The Difference about Adult Learners

Author: David Martz

Merriam and Caffarella (1991, p. 7) refer to a study by Spear and Mocker, (1989), that Americans over the age of 65, as of 1987, outnumbered those under 25 and project that by the year 2000, the largest age group will be between 30 to 44. According to a consensus of demographers and adult education specialists, adult learners now constitute a majority in many programs of higher education.

Interestingly, many of the new adult majority, have earned degrees and professional experience that may surpass the educational level of their instructors. The Condition of Education 1996, Indicator 14 report of the U.S. government reports that six in ten adults with Bachelor degrees or higher participated in adult education in 1996. The report also mentions that 40% of adults participated in adult education activities, which was up from 32% in 1991. While cross-cultural statistics could vary, the general population is growing older, healthier, and more education conscious. The arrival of the new majority is prompting colleges to take adults and their unique learning needs more seriously.

Traditionally, Bible colleges appear to have patterned curriculum design, delivery, and methodology on pedagogical principles that are used in most secular colleges and universities. According to Knowles, (1990, p. 54), pedagogy is a philosophy that is based on the education of children and adolescents that explains why many adult learners are intimidated and sometimes disappointed with courses that focus on the development of elementary intellectual skills. Pedagogy is not in competition with adult-oriented education, but can provide an important step towards self-direction in adult learning. Effective facilitation of adult needs begins by becoming aware of the research, theories, and strategies of modern adult education.

Introducing the Adult Learner

Who are adults and what is adulthood? The rites of becoming an adult vary considerably in cross-cultural societies, but a few characteristics are usually true in any culture as suggested by the four points mentioned by Knowles (1990) and the fifth by the writer:

  1. Biologically when one reaches the age of reproduction
  2. Legally when one can vote, marry, and hold a driver’s license, or join the military (this is also a cross-cultural and political interpretation)
  3. Socially when one performs responsible adult roles
  4. Psychologically when one arrives at a responsible self-concept and becomes self-directing
  5. Spiritually when one become obedient, useable, and consecrated to God. In some cases spiritual maturity or adulthood is interpreted by churches or religious leaders

Adulthood could be described as a state of being in regards to any or all of the above descriptions; however, many educators consider the arbitrary ages of 21 to 25 when referring to a baseline for adulthood. Johnstone and Rivera (Merriam and Caffarella, 1991, p. 63) defined adults as over 21, married or the head of a household; however, other educators such as Aslanian and Brickell chose 25 years of age, Jonstone and Rivera chose 21, and Penland chose 18 as the baseline for the term adult. Adulthood in cross-cultural contexts may also include socio- cultural, church, and political interpretations or the completion of specific tasks or tests.

Pedagogy and Andragogy

According to Knowles (1990, p. 27, 28), many of the great secular teachers of antiquity were teachers of adults such as Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Cicero and most of the teachers in the Bible including Jesus, Solomon, David, Paul and John primarily focused their instruction on adult learners. These master teachers viewed the teaching process as active inquiry versus a passive transmission of content. The instructional methodology of Biblical and secular teachers often included instructional techniques that actively involved learners in questions. Methods such as the case method were popularized by the Hebrews and Chinese, and the dialogue by Socrates. It was between the seventh and twelfth centuries of the monastic period that pedagogical principles of indoctrinating young men for the clergy were developed and popularized. According to Knowles, the pedagogic model, which is based on assumptions about learning and teaching, has dominated education up to the present era and forms the basis of modern educational theory.

According to Knowles (1990), new assumptions about adult leaders began to emerge after the first world war in Europe and America that has led to modern theories of adult education such as andragogy, self-directed learning, and life-long learning. Andragogy was first introduced in Europe by Dusan Savicevic, a Yugoslavian adult educator, in 1964 and later in America by Knowles. Andragogy has drawn heavily from Lindeman (1926), who made the following assumptions regarding adult learners: (a) adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that can be satisfied by learning, (b) adults are life-centered, (c) experience is the greatest resource of adults, (d) adults have a need to be self-directing, and (e) individual adult differences increase with age. The andragogical model, popularized by Knowles, is based on five assumptions: (a) adults move towards self-direction, (b) adults enter education with a greater quantity and different quality of experiences than young people, (c) adults are ready to learn the things that are relevant to their need, (d) adults are life-centered or problem-centered and often desire an immediate application of knowledge, and (e) adults are motivated to learn by internal factors (Merriam, and Caffarella, 1991, p. 2).

