The motivations to learn evolve as you become older, and for an adult educator, teaching can be even more difficult without a basic understanding of adult learning theory or Andragogy.

Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in adult education, popularized the concept of five teaching strategies for adults, also known as the Knowles learning styles, which state that students learn best when:

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

This post breaks down each principle outlined above, and details why it’s an important learning method of teaching adults effectively.

Make sure adults understand why something is important to know or do.

When we step into adulthood, many of us choose to take classes to meet personal and/or career goals. Adult students are special because they step foot into a classroom with the desire to learn. They are there to learn something new or become certified in a particular field.

This principle is not about why adults are sitting in your class looking to feed off of your knowledge, but rather why each component of the course you’re teaching is an important part of the learning process.

Adults have the freedom to learn in their own way.

Many adults can remember having only one type of learning style growing up; this is mainly determined by their teachers’ preferred teaching method. However, as an adult learner, you may find out that you prefer a different learning style, or a combination of all three.

Visual Learners

Visual learners prefer to be shown a lesson through graphs, diagrams, and illustrations. They rely on what the instructor is doing and often sit in the front of the classroom to avoid visual obstructions. The best form of communication is providing worksheets, white boarding, and leveraging phrases such as, “Do you see how this works?”

Auditory Learners

An auditory learner listens carefully to all sounds associated with the lesson. “Tell me” is their motto. They will pay close attention to the sound of your voice and all of its subtle messages, and they will actively participate in discussions. You can best communicate with them by speaking clearly, asking questions, and using phrases like, “How does that sound to you?”

Tactile Learners

Tactile or kinesthetic learners need to physically do something to understand it. Their motto is “Let me do it.” They trust their feelings and emotions about what they’re learning and how you’re teaching it. Tactile learners are those students who will get up and assist instructors with role-playing in the classroom.

You can best communicate with tactile learners by involving volunteers; allow them to practice what they’re learning, and use phrases like, “How do you feel about that?”

The type of learner that makes up your classroom can easily be identified by conducting a short learning style assessment at the beginning of class. This assessment will benefit you and the students and will allow you and your students to be successful. This information will be as valuable to the adult student as it is to you.

Learning is experiential.

Experiential learning experiences can take multiple forms. Activities that get your students involved enhance your students’ learning experience. Examples of learning activities include small group discussions, experiments, role playing, skits, building something at their table or desk, or writing/drawing something specific. Learning activities also keep people energized, especially activities that involve stepping away from their desks.

Honoring the life experiences your students bring to the classroom is another component of experiential learning. It’s important to tap into that wealth of wisdom in your classroom whenever it’s appropriate.

The time needs to be right to learn.

No matter how hard a teacher tries, if an adult student isn’t ready to learn, they won’t. Luckily, adult students chose to be in your classroom, which means they have already determined that the time is right.

As an instructor, listen carefully for teaching moments and take advantage of them. When an adult learner says or does something that triggers a topic on your agenda, be flexible and teach it right then.

The education process is positive and encouraging.

For most adults, stepping back into the classroom can be intimidating, which is understandable if they haven’t taken a class in years. Students may be apprehensive about what the course will be like and how well they’ll do.

As an instructor of adult students, it’s important to exude positivity, encouragement, and patience. Establishing motivation in the classroom can facilitate effective learning for students. Give your students time to respond when you ask a question. They may need a few moments to consider their answer. Recognize the contributions they make, even when small.

Give your students words of encouragement whenever the opportunity arises. Most adults will rise to your expectations if you’re clear about them.

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