The Basics of Adult Learning

Arkansas State University
Arkansas State University. Deb Peterson

Do you remember what it was like to sit in a classroom? Rows of desks and chairs faced the teacher at the front of the room. Your job as a student was to be quiet, listen to the teacher, and do what you were told. This is an example of teacher-centered learning, usually involving children, called pedagogy.

Adult Learning

Adult learners have a different approach to learning. By the time you reach adulthood, you’re most likely responsible for your own success and you’re perfectly capable of making your own decisions once you have the information you need.

Adults learn best when learning is focused on adult students, not on the teacher. This is called andragogy, the process of helping adults learn.

The Differences

Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the study of adult learning, observed that adults learn best when:

  1. They understand why something is important to know or do.
  2. They have the freedom to learn in their own way.
  3. Learning is experiential.​
  4. The time is right for them to learn.
  5. The process is positive and encouraging.

Continuing Education

Continuing education is a broad term. In the most general sense, any time you return to a classroom of any kind to learn something new, you are continuing your education. As you can imagine, this encompasses everything from graduate degrees to listening to personal development CDs in your car.

Common Types of Continuing Education:

  1. Earning a GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma
  2. Post-secondary degrees such as a bachelor’s, or graduate degrees such as a master’s or doctorate
  1. Professional certification
  2. On-the-job training
  3. English as a second language
  4. Personal development

Where It All Happens

The methods involved in achieving continuing education are just as diverse. Your school can be a traditional classroom or a conference center near a beach. You might start before dawn or study after a day of work.

Programs can take months, even years, to complete, or last just a few hours. Your job can depend on completion, and sometimes, your happiness.

Continuous learning, no matter how old you are, has clear benefits, from finding and keeping the job of your dreams to remaining fully engaged in life in your later years. It’s never too late.

Should You Go Back to School?

So what is it you want to learn or achieve? Have you been meaning to go back to school to earn your GED? Your bachelor’s degree? Is your professional certificate in danger of expiring? Do you feel the urge to grow personally, learn a new hobby, or advance in your company?

Keeping in mind how adult learning differs from your childhood schooling, ask yourself some questions:

  1. Why am I thinking about school lately?
  2. What exactly do I want to achieve?
  3. Can I afford it?
  4. Can I afford not to?
  5. Is this the right time in my life?
  6. Do I have the discipline and the freedom right now to study?
  7. Can I find the right school, the one that will help me learn the way I learn best?
  8. How much encouragement will I need and can I get it?

It’s a lot to think about, but remember, if you really want something, you’re likely capable of making it happen. And there are a lot of people available to help you.