In perspective, both pedagogy, and andragogy or self-directed learning, are useful educational tools for the learning facilitator; however, each has a unique role and timing in the educational process. Pedagogical principles are useful for helping adult learners learn new content or competencies when they lack prior experience; however, sooner or later all learners should become indigenous, self-directing, and responsible for their own learning. In this perspective, both models are relevant within the context of a growing learner. Another principle important to adult education is the tenant of life-long learning. An anonymous writer once stated that traditional educational programs prepare learners for the next job, but adult education prepares one for life and change.

“Christian educators share a responsibility to help learners learn how to learn for themselves.”

If the challenge of Christian educators is to help learners grow in the fullness of Christ as responsible Christian disciples who are fully equipped for every good work, the ability to think, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and make decisions based on sound exegetical and theological principles should be considered as essential tools. In the view of the writer, Christian educators share a responsibility to help learners learn how to learn for themselves, how to ask questions, how to evaluate themselves and how to differentiate between sound and false doctrine, and to know why they believe what they believe and practice.

Characteristics of the Adult Learner

Besides chronological age, physiological changes, and socio-cultural differences, what makes adult learners different? The following characteristics of adult learners are based on research and observations by adult education specialists:

  1. Adults are highly motivated learners and they learn because “they” want to learn.
  2. Adults are generally self-directed because they are independent economically, and responsible for their own lives.
  3. Adults seek out learning experiences in order to cope with specific life-change cycles, transitions, or events.
  4. Adults learn because they have a use for new competencies or knowledge that has an immediate benefit.
  5. Adults learn best when they perceive the value of the learning process and how it contributes to their own life or success.
  6. Adults tend to take mistakes more personally which can affect their self-esteem.
  7. Adults are highly diverse in their experiences, education, and backgrounds.
  8. Adults are more time-management conscious.
  9. Adults generally learn at a slower rate, but have an equal capacity for learning.
  10. Adult learning is often linked to personal need.
  11. Adults usually have stronger convictions about issues, trends, and change.
  12. Adults have focused expectations that may be based on past experiences.
  13. Adults often underestimate their abilities and overestimate school expectations.
  14. Adults experience a gradual decline in physical/sensory capabilities.
  15. Adults are life-centered and problem-solving oriented.

Problems Unique to Adult Learners

According to Merriam and Caffarella (1991, pp. 96-119), adults face physical, socio- cultural, and psychological challenges in a higher education environment and pass through cycles, transitions, and events unique to the aging process. Meriam and Caffarella (1991, p. 253) cite McCluskey (p. 253) who implies that managing change is one of the greatest challenges facing adult learners. Other adult challenges may include role changes, time management, adjusting to physical limitations, family responsibilities, anxiety regarding new learning experiences, or socio-cultural changes.

Hughes and Graham (1990, p. 2) suggests that physical age is no longer a major predictor of adult needs. This is due in part to the longer life spans, medical technology, and the quality of life enjoyed by many adults; however, the aging process that often occurs in stages, produces unique needs and implications for the learning facilitator. A few of these include medical treatments that affect concentration, physical disorders that affect sensory abilities such as seeing or hearing, medications that may increase anxiety, cause mood shifts, or cause physical discomfort. Since adults are often self-conscious about their needs and problems, learning facilitators could greatly reduce adult anxiety by assessing their unique needs.

According to Knowles (1991, pp. 110,111), adults face socio-cultural transitions in adulthood that may be related to familial, church, community, peer, or work relationships. Some studies have suggested that middle-class adults are more concerned with meaning in life and dissatisfaction with their careers while upper classes tend to exhibit a greater control over their lives (Kalleberg and Loscocoo, 1983, and Bee (1987). Cross-cultural contexts may have tribal or cultural customs that may have an influence on adult learners. An example might be a tribal chief who desires to complete a degree, but feels uncomfortable in classes because of the homage of peers.

The psychological problems of the adult learner appear to be overstated. Thorndike’s research (1928) indicated that learning ability does not peak early in life and Baltes, Dittman- kohili, and Dixon (1984) deduced that stability, growth and, decline are coexisting feature of intellectual development. While adults may have slower learning acceleration rates than young adults, adult problem solving skills often increase with age. Since adults may have convictions, values, beliefs, and behavioral patterns that are more highly integrated in their lives, they may appear to be intellectually slower because of more complex intellectual processes such as analyzing, synthesizing, comparing, evaluating, and thinking through new information.

