Understanding the Characteristics and Specific Needs of Adult Learners

For decades, scholars have emphasized the vital interconnection between education and democracy. Political Science professor, Richard Guarasci (2018) calls the United States’ college system an “anchor” of democratic values and initiatives, where learning is a critical component for stability and engagement. Cultural critic and professor Henry Giroux (2019) calls on higher education to produce “civic courage, expand the radical imagination, and nurture individual and social agency” (p.1). John Dewey (2011), a foundational contributor to the field of Adult Education, emphasized how education is always at the forefront of producing informed, capable, engaged citizens that constitute thriving communities.

One does not need to read much further to understand how adult learning contexts can positively impact individuals and communities. However, it is not uncommon for those of us who teach in these contexts to do so without having had formal training in adult learning theory. How is the adult learning context unique and different than others? What are the specific needs of this community and strategies that best benefit learners?


For children, school is a socializing institution where identity is being created and formed and they are still developing cognitively and physically. Being a student is a main activity in children’s lives, and their teacher/parent/caretaker guides them throughout this process. The field of pedagogy addresses the needs of this group.  In contrast, adult learners already have an established and developed identity that is closely tied to their larger social roles and community. Being a student is one aspect of who that learner is, on top of being a parent/caretaker, household provider, civic citizen, employee, chauffeur, friend, etc. Therefore, educator-facilitators must consider some of the fundamental assumptions of andragogy when addressing the AL environment.


Given the differences between child and adult learning contexts, it is vital to address andragogical considerations. Adults have an eagerness and readiness to learn; they have a reservoir of experiences that can inform and/stifle their learning experiences; and they desire to make practical connections to new knowledge and information.

Growing Enrollment: Adult learners have been given the title of “non-traditional” students in our education system. However, this notion is being challenged given the data showing 42% of CCC students are adult learners aged 25 or over (1,006,351 of 2,381,806 students) (Shasta College Attainment and Innovation Lab for Equity and Success Center for California Community Colleges, 2021). It is also projected that the number of high school graduates will begin to decline from 2024 through the early 2030s (State of California Department of Finance, 2021). And add the fact that Baby Boomers will increasingly leave the workforce over the coming years, opening the door for opportunities and the credentials needed to obtain those opportunities, then we can easily see a reality where we will have a growing number of adult learners in our classrooms. With this population projected to hold a significant share of our classroom space, we need to consider andragogy, as well as the institutional policies and practices that impact the academic success of these students.

Completion and Success: Persistence and achievement gaps are present for this population in general, with national data showing completion rates that are 18% lower for those 24 and up compared to younger students. This is an equity issue as over half of adult learners are people of color, and in California, half of the 6.8 million adult learners with a high school diploma but no college degree are people of color (California Competes, 2020). We need to improve outcomes in order to help increase educational attainment, employment opportunities, and earning potential of adult learners, especially people of color 25 and up, in our communities.


However, despite advances in the field and data that demonstrate the need to readjust practices and policies, there are still practices that stifle the unique characteristics and needs of adult learners, including older foundational learning theories, such as behaviorist, cognitivist, social cognitivist, and humanist approaches. This is not to say these approaches cannot add value to learning, but they all fall short in addressing the sociocultural contexts in which adult learners are living. Additionally, they reflect archaic assumptions about the way adults learn, which sharply contrast with current neuroscience perspectives and contemporary critical learning theories.


We must remind ourselves that learning is not stagnant, but reflective of the time period of the learner. Merriam and Baumgartner (2020) discuss how learning priorities reflect the needs of a culture at a given time, as demonstrated throughout history. For instance, in colonial America, education heavily emphasized religious imperatives and the importance of reading biblical material. In contrast, post-Revolutionary War education emphasized civic responsibility that focused instead on politics, science, and philosophy. Merriam and Baumgartner mention that more contemporary adult needs are shaped by implications of changing demographics, globalization, and technology. Other scholars also address the imperative that adult learning contexts address structures of power and privilege (Brookfield, 2014); neoliberal agendas (Giroux, 2019); and revisionist histories (Hornig & Sambile, 2019); and are sensitive to the needs of adult learners of color and other systems-impacted learners.


In consideration of the factors listed above, what approach actually works in order to address both the needs of adult learners while being sensitive to the sociocultural contexts in which we find ourselves? A review of the current literature indicates that a constructivist approach is imperative in creating adult learning spaces that address these multiple needs and concerns. A constructivist approach acknowledges multiple perspectives in various contexts and considers the fluidity of knowledge in relation to time, environment, culture, and positionality, among other factors (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). This means that rather than viewing knowledge as fixed, or the brain as a thing to be “used,” or the classroom as a clean slate where all learners have equal access and the freedom to participate, rather, a constructivist view acknowledges that knowledge is dynamic, the brain is to be “changed,” and the classroom is a complex space riddled with structures of power and privilege that can create barriers and stifle learning.

Within the framework of constructivism, the scholarship shows that learning must be inquiry-based. It must involve reflective practice, and it has to implement community building strategies. Ultimately, the goal is to create disorienting dilemmas or situations that create transformative learning opportunities that empower learners by asking them to utilize their experience, critically examine their knowledge frameworks, and build their communicative skills to engage in ways that positively impact them and their communities.

Potential Questions

  1. Considering some of the theoretical approaches mentioned above, which does your practice reflect? Has it changed over time? How?
  2. Does your practice reflect any aspect of constructivism as mentioned in the last paragraph? If so, can you provide an example?


Brookfield, S. D. (2013). Powerful techniques for teaching adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

California Competes. (2020). Credit for prior learning: Leveraging past learning to close present-day equity gaps. Retrieved from: https://californiacompetes.org/assets/general-files/CACompetes_CPL-Brief_Final_8_11.pdf.

Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and education. Digireads.com Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (2019). Authoritarianism and the challenge of higher education in the age of Trump. Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education, 18(1), 6–25.

Guarasci, R. (2018). Anchoring democracy: The civic imperative for higher education. Liberal Education, 104(1), 26-33.

Hornig, B. L., & Sambile, A. F. (2019). Addressing hxstorical amnesia: Proactively combating hxstorical amnesia as a means of healing in higher education. Vermont Connection, 40(1), 98–104.

Merriam, S. B., &. Baumgartner, L. M. (2020). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. 4rth ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Shasta College Attainment and Innovation Lab for Equity and Success Center for California Community Colleges. (2021). Improving equity and completion: An adult learner toolkit for California community colleges. California Community Colleges. Vision Resource Center. Retrieved from: https://visionresourcecenter.cccco.edu/.

State of California Department of Finance, (2021). California public K-12 graded enrollment and high school graduate projections by county — 2021 series. Retrieved from: https://dof.ca.gov/forecasting/demographics/public-k-12-graded-enrollment/.

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