8 Working with Adult Learners

It’s no surprise that working with college students is very different than working with younger learners. College students often have specific goals in mind for their education and career, having made the choice to pursue further their education. Adults bring much more experience to their classwork, and so may approach the material in a very different way than less experienced learners. Additionally, the brains of adults just function differently than the brains of children.

It is with these differences in mind that we approach working with adult learners, whether a student has just graduated from high school or if they’re returning to school after many years.


The understanding of how adults learn is referred to as “andragogy.” This is in contrast to “pedagogy,” which is the understanding of the science and practice of children’s learning.1

Andra = adult
Peda = child

We distinguish between the two because, as stated above, adults and children learn differently, and this must inform how we approach our work as tutors.

How adult learners are unique

Most children are used to receiving direction from adults. They take direction from parents, caregivers, and teachers, and they don’t have much choice in their education. Furthermore, children aren’t expected to fully understand the purpose of the information and skills they’re being taught. Generally, we agree that it’s important for seven-year-olds to know addition and subtraction, even if they don’t understand why they need to learn it.

Adult learners, on the other hand, bring more life experience, personal interest, and personal and professional goals to their learning.2 The characteristics of adult learners exist on a spectrum, with some perhaps being more pronounced than others, depending on an individual’s unique experiences and personality, but they are important to keep them in mind, no matter the age of the adult learner. Students attending college and universities are making an active choice to further their education, and so often feel more ownership over their learning path. In this vein, there are several characteristics of adult learns that we should keep in mind, in order to be successful tutors.

Independence and Autonomy

Adult students value involvement in the planning and evaluation of their education. They take responsibility for decisions in other areas of their lives, and approach their learning in a similar way. As tutors, it follows that we must treat our relationship to an adult learner differently than our relationship to child learners. Acknowledging an adult’s greater independence and autonomy in learning keeps us from creating an experience that feels patronizing to students.3

Our approach to peer tutoring generally supports these appropriate relationships with adult learners. With Socratic questioning, and an emphasis of empowering students to create their own solutions, tutors acknowledge the autonomy adult learners bring to their school work.


Adult learners often desire to see the relevance of their coursework in the pursuit of their personal and career goals. This is something to which most tutors can relate. Sometimes we can see exactly how coursework directly applies to our professional goals. Maybe we understand that passing a required class is simply a necessary step to fulfill our program requirements. Either way, we become motivated to learn when we can see the relevance of the material in our lives.4

Struggles that students may have with motivation in their coursework can stem from an inability to see the material’s relevance in the pursuit of their goals. Frustration and resentment can result when students cannot understand how the coursework contributes to the improvement of their skills in their areas of interest. We know that the course requirements for most college programs include some classes that lend themselves more readily to practical application than others, and an awareness of this can better equip tutors to understand a student’s struggle with or reluctance to fully engage with an assignment.

All students bring with them a combination of internal and external motivation.5 Internal motivation is the drive a student brings to their studies from their inherent desires, goals, interests, and passions. When a student is already interested in mastering the material in a class, then it takes little to motivate them to do their homework. When a student has strong and clear career aspirations, these internal motivations can help them to focus on coursework because they ultimately see its value in the pursuit of their long-term goals. When tutors work with students who possess lots of internal motivation, it’s easy to assist them in engaging with the material.

External motivation is created by outside influences, rather than internal feelings and beliefs. These motivators also play an important role in student engagement, and include such things as assignment deadlines, grades, financial aid requirements, and the desires or opinions of our family and friends, among others. These external motivators help students to make progress, particularly in the short term. We can all relate to completing an assignment or finishing a paper, not because we love the material, but because we have a deadline to meet or a grade to maintain.


Loupe is a student who loves chemistry. She finds the inner-workings of chemical reactions fascinating. She has dreams of becoming a chemical engineer, working to develop new materials that can make life better for lots of people. This is Loupe’s internal motivation to succeed in your chemistry class. 

On the other hand, she finds her organic chemistry course very challenging. It’s difficult to memorize all the structures, to remember the correct terms, and the online homework assignments can be frustrating. Loupe makes arrangements with a few classmates to study and compare notes once a week. This holds her accountable. She works hard to do the online homework, even though it’s difficult, because she needs a good grade in the course to get credit toward her degree. These are Loupe’s external motivators to study and do well in the course. 

Her long term goals and love of the material (internal motivation) inspire Loupe to keep going when the course is difficult. Accountability to her peers and the importance of a good grade (external motivation) keep her on track when the material isn’t as fun or interesting.

While both types of motivation play important roles, it’s important that students have enough internal motivation to continue the pursuit of long-term goals. If a learner has primarily external motivators, it’s much more difficult to for them to continue to put effort into their coursework.6 Awareness of this interplay of internal and external motivation can put tutors in a better position to help a student navigate struggles with material. We can help students to remember their internal motivation in the face of difficult assignments, and be encouraging when students experience burnout.