Adults may face unique barriers to higher education that may be as simple as the comfort of a chair because of arthritis, inadequate lighting because of visual problems, room temperature, or complex barriers such as dyslexia that was never diagnosed or anxieties brought about by medication, treatment, or stress. Adults may also resist higher education because of uncomfortable past experiences, intimidating teaching techniques and assessments, or because of difficulties with teaching styles that are at odds with their unique learning styles.

Facilitating the Education of Adults

The best way to begin facilitating adult learners is with an assessment of the unique needs, experiences, and preferences of adult learners (Merriam, 1993, p. 18). According to Brookfield (1986, pp. 221,222), needs may include felt needs that represent the learner’s wants, desires, or wishes, or prescribed needs that are determined by an external source. Meriam (1993, p. 25) suggests that self-direction is “the essence of what adult learning is all about.” Adults should be encouraged to assist in the objectives, design, assessment, and evaluation of their own learning experiences.

The term facilitator refers to the relationship that exists between learner and facilitator versus the learning process (Merriam, 1993, p. 19). This relationship should be characterized by trust, support, openness, collaboration, respect, and sincerely. According to Brookfield, (1986, p. 63), learning facilitators view themselves as resources versus didactic instructors with all of the answers. Tough (1979) suggests four characteristics of ideal” facilitators: (a) they are warm, loving, and accepting of learners, (b) they have a high regard to learner’s self-direction, (c) they view themselves as participants and equal as learners, and (d) they are open to learn, change, and enter into new learning experiences. While the learner’s self-dependence is a goal of adult education, some adult learners may need help with the growing process and require a plan that helps them become self-directed in increments. A learning contract may be the ideal plan for helping adult learners become more self-directed. Knowles (1990) suggests five steps for using a learning contract that include: (a) diagnosing needs, (b) formulating objectives, (c) identifying resources, (d) choosing a strategy, and (e) evaluating accomplishment. This chapter on adult learning needs was a part of a learning contract designed by the writer for a course at Nova Southeastern University.

Adult education strategies are diverse and can be classified into many categories. Cranton (1994) suggests the best way to determine the difference in teaching adults, is to examine the types of adult learning. They classify adult learning into three categories as follows:

  1. Subject-oriented adult learning: the primary aim is to acquire content.
  2. Consumer-oriented adult learning: the primary aim is to meet the needs of adult learners. Learners set their own goals and manage their own learning process. The instructor acts as a facilitator to assist the learner as a resource person.
  3. Emancipatory adult learning: the primary aim is to deliver or free learners from forces that limit, impede, or control their lives. This involves critical reflection and a facilitator role that challenges leaders to consider why they hold certain assumptions, values, and beliefs.

Bible colleges might utilize any or all of the above approaches depending on the cultural climate and needs of the national church. Once an adult learning approach has been selected, the learning facilitator can then begin to plan an adult learning design. Knowles (1984, pp. 15-18 suggests seven elements for an adult education process design as follows: (a) set the climate, (b) involve learners in mutual planning, (c) involve participants in diagnosing their own learning needs, (d) involve learners in formulating learning objectives, (e) help learners carry out their learning plans, and (f) involve learners in evaluating their own learning.

New Wine in Old Wine Skins

Many may remember teaching of Jesus about new wine in old wine skins; however, this does not apply to adult learners who are redeemed, filled with the Holy Spirit, and possess a call of God on their lives. This rubric is meant to encourage Bible college administrators and faculty members to consider new ways of thinking in regards to adult education, pedagogy and self-directed learning. In some cases, new ideas need new superstructures and philosophical foundations that can support greater complexity and diversity, i.e., pedagogy and andragogy. As Bible colleges consider preparing leaders, ministers, evangelists, and teachers for the next century, new educational technologies, theories, methods, and resources will become increasingly relevant. Adult majorities are the future, but the present reality in many institutions of higher learning. Bible colleges have an opportunity to become benchmarks in adult education because of the Biblical principles and Divine mandate that motivates the lives of our learners and because of the dedication of administrators, faculty and staff. The writer proposes a pro-active approach to adult learning needs that begins with adult needs assessments and results in strategies that can produce growing, self-directed learners who can become effective servants of God in an increasingly changing global community.

David Martz, Ed.D. is a foreign missionary with the Assemblies of God and an associate dean at the Global University of the Assemblies of God School of Graduate Studies. Doctoral degree was in the field of adult education and his dissertation focused on a leadership development model for cross-cultural Bible colleges. David is also the chair for the leadership concentration and is a professor of education at Global University.


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