn:
1 . They learn when they feel safe and included in the learning environment. One way to help students feel like a member of a community of learners is to make sure they all know each other and the instructor in some personal way (have ice breakers, share a little about why you are present).
2. Students feel motivated when they are positive about the material and they feel it is relevant to their goals. To foster this, it is good to establish what the instructional objectives for the class are and let students contribute some of their own objectives for being here. It is of course also good to be upbeat and energetic yourself!
3. Students feel motivated when they feel the learning is meaningful. Avoid “busy work” assignments at all costs, and where possible, allow students to participate in choosing subjects to study, questions to review, deadlines to meet.
Students feel motivated when they can apply their learning. Like Knowles, Wlodkowski promotes “active” learning.
STUDENTS FEEL MOTIVATED WHEN THEY FEEL THE LEARNING IS MEANINGFUL
He recommends any classroom activity that gets students to discuss problems and share information with each other will help.
Techniques such as debating issues, examining primary sources or case studies, or preparing graphic organizers all help students feel engaged and motivated. Such activities also help to foster students’ feeling of competence by asking them to evaluate their own performance and accomplishments.
Wlodkowski, R.J. (2008), Enhancing adult motivation to learn. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
J. Vella synthesizes the findings of many other scholars on adult learning and posits the following basic principles of teaching adults:
- Clearly establish roles by assuring that students understand what is expected and can do it.Work in Teams wherever possible to establish social cohesion and a feeling of inclusivity.
- Assure Engagement by helping learners buy-in to and get excited about learning.
- Make sure you are teaching students what they need to know, when they need to know it
- Let students feel save and included in the group.
- Work to let your students know you are trustworthy by making your assignments and expectations clear and assuring that students have the tools they need.
- Organize your instruction so that it is sequential and logical, so that it helps students build their skills and sophistication from the simple to the more difficult.
- Exercise Praxis — reflect on what has succeeded, and why, and change what needs to be changed.
- Treat students with respect, as learners with their own goals and motivations.
- Make students responsible for their own learning by letting them establish goals and reflect on their own accomplishments.
- Recognize that learning is not just a mental process, that it involves behavior and activities and feelings as well and don’t scare or overwhelm your students.
- Motivate students by making learning immediately applicable and relevant.
Make students responsible for their own learning by letting them establish goals and reflect on their own accomplishments.
Vella, J (2002) Learning to listen, learning to teach: the power of dialogue in educating adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass