Characteristics of Adult Learners

External Factors

Adult learners have characteristics that set them apart from other learners. An adult learner has a wealth of knowledge in a variety of life and work experiences that ranges from person to person that a school-aged or young college learner will not have. As well, their educational backgrounds can vary greatly, not to mention their personal life history.

That being said, there are some common characteristics that can be found in the adult learner. Keep in mind that although this list is identified as characteristics of adult learners, there are instances where younger students can also have the same characteristics. One cannot categorize all adult learners as having the same characteristics, nor can one categorize all other learners to not have some of these characteristics.

EXPERIENCE Knowledge_picture.GIF
  • Bring a wide range of accumulated life experiences in very diverse areas.
  • Favour practical learning that allows them to draw on their prior skills and knowledge.
  • Can relate new facts to past experiences.
  • Often enjoy sharing their knowledge and experiences.
  • Are often realistic and have insights about what is most likely to work and what is not.

  • Are often intrinsically motivated.
  • Will often increase their effort when motivated by a need, an interest, or a desire to leReach_for_Star_picture.GIFarn.
  • Can be motivated by relevance of material when they can relate the material to their own needs and interests.
  • Often need complete focus to fully engage.
  • Learn at various rates and different ways depending on their intellectual ability, education level, personality and cognitive learning styles.
  • Want to know why they are learning something.
  • Have needs that are concrete and immediate.
  • Are autonomous and self-directed.
  • Are often self-reliant learners and prefer to work at their own pace.
  • Learn best when they are ready to learn and when they have identified their own learning needs.
  • Are typically more interested in theory when it is linked to practical application.

  • Learn best in a democratic, participatory and collaborative environment.
  • Need to be actively involved in determining how and what they will learn.
  • Often prefer a learning community with whom they can interact and discuss questions and issues.
  • Need active as opposed to passive learning experiences.

  • Are mature individuals who prefer to be treated as such.
  • Are goal oriented.
  • Are task or problem-centered rather than subject-centered.
  • Are results-oriented. Can often drop out of voluntary learning if their expectations aren’t met.
  • Require the big picture view of what they’re learning. They like to know how the small pieces fit into the big picture.
  • Usually have established opinions, values, and beliefs.
  • Often take responsibility for their own success or failure at learning.
  • Can be impatient with long discussions on theory and like to see theory applied to practical problems.
  • Are practical and problem-solvers.
  • Are more impatient in the pursuit of learning objectives.
  • Are less tolerant of work that does not have immediate and direct application to their objective.
  • May be concerned with their age and the impact this may have on their ability to participate with younger students.
  • May have insufficient confidence.
  • Are sometimes tired when they attend class.
  • Are often skeptical about new information; prefer to try it out before accepting it.

  • Have other considerations when attending class:
    • Family and caring responsibilities including childcare and/or eldercare
    • Careers
    • Social commitments
    • Time
    • Money
    • Schedules
    • Transportation


The eLearning Coach (2011). Retrieved on February 9, 2011 from

Wynne, Rhonda, Ireland (2011). Learner Centred Methodologies, Asset. Retrieved on February 9, 2011 from