Teaching Adult Learners the Way They Learn

The Adult Student's Guide to Survival and Success, grad capThe Instructor’s Role In Retaining Adult Learners and Increasing Their Chances of Success in College

by Al Siebert, PhD


Teaching adult learners requires more advanced teaching skills than teaching traditional students. This interactive session will focus on ways for classroom instructors to help adult learners overcome their fears, handle the transition into college, develop support groups, and be less likely to drop out. Participants in this interactive session will ask questions, share experiences, and tell each other about their successful efforts with adult students.

Session Content

Adult learners begin college classes with more fears and concerns than traditional younger students. A skillful instructor devotes much of the first class meeting to reducing the fears and concerns, then develops strong intrinsic interest in the course by connecting each student’s plans for the future and past experiences with the course material. To facilitate learning in adult students, an instructor needs many diverse skills, including creating a non-competitive atmosphere that encourages cooperative learning.

The following classroom activities improve the retention of adult students and enhance their motivation to learn:

First. While waiting for stragglers to show up for the first class, have the students introduce themselves to others sitting nearby. Have them interview each other about their reasons for taking the course, and talk with each other about any fears or concerns they have.

Common fears and concerns expressed by adult learners:

  • I haven’t studied in years. I’m out of practice. My brain feels rusty.
  • I’m not sure I can read, write, or do math well enough to take college courses.
  • I was always nervous taking tests. I’m afraid I’ll be too upset to do well.
  • My past history in school is not good. I won’t be able to compete. Only a few smart students receive high grades.
  • Do I have to use a computer? Why did they give me a student e-mail address?
  • All this internet talk is too confusing.
  • I won’t fit in. I’ll be an outsider in a world much different from my own.
  • I don’t know anyone here.
  • Instructors won’t like having older students in their classes.
  • I’m afraid it will take too long to get a college degree if I’m a part-time student.
  • My friends and family will suffer. I’ll have to spend so much time doing schoolwork that my family will feel rejected. What if my partner and/or friends feel threatened by my attempt to improve myself?
  • As a student, I’m afraid I’ll never have time for my family, friends, or outside interests.

Comment: Adult learners begin courses with more fears and concerns than younger students. This initial getting acquainted activity helps adult learners relax and makes them feel more free to speak up in class than hearing reassurances from the instructor.

Second. Quiet the group and have each person introduce himself or herself to the rest of the class. Have them state their reasons for taking the course and express any fears or concerns. Have brief interactions with students, but avoid long dialogues. Aim to get around the group quickly.

Comment: Adult students often begin courses feeling anxious, isolated, and out of place. Nervousness and fear are greatly diminished by expressing them openly. This activity also lets students make mental notes about someone they identify with and may want to talk with after class.

Third. Now talk about yourself, your background, how you became interested in subject, and your way of teaching the course.

Fourth. Pass out the course syllabus with all dates for papers due, examinations, and other required work. Ask for questions about the course.

Comment: Do not start the class by passing out the course syllabus and explaining it. By focusing attention on the students first, and having them express their concerns, interests, and goals, the students develop a more positive emotional connection with the course and the instructor.

Fifth. Facilitate the formation of support groups. Adult learners increase their survival chances and do better in college when they form support groups with other students. The following guidelines for starting a “College Success Support Group” have received excellent ratings on course evaluations:

  • Get together with a few other beginning students. Urge any new students who seem “lost” to come along.
  • Meet in a place where you can sit comfortably and talk with each other, perhaps in the college cafeteria.
  • Introduce yourselves. Keep repeating and checking that you have each others’ names right as you talk and listen.
  • Take turns talking about your feeling, impressions, and experiences starting college.
  • Find out why you each decided to go to college. Ask about difficulties that have to be handled. Talk about your dreams and plans for the future.
  • Ask about the courses you are each taking. Find out what program each person has selected or is considering.
  • Make certain each person feels heard. By the time you finish, make certain each of you feels “A few of my classmates know about me and understand what I am feeling and experiencing right now.”
  • Discuss the benefits from having a small support group. Talk about why it will be useful to get together to study for tests, read each other’s papers, problem solve difficulties, encourage each other, and applaud your successes.
  • Plan to meet again soon to discuss what you are learning in this book about how to succeed in college. Read the chapters, for example, on ways to increase self-confidence and how to gain support from family and friends.
  • Exchange telephone numbers. During the first weeks it will be useful to telephone each other daily and meet frequently.
  • Congratulate each other for having the courage to take this exciting, important step in life.

Comment: Research into stress-management and resiliency has established that people in friendly support groups cope with pressure better, stay more healthy, and are more successful than isolated individuals.


Instructors who get the best evaluations from adult learners relate to the students with empathy, use a flexible teaching style, and teach in an “adult to adult” ego state (ala Eric Berne). Research has shown that adult learners do better in courses where instructors:

  • Create a relaxed and safe atmosphere.
  • Accommodate different learning styles.
  • Present information using both visual and auditory methods.
  • Talk with students, not at them.
  • Recognize student uniqueness.
  • Validate cultural differences.
  • Let students influence course coverage.
  • Match teaching method to content.
  • Build on students’ experience.
  • Encourage self-motivated learning.
  • Include team learning projects.
  • Avoid setting up competition.
  • Support theory with real-life examples.
  • Make class sessions interactive.
  • Provide frequent positive feedback.

Presented at the National Conference on the Adult Learner 2000, Atlanta, Georgia
Professional Development Center, School of Business, Portland State University