Life Experience

Child learners are inexperienced in many ways. They’re inexperienced as learners, but also inexperienced in life. They’ve not experienced adult responsibilities. They don’t work jobs or travel. They haven’t had opportunities to make mistakes, build relationships, or encounter different ways of life. This relative inexperience influences how we teach children.

Adult learners bring their prior experience as students, as well a diverse array of life experiences to their coursework. An adult learner is likely to have some amount of personal and professional experience that influences their view of their studies, how they engage with material, and how they interpret its relevance. Experience influences the attitudes and beliefs they bring into the classroom.  Life experience shapes the lens by which we view the world and adult students bring these lenses to their learning.7

It’s because of this life experience that adult learning tends to be problem-centered rather than content-oriented.8 Children have few life contexts in which apply material. They don’t read current events. They don’t vote, pay taxes, shop for consumer goods, or work outside the home. Children are asked to trust that, while they may not have use for reading, writing, or social studies now, they will need to have mastered it for the future. Adults, by contrast, are already in the position to find immediate applications for what they’re learning, and can see how it fits into their personal or professional lives.

The inexperience of children also makes them a more homogenous group of learners. While there is much diversity to be appreciated in a group of children, their lack of diverse experience makes them very similar to one another. It’s likely that any group of 6 year-olds has more in common, in terms of life experience, than do any group of 30 year-olds. An appreciation for this group diversity helps tutors to be sensitive to the variety of ways a student may engage with their assignments, with classmates, and with tutors.


Take a moment to reflect on some of the unique characteristics of adult learners.

Do you recognize any of these in yourself? Have you seen these in others?

Unique Challenges

Adult students, while more experienced learners than children, still encounter unique challenges in their studies. It’s important that tutors are prepared with strategies to help students navigate these potential challenges.

Slow Progress

It’s true that aging has an effect on the pace of learning. Children’s brains are like sponges, soaking up new information and building new connections very quickly. As we age, our brains can’t form those new neural networks as quickly as they did when we were children. It typically takes more time, effort, and practice for adult learners to pick up new skills and material. Depending on a student’s expectations, this slower progress can be discouraging. It is important for tutors to understand that this is normal, and we can reassure adult learners with this in mind.

Even though adults may be slower to pick up new material than children, the depth of learning that takes place is often greater. Recall all the life experience adults have to reflect upon. Mature students form connections between their past experiences and their new ones, finding similarities, differences, and asking important questions. When adults integrate the new things they learn into their wealth of life experience, they are able to develop more sophisticated and nuanced comprehension.9

Resistance to Change

Mature students can be less accepting of new ideas that challenge their previously held beliefs, perhaps because adults bring so much experience to their learning. Students who have had time to reflect on their values and form strong opinions become comfortable working within certain parameters, and can be more resistant to changes brought by new information or new approaches. The longer we’ve had to develop our comfort zones, the more reluctant we are to have them disrupted. This rigidity can be a challenge to learning new things and adopting new habits.10

With this in mind, tutors should expect that some students may be challenged by learning new material because of this resistance they may be bringing to it. When this happens, it is useful for tutors to help students to discover the reasoning behind the new information. When a learner isn’t ready to accept a new premise, it is helpful to walk through the “whys” behind it. Logical justifications can help learners to tie new information to previously established and accepted concepts. This ties new information to experiences and practices the student already knows. Similar to how adult learners draw connections between new material and their life experiences, it can help to make connections between new material and previously learned material, to introduce new concepts and promote a desire to explore this new information.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is another factor that may hinder a mature student’s willingness to learn new things. Children, being inexperienced, are expected to make mistakes. Mistakes are often the most powerful way to learn new things. As an adult, higher expectations are placed upon us by ourselves and others—and the stakes can be much higher as well. Mistakes in the adult world can be costly, impacting our performance at work, impacting our families at home, impacting our finances, or our relationships. When we have made a costly mistake, we quickly learn to avoid mistakes as much as possible.

Even in the classroom, it’s common for students to experience negative consequences for mistakes. Points are taken form incorrect answers. Grades are reduced. Consequently, adult learners can be particularly risk-averse, which can also mean that they are hesitant to try new ideas, test out hypotheses, or make the mistakes necessary to learn effectively.

When working with these students as a tutor, we must be aware that a student who fears failure is also likely to be embarrassed by it. What tutors can do is to use their sessions to create a safe environment for mistakes to happen. Practicing patience, understanding, and refraining from judgement toward students can build the trust necessary for students to feel comfortable enough to make mistakes. Furthermore, anything tutors can do to normalize mistakes relieves some of the fear a student may have. Emphasizing that mistakes are important learning opportunities and being honest about our own mistakes can help to create an environment where students can being to feel free enough to try new things without fear of failure.

Quickwrite Exercise

How do you think the diversity of experience adult learners bring to their learning requires tutors to make adjustments? Take a moment to reflect and brainstorm what kinds of adjustments you can make to better assist adult learners. What kinds of strategies can you use to help students overcome the unique challenges adult learners face?


  1. Graham. (2017). A Simple, Easy to Understand Guide to Andragogy. Lifelong Learning Matters. Cornerstone University.  https://www.cornerstone.edu/blogs/lifelong-learning-matters/post/a-simple-easy-to-understand-guide-to-andragogy. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
  2. Bruning, Schraw, Norby, and Ronning. (2004). Belief  About Self: Autonomy and Control. Cognitive psychology and instructions ( 4th ed.). (193-211). Pearson Prentice Hall. https://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/product/Bruning-Cognitive-Psychology-and-Instruction-4th-Edition/9780130947949.html.
  3. Pappas. (2013). The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. Instructional Design. eLearning Industry.  https://elearningindustry.com/the-adult-learning-theory-andragogy-of-malcolm-knowles. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
  4. Patterson, Crooks, and Lunyk-Child. (2002). A New Perspective On Competencies for Self-Directed Learning. Journal of Nursing Education. 41 (1), 25-31. https://www.researchgate.net/journal/0148-4834_Journal_of_Nursing_Education.
  5. Rothes, Lemos, and Goncalves. (2016). Motivational Profiles of Adult Learners. Adult Education Quarterly. 67(1), 3-29. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713616669588.
  6. Kara et. al. (2019). Challenges Faced by Adult Learners in Online Distance Education: A Literature Review. Open Praxis. 11(1), 5-22. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/208075/. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
  7. Savicevic. (1991). Modern conceptions of andragogy: A European framework. Studies In the Education of Adults. 23 (2), 179-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/02660830.1991.11730556.
  8. Smith. (2002).  Malcolm  Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and anadragogy. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Infed. www.infed.org/thinkers/et-knowl.htm. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
  9. Tagawa. (2008). Physician Self-Directed Learning and Education. Kaohsiung Journal of Medical Science. 24(7), 380-385. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1607-551X(08)70136-0.
  10. Cooper and Richards. (2016). Lectures for Adult Learners: Breaking Old Habits in Graduate Medical Education. Alliance for Academic Internal Medicine. 130(3), 376-381. https://www.amjmed.com/article/s0002-9343(16)31217-7/fulltext. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.

Additional Resources:

Ahmed, W., Bruinsma, M. (2006). A structural model of self-concept, autonomous motivation and academic performance in cross-cultural perspective. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology. 4(3), 551576. http://repositorio.ual.es/bitstream/handle/10835/658/Art_10_144.pdf?sequence=1.

Alivernini and Lucidi. (2011). Relationship between social context, self-efficacy, motivation, academic achievement, and intention to drop out of high school: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Research. 104(4), 241252. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220671003728062.

Archer, Cantwell, and Bourke. (1999). Coping at university: An examination of achievement, motivation, self-regulation, confidence, and method of entry. Higher Education Research & Development. 18 (1), 3154. https://doi.org/10.1080/0729436990180104.

Boiché, J., Stephan, Y. (2014). Motivational profiles and achievement: A prospective study testing potential mediators. Motivation and Emotion. 38, 7992. (2). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-013-9361-6.

Bye, D., Pushkar, D., Conway, M. (2007). Motivation, interest, and positive affect in traditional and nontraditional undergraduate students. Adult Education Quarterly, 57, 141158. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713606294235.

Justice, K., Dornan, T. (2001). Metacognitive differences between traditional-age and nontraditional-age college students. Adult Education Quarterly. 51(3), 236249. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741713606294235.

McGivney, V. (2004). Understanding persistence in adult learning. Open Learning. 19(1), 3346. https://doi.org/10.1080/0268051042000177836.

Ratelle, C. F., Guay, F., Vallerand, R. J., Larose, S., Senecal, C. (2007). Autonomous, controlled, and amotivated types of academic motivation: A person-oriented analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology. 99(4), 734746. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.99.4.734.

Sheldon, K. M., Houser-Marko, L., Kasser, T. (2006). Does autonomy increase with age? Comparing the goal motivations of college students and their parents. Journal of Research in Personality. 40(2), 168178. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656605000061?casa_token=KrkSlbTxzSQAAAAA:A7IP0FjlW1Yq0fcFz-EtYDSxLk3Wj4UWV9VWXJEFjfaSADr98MD33sJ-eJGyRpg84pY5CNidyHk. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.


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