How to Design Education for Adults


Posted In: Academics, Workforce Research

Feb • 21 • 2017

How to Design Education for Adults

Many companies implement a tuition reimbursement program with the aim of helping their employees prepare for industry changes and to advance in their careers. But employers are right to wonder if the degrees programs that their employees enroll in will be effective.

A key characteristic that employers should look for is whether the program is designed for adult learners in particular, because the difference can be critical.

A learning theory for adult learners

A traditional college course designed for 18-year-old students isn’t an adult learning program just because it’s scheduled in the evening. Ideally, the program will think deliberately about the differences between how adults and young people learn.


You’re probably familiar with the term pedagogy, which refers to the theory of practice of teaching. Because education has traditionally focused on children, so have theories and practices.


But working adults approach learning differently than children or traditional college students. They are motivated differently and have different requirements to learn effectively.


For example, working adults absorb information better by doing, not by merely being lectured to. They demand instruction that is relevant to their careers. And their motivation stems from more opportunities for career advancement.

Adults hold different expectations about how they should be taught and what they want to achieve from the instruction. Yet many university classes remain rooted in teaching practices suited for young adults. When working adults attend those same courses, the instructional design may be misaligned with their perceptions and ambitions as well as life circumstances, leading to disengagement and frustration.

Writing in, Needham Yancey Gulley, an assistant professor in the higher education student affairs program at Western Carolina University, articulates this misalignment:


They are adults, they are part-time students, they have had jobs, some have had children, some have been caring for elderly parents. Basically, by not being aged 18 to 24 and a full-time student, these ‘nontraditional’ students have entered college thinking they do not belong.”

What adult learners want from instruction

Fortunately, pioneering research by Dr. Malcolm Knowles offers insight into the minds of adult learners and how instruction can be tailored to their needs. His theories can be synthesized in several important elements.

Adults are motivated by intrinsic goals. Before adult learners embark on a learning program, they must believe the instruction helps them achieve an intrinsic-driven objective. In other words, they are self-motivated, the desire comes from within; they’re not doing the program simply to please a manager or the instructor. Goals range from upgrading their skills to making them better at their job to finally completing the college degree they always wanted to attain.

Adults want relevant instruction. Effective adult learning programs must answer the question: “What’s in it for me?” Well into their careers, adults’ self-motivation is underscored by the relevance to a given goal. These courses, therefore, must be rooted in practical, meaningful training that enables adults to advance in their careers or upgrade their skills. Courses that give adults the opportunity to stretch their critical thinking skills — such as those that emphasize simulations, problem-solving drills, and hands-on exercises — are particularly appealing.

Adults want to be treated like adults. Adults enter learning programs with a lifetime of experience and knowledge. If they perceive that they’re being treated the same as college students, they are likely to feel insulted and demotivated. Rather than instructor-directed learning, adult learners typically prefer a more experiential, self-paced learning program. They also benefit from more individualized instruction that takes into account their preferred learning method, whether that’s visual demonstrations, tactile exercises, lectures, or group instruction through social interaction.

Adults are active participants in their learning — but on their terms. Unlike children, whose only job is to learn, adults deal with job and family pressures. Even when they see the relevance of the instruction, adults value a curriculum that enables them to learn outside of a classroom on their own time and at their own speed. They take ownership of their learning, actively evaluating the program and choosing those courses most meaningful to their needs.

Tailoring adult learning programs to adult needs

What factors should be woven into effective adult learning programs?


Simply retrofitting college classes for adult learners may fail to meet adults’ unique goals. For most adults, free time is scarce and schedules are unbending, filled with work and personal commitments. Having adults sit in a classroom listening to lectures, reading written handouts, and taking multiple-choice tests based on a college curriculum just won’t work for them. The flexibility of accessing these elements online is invaluable.

Working adults also require degree courses specifically designed for their career circumstances, expectations, and instructional needs. Adult learning programs allow students to demonstrate knowledge by mastering competencies, with courses structured around a project-based curriculum that’s evaluated on learner outcomes.


Consider, for example, College for America’s health management degree program: adult students may learn to prepare financial or technical reports as well as how to communicate health and safety information. Learners earn college credits by mastering those competencies, rather than simply logging hours at a desk.

Although adult learners progress at their own self-directed pace, they also value having advisors and other resources at the ready to provide feedback and give encouragement. Adult learning programs should recognize the role of the instructor in guiding learners along, providing any supplemental instruction the students may need to complete to the course.

Foremost, adult learners benefit most from relevant, useful, and individualized instruction to achieve their personal goals — with assignments and assessments that are logical and meaningful.


Want to learn more about degree programs that fit into the busy lives of working adults and that are immediately applicable? Check out some of the real voices of our partners and students.