Principles of adult learning
When planning a course or lesson for adult learners, it’s useful to incorporate some of the principles of adult learning – that is, what we now know about how adults learn best. You may find it helpful to bear in mind some of the guidelines set out below. While all individuals are different, and these are inevitably generalisations, these giudelines should help teachers who are unaccustomed to teaching adults and may inspire experienced teachers to consider their students in new ways.
- Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Effective teachers get participants’ perspectives on what topics to cover and let them work on projects that reflect their interests.
- Adults are goal-oriented. They are motivated to learn when they have a use for the knowledge or the skill being sought and taught. Adults view learning as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Participants benefit and are more highly motivated when the teacher shows them how the class will help them reach their goals.
- Adults bring a great variety of experience and knowledge to the classroom. Teachers need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base.
- Adults need to be able to integrate new ideas with what they already know. This is particularly true if they are going to remember, and use, the new information. What little we know about the human brain is that learning – and memory – works best by association. Information that conflicts sharply with what is already held to be true is integrated more slowly. Likewise, we are more likely to remember things if we make active use of recency, vividness and frequency – among other aspects, and with nuances.
- Adults must see the reason for learning something. In other words, the content has to be applicable to their studies, work or other responsibilities. They will focus upon those aspects of a lesson that [they perceive] are most useful to them. Teachers can motivate adult learners by telling them explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them.
- Adults tend to prefer self-directed and self-designed learning projects over group-learning experiences led by a professional.
- Adults report a need for application and how-to information as the primary motivation for beginning a learning project.
- Adults want their learning to be problem-oriented, personalized, and accepting of their need for self-direction and personal responsibility.
- Hiemstra, R. (1994). "Self-directed learning". In T. Husen & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), The International Encyclopedia of Education (second edition), Oxford: Pergamon Press. 
- James, W. The principles of psychology. Harvard University Press at Google Books
- Boise State University: Center for Teaching and Learning: "Teaching Adult Learners"