7 Characteristics of Adult Learners and How to Optimize Learning Outcomes

Research says that the human brain fully develops when we’re around 25 years old, meaning that after this age, our ability to learn new information and develop new skills diminishes. So what does that mean for adult learners? Is learning after 25 a lost cause?

Research says that the human brain fully develops when we’re around 25 years old, meaning that after this age, our ability to learn new information and develop new skills diminishes.1

So what does that mean for adult learners? Is learning after 25 a lost cause?

This simply means that you may need to adapt your approach. Adults are capable of learning and forming new neural connections at any age, but they consume training content differently.

This guide explores some characteristics of adult learners that all instructional designers, trainers, and lifelong learners should know. Plus, I give examples of how to leverage these characteristics to improve training outcomes in your organization.

What is adult learning theory?

Adult theory (also known as andragogy) explores how adults learn and how the process differs from children. Originally developed in 1968 by Malcolm Knowles, this approach has gained traction in recent years and has seen many adaptations.

We can simplify Adult Learning theory down to four main principles:

  1. Adults want a proactive role in planning and navigating learning experiences
  2. Experience and context play pivotal roles in the learning process
  3. Adult learners want to learn topics that have an immediate impact on their professional or personal development
  4. Adults prefer training that focuses on solving problems rather than mastering a topic
4 principles of adult learning theory that all instructional designers should know.

Andragogy considers how past experiences, personal goals, and outside responsibilities seep into the learning process for adults.

In doing so, it allows instructional designers to create personalized strategies that satisfy the unique needs of adult learners and address their specific pain points.

As a bonus, it helps you build more relevant training programs that engage adult learners, making it a valuable approach for organizations wanting to improve the results of corporate training programs.

According to Knowles, adults differ from child learners in the following ways:

  • Self concept – Adult learners prefer more independence over how, what, and where they learn. They like to be in control of the learning process, often preferring self-paced training over instructor-led sessions.
  • Experience – Adults like to draw upon their past life experiences during the learning process, placing high value on learning experiences that encourage discussions and active participation.
  • Readiness to learn – As adults, our willingness to learn is tightly linked to the developmental tasks of social roles.
  • Orientation to learning – Adult learners are typically ready to learn when they have an immediate need. Learning becomes more problem-focused, and they want training that helps them solve real performance issues in their working lives. In other words, they want relevant, practical knowledge they can apply right away.
  • Motivation – When we’re children, external factors (like parents and teachers) play a pivotal role in why we learn. But as adults, we’re more motivated to learn by internal factors, such as boosting our confidence or finding a new job.

Now that we understand the main assumptions of Knowles’ theory, it’s time to examine seven key characteristics of adult learners and how they impact training development.

Main characteristics of adult learners

Developing effective training programs for adults requires a strong understanding of how they learn, their motivations, and their challenges. When you obtain this information, you can design learning experiences that meet expectations and deliver results.

To help you get to know your audience better, I’ve compiled a list of characteristics of adult learners and how to adapt your L&D strategy accordingly:

1. They want autonomy and less study time

As we saw earlier in this guide, adult learners want more control over the learning process.

This means they want autonomy over when, where, how, and on what device they learn. In some cases, traditional classroom training may feel overly rigid for adult learners and hinder their development.

Remember that adult learners also have more outside commitments and distractions, making it hard for them to find time to study.

How to implement:

Find ways to involve adult learners in the training process. For instance, start by asking your audience what they want to learn.

Then, create branching courses that allow them to determine their own learning journey based on their job role, experience level, or goals.

Always create opportunities to gather learner feedback so you can tailor training experiences further, giving them more opportunities for autonomy.

Finally, the best way to overcome adult learners’ time constraints is to use microlearning and flexible self-paced learning modules that they can consume in their own time.

2. They need to tie information to past experiences

We don’t learn in a vacuum, especially as adults. Therefore, adult learners prefer to draw upon their past experiences (and mistakes) during the learning process.

How to implement:

Use real-world examples, case studies, and plenty of context in your training content to encourage adult learners to leverage their past experiences while learning. That includes previous mistakes and how they can learn from them.

The key is to understand your audience and their past experiences.

The more your training can tie in what they already know, the better they will be able to assimilate new knowledge.

3. They need to know the big picture (the “why”)

As children, we often learn because we’re told we have to. But adults need more information: we need to know “why.” Adult learners want personalized learning experiences that solve their real-world problems, such as workplace performance issues.

They want to know how they can use the information right now to make their lives easier. So, one of the best ways to motivate adult learners is to highlight what’s in it for them.

When we know the purpose of the training and how it affects us, we’re much more likely to participate.

How to implement:

Be clear about the learning goals and objectives, the purpose of the training, and how it will benefit adult learners. You can do this by writing clear course descriptions and clearly communicating what benefits learners will take away from the training program.

In corporate training settings, it’s a good idea to show how the training aligns with employees’ personal goals as well as wider business goals.

4. They’re less flexible in their thinking

When we hit 25, our prefrontal cortex stops developing, and we become more rigid in our thinking. That means that adult learners tend to be less adaptable and open to new information.

As a result, we need to circle back to point three and make sure we, as instructional designers, always emphasize the “why.” Everything should be relevant to the learner, making their lives easier and helping them reach their goals.

You’ll also want to make sure to tie new knowledge into what the learner already knows so it’s easier for them to assimilate.

How to implement:

When preparing learning activities, clearly highlight their benefits and how they will improve learners’ lives. Properly introducing training activities will increase adult learners’ willingness to try new learning methods.

Always ask how the content meets an immediate need and why the learners should care about the training. The more you respect learners’ time and keep things laser-focused, the more open adult learners will be to the training.

5. They crave social learning experiences

Human beings are social creatures, particularly when it comes to learning, Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory tells us this.

Collaborating, discussing the training topics, and actively participating in the learning experience helps adult learners get better results.

Peer-to-peer or social learning is an excellent tool for adult learners because it gives them opportunities to share knowledge and apply knowledge critically.

How to implement:

Incorporate opportunities for social learning into training programs, such as group projects, discussion boards, forums, and live sessions. You can do this via a learning management system or through real-time training sessions.

6. They’re motivated by problem solving and practical learning

Adult learners are motivated by solving problems and learning by doing. In a training environment, this means they prefer to apply newly acquired skills to proactively find solutions to real-world issues.

How to implement:

Avoid relying on memorization during training. Instead, create scenario-based learning activities that encourage learners to use critical thinking and problem-solving to apply their new knowledge. These problems should reflect actual work issues they face.

Interactive assessments and simulations are both excellent ways to tap into this characteristic and get the most out of adult learners.

When possible, ditch theoretical lessons, and replace them with hands-on activities. This could mean adding on-the-job learning to your L&D strategy or roleplays.

7. They need more time to process new concepts

The science shows that adult brains need longer to process new information. So, while kids can sit in a class for six hours and take in new knowledge, adults need to learn in shorter intervals.

How to implement:

When training adults, we need to break learning down into manageable chunks and shorter training sessions (microlearning works well). You should also factor in more reviews and practice time so they can assimilate the training content.

Wrapping up

I hope these key characteristics of adult learners give you deeper insight into your audience and how you can tailor your training experiences to resonate with them.

Check out the blog for more insights into all things L&D.

Nicola Wiley

By Nicola Wylie

Nicola Wylie is a learning industry expert who loves sharing in-depth insights into the latest trends, challenges, and technologies.


  1. https://mentalhealthdaily.com/2015/02/18/at-what-age-is-the-brain-fully-developed/ ↩︎