Characteristics of adult learners

This is post #1 in the series:  Tutoring adult learners

This series includes the following three posts:

  1. Characteristics of adult learners (this post)
  2. How tutors prepare to help adult learners
  3. Tutoring sessions with adult learners


Characteristics of adult learners:


There are no “typical” adult learners.  Being human, they carry all the complexity of the human condition.  Each individual is a unique combination of age, and of cultural, religious, economic and educational backgrounds.  Some will have had more difficult upbringings and/or adult life than others, but all have had both positive and negative experiences.  Every adult has some area of their life in which they want to improve – and sometimes they will turn to a tutor to get the help they need.  Just as children need individualized tutoring, so do adults.

Learning styles, educational backgrounds, and learning behaviours: Just as children have different learning styles, backgrounds, and behaviours, so do adults.  If they have missed out on educational assistance when they were younger, because of lack of access to suitable help, or learning disabilities, or other situations, adults may need even more focused help than children.  Over time, they may have become discouraged, or have developed coping behaviours that make academic learning even more difficult.  The tutor will seek to understand where the adult learner is coming from, and to integrate that understanding into the tutoring.

Habituated learning, yet complex reasoning:  Over time, our personalities, interests, attitudes and habits tend to solidify, and we find it harder to change.  For older adults, it simply takes longer, and more effort, to do certain learning activities such as memorization.  On the other hand, adults have a rich background of life experiences, and can easily make all kinds of connections and reason in more complex ways than children, who tend to think in more concrete ways.  Younger people often think of issues in more “black and white” terms, while older people often see many “shades of grey” in issues.  This may result in adult tutoring including more questioning and discussion, besides the straight acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Integrating old skills and new, and loving learning:  Adults who are struggling academically or with a variety of literacy issues often are very intelligent.  They may have found ways to “work around” their lack of traditional learning skills, and be very successful in business, home life, and community life.   But at some point they may realize a need to pick up learning skills, or literacy basics, that they missed out on previously.  The tutor will seek to integrate the adult learner’s present learning skills into the tutoring program, and at the same time help the adult learner to acquire useful new skills they can use in their learning, both presently and in the future.  An over-arching goal of a good tutor, for learners of all ages, is to help learners be able to learn in many ways, and to love learning in all aspects of life.

Focused purpose and motivation: While children tend to love to learn generally, and are excited to learn whatever they can, many adults feel that once they “completed their education” (or had to “drop out”) that their learning days were over.  Then something happens in their life where they find they have to start learning again. They may actually feel resentful – or they may be excited to have the chance to “learn again.”  Either way, they often come “back to learning” with a much more focused purpose in mind – perhaps to get a particular job, or take a certain post-secondary course, or to pursue a personal interest.  While this provides adults with strong motivation to learn a particular skill or topic, they often need to be encouraged to see a “return to learning” as an opportunity, to be assured that they really have been learning all along in a variety of ways, and to embrace learning as a lifestyle.

Failures and successes:  Because of their longer lifetimes, adults will often have experienced more failures that children.  But at the same time they will have also experienced successes in various parts of their lives.  If an adult is very discouraged and sees little hope in pursuing learning at this point in life, it is helpful to guide that person to look back and see where they have had success and the areas in which they are talented.  Although their successes and talents may seem far removed from their educational goals, our lives are actually very integrated, and adult students can be encouraged to use the motivation, creativity, flexibility, work ethic, and other skills in their areas of success, to gain proficiency in the area in which they are seeking tutoring.

Hesitancy and fear:  The older people are, the more likely they are to be embarrassed by what they perceive as their “short-comings.”  They may be hesitant to admit their need for tutoring, in case other people find out.  A successful business person, for example, who actually has minimal reading skills, may fear that if she takes a literacy course, she will be scorned by the business community and her clients, and may even lose her position, or that her business may fail.  The tutor wants to encourage the student and help them see their learning as a positive experience and opportunity for all concerned.

Complex lives and responsibilities:  Adults often have complicated lives, with many varied responsibilities and experiences – careers (or very often, career/job losses), involvement in organizations and religious groups, family responsibilities (many mid-age adults today are part of the “sandwich generation,” caring for both children and aging parents; other adults are single parents, or are trying to hold together “blended families,” for example), health issues (their own, and those of family members), economic issues, cultural issues arising from our very multi-cultural society, and many more issues, negative and positive both. 
     Being so busy, with so many issues, adults can become distracted, and may even have difficulty attending tutoring lessons on a regular basis. Also, because of their complex lives, adults may be anxious to get the learning done quickly, and may feel impatient when the tutor requires them to spend time on things that seem “childish” to them – even when they are assured that they need certain basic skills and knowledge.

Cultural and other issues:  Many adults who come for tutoring have grown up in other nations and/or other cultures.  Our western educational system and world-view can be very strange and even disturbing for them.  Many immigrants have come from war-torn countries where they had no opportunity for formal education, and may have experienced things that most of us cannot imagine.  Others may have grown up here in our own country, and still have faced great cultural differences, as well as having had very traumatic life experiences.  Other adults may have severe learning disabilities that were either never recognized, or else did not receive the help they should have.  Whatever the situation, tutors may sometimes have to refer their students to professionals who can help them with issues in their lives which may well be obstructing their ability to learn successfully in the area of skills or knowledge they wish to pursue.

Adult learners have often been out of school for some time, even decades.  They may have had difficulties in school when they -were young, but even if they did well, may wonder if they can still successfully deal with formal tests, or if they can learn well enough to succeed.   They may have complex issues and responsibilities in their lives.  Adult learners also learn in some different ways than children.  A tutor seeks to be aware of the experiences, expectations, and concerns of the adult student, and take those into account when planning and tutoring.

Series:  We hope you will enjoy this series, “Tutoring adult learners.”  Be sure to come back for the rest of the series; the rest of the posts are listed and linked to at the start of this post.

Penticton tutor: If you live in the Penticton area, and are looking for a tutor, be sure to check out my Penticton tutor information page!

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