How Adults Learn Compared To Younger Learners

Discovering how adults learn is more than just an esoteric obsession by elite academicians. Instead, the study of how adults learn is an important endeavor in many college programs today. With a growing number of adults entering the college scene, the study of andragogy—the science of learning strategies for adults—is an issue of critical importance. Contrasting how adults learn with how children learn is one of the best ways to discovering more about this fascinating field.

  • Adults are self-directed learners, whereas younger students are adult-dependent learners. The traditional learning model naturally requires that children depend upon adults for the next lesson, the next assignment, and the next subject matter. Adult learning turns this paradigm on its head, by making the study of most subjects a self-directed endeavor. For the adult learner, less structure and oversight is required by the educator.
  • Adults challenge new information, but younger students implicitly accept it. We’d have a problem on our hands if our nine-year old students questioned the legitimacy of their multiplication tables, or were skeptical about the spherical shape of the earth. For adult students, however, skepticism is part of the path to learning. It’s not just expected; it’s encouraged. The way that adults learn best is by challenging new ideas, comparing them to preconceived notions, life lessons, and other information, thereby cementing the new information into their minds.
  • Adults pursue education with immediate application and relevance, whereas younger students simply engage in education without a clear sense of direction. It’s obvious that a fifth-grader hasn’t pegged his career path, thereby applying his geography lesson to his future job as an airline pilot. By contrast, most adults are already well into their career path. Thus, their education has immediate application to their daily life. Being able to walk from the classroom into the office makes one’s education truly applicable. For this reason, adults enter degree programs and areas of education that will immediately enhance their career, meet their needs, or solve their current problems. For the adult, education is relevant.
  • Adults accept responsibility for their own learning, whereas younger students attribute educational responsibility to a parent or guardian. How adults learn is how adults live—according to their responsibility. After a childhood or teen years of dependency, the adult must now make his or her own decisions, even in education. Thus, the adult student will accept the responsibility—pass or fail—for his or her education and learning

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  1. Carly Moore says:

    What a great article. I never really sat and thought about why or how adults learn differently then children. In fact I thought learning was learning no matter what the age. But by going thru the CCU online masters program and also running an in home day care I see the difference between how I learn and how the children I am teaching learn. Thank you for clarifying this for me!

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