Brown DLD Faculty Guides

Supporting Adult Learners: Principles and Practical Suggestions

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Prior Knowledge

Adults bring prior knowledge and experiences to new learning, which can act as a basis for integrating new learning or can interfere with new learning if there are misunderstandings.

When people learn, information is assimilated into their existing mental models, or the mental representations of ideas they use to organize thinking. These mental models can facilitate the assimilation of new material by relating it to existing knowledge, or if misconceptions exist, can impede it (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Practical suggestions:

  • Assess students’ current understanding of a topic by asking questions prior to teaching content. A pre-assessment can guide your teaching by seeing what misconceptions exist and by confirming students’ accurate ideas.
  • Elicit prior knowledge by having students sketch their understanding, create a concept map of their current understanding, or by creating a list of what they already know about the topic.



Adults have a need for autonomy and decide for themselves what is important to learn based on their goals.

As people age, they have a greater need for autonomy, the sense of control and volition over their actions. In education, this translates into a desire for adults to steer their learning and make it relevant to their goals. Adults might resist or lose motivation when they feel they do not see the value of their coursework to their goals, particularly when they enrolled to advance their career goals.

Practical suggestions:

  • Provide choice and flexibility in coursework. For example, you could have students choose between a variety of assignment prompts, so they can select ones most relevant to their goals.
  • Take an inquiry-based or problem-based approach to learning. Allow students to work on projects that answer inquiries or problems they care about and that connect to the course material. Problem-based learning has positive impacts on student motivation (Fukuzawa et al., 2017).
  • Give students opportunities to assess their own learning and share with you, so they feel they have input over their assessment.



Adults' motivation to learn is enhanced when coursework is relevant and they see how it is immediately useful.

Unlike children, most adults opt into their learning experiences in pursuit of a goal, and the relevance of the material they’re learning to that goal will play a major role in their persistence. Researchers have found that a lack of relevance and satisfaction with courses is a predictor of adult students’ decisions to drop out of online programs (Park & Choi, 2009). 

Practical suggestions:

  • Elicit students’ goals and motivations either prior to the start of class or at the beginning of the course. You can collect these using a brief survey, on a discussion board, or through 1:1 meetings. Look for ways to make connections to the course material and their goals; for example, when reviewing the module or session objectives, point out how this intersects with students’ desired career fields or goals.
  • Incorporate assignments that have students apply what they’re learning to their contexts. For example, in a leadership course, you might have students conduct a needs analysis for leadership within their organization.
  • Collect student feedback at various points throughout the course and ask how relevant the course is to their goals and how it could be improved.



Adults' beliefs about their ability to succeed in the learning endeavor will influence their performance and persistence.

Students’ beliefs about their abilities play a role in learning; learners who feel they can succeed are more likely to take risks, see mistakes as learning opportunities, and integrate feedback while those who do not may become disengaged or withdraw.

Practical suggestions:

  • Provide students with feedback that acknowledges their strengths in addition to areas to improve. It can help to frame feedback as maintaining high expectations because you know students are capable of reaching them.
  • Create learning outcomes that are seen as attainable and be explicit in instructing students how to reach them (Schunk and Pajares, 2002).


Peer Learning

Adult learners’ background experiences and knowledge make them a significant resource to their fellow classmates.

Having adult learners in your course is an asset because they can draw on past experiences and knowledge to share with their peers. They may have work experience that illustrates concepts within the course that can serve as examples and case studies.

Practical suggestions:

  • When presenting content, ask questions that prompt students to share experiences related to the course content.
  • Have students work in small groups with prompts that elicit their prior experiences and knowledge on a topic and the ways theory and practice align and diverge.



Instructor feedback helps adult learners sustain motivation because they feel the time and effort they put into coursework is recognized and valued.

Feedback ties into adult learners’ need for relevance and to see the value in their efforts. Adult learners often have competing demands on their time, which makes it especially important that they feel their efforts are recognized and they are making progress. Instructors can help by providing specific, timely feedback that makes it clear how students can apply it going forward (Hattie & Timperly, 2007). In other words, feedback should be actionable. Frequent, formative assessment allows learners to integrate feedback to apply to higher-stakes assessments and sets them up to succeed. 

Practical suggestions:

  • Offer opportunities for formative feedback before higher-stakes assessments, e.g., commenting on drafts, outlines, prototypes, etc.
  • In large classes, give one-to-many feedback in which you summarize themes and address common misconceptions or errors.
  • Comment on some discussion board posts to address errors, confirm accurate understandings, and to extend and broaden students’ thinking.


Metacognitive Abilities

Adult learners have a greater capacity for higher-order thinking and self-regulation than younger students.

On average, adults have greater executive functioning than children; executive functioning includes includes abilities like planning, goal-setting, exerting self-control, and staying focused. It also enables critical-thinking abilities such as holding two beliefs in mind and bracketing one while evaluating another (Kuhn & Pease, 2006). 

Practical suggestions:

  • Take advantage of and enhance adult learners’ metacognitive abilities by asking them to reflect on their learning, make adjustments based on past performance and feedback, and incorporate more effective strategies.
  • Design assignments and activities that tap into adult learners' abilities to evaluate multiple perspectives, solutions, or ideas, and to synthesize and even create new knowledge.



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Fukuzawa, S., Boyd, C., & Cahn, J. (2017). Student motivation in response to problem-based learning. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 10, 175-188.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.

Kuhn, D., & Pease, M. (2006). Do children and adults learn differently?. Journal of cognition and development7(3), 279-293.

Park, J. H., & Choi, H. J. (2009). Factors influencing adult learners' decision to drop out or persist in online learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 12(4), 207-217.

Schunk, D. H., & Pajares, F. (2002). The development of academic self-efficacy. In Development of achievement motivation (pp. 15-31). Academic Press.

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