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/.

Co-Creating In the Classroom

By Wendy Silva, Dr. Audrey Holod, and Dr. Bryan Keene

Many of us probably did not know we wanted to be college professors when we began our varying college journeys, and we would venture to say that some of us didn’t even know we wanted to teach, in any capacity. Unlike K-12 teachers that often need credentials, student-teaching experience, and a plethora of other requirements in order to teach, our jobs require something else: specific degrees and expertise in the coinciding fields or disciplines. Few of us actually studied how to teach adult learners, or andragogy, in-depth before becoming college professors. So, we use our own experiences as frameworks for how to teach, just as our own students use their own educational experiences to learn whatever it is we ask them to learn in our classrooms. The challenge is that many have adopted methods of teaching in the ways we were taught, ways that have been proven ineffective by