Adult Learners

Returning to the educational community as an adult brings a new set of challenges, expectations, and experiences. The culture that surrounds higher education has its own set of rules, principals, and even language. When an adult enters this community for the first time or returns to it after being out of school for a period of time, it can be a daunting experience. There are strategies aimed at helping adult learners in higher education. The term andragogy actually refers to the techniques and methods that help adults succeed in this distinct community.

First, the adult learner needs to review the expectations he or she has for the higher educational community, as well as understand the expectations higher education has for the adult learner. For example, there are very real differences between different types of institutions (undergraduate vs. graduate school, liberal arts schools vs. technical schools, two-year vs. four-year institutions), and it is important to be familiar with the expectations of the particular school and program. Along with understanding expectations, it helps to become familiar with the culture of higher education. Different disciplines and departments within the same educational community, for example, will have different expectations and cultures. Becoming familiar with them will help the adult learner on the journey to graduation.

Next, adult learners should recognize that they have a unique set of assets that younger students have yet to acquire. Adult learners are generally more self-reliant and self-motivated. They have many life experiences that they can draw upon as a resource. And they have intrinsic reasons for wanting to learn, which has been proven to be more effective than extrinsic motivations. Adult learners who have an open mind about higher education, instead of preconceived ideas about what it should or should not be, and those who choose to study content relevant to their lives, are more likely to succeed in higher education.

Once adults have enrolled in a program, it is extremely important to create a realistic schedule where blocks of time are set aside for the sole purpose of studying. Developing professional working relationships with instructors who can also serve as mentors will help adult learners track their progress, as well as allow them to potentially arrange for assignments and projects that are more relevant to their adult lives. Finally, higher educational facilities offer study centers where students can go for help. Taking full advantage of the programs offered by the center can only serve to enhance the education of the adult learner, as well as help place the student on the path to success.


Last Updated: October 1, 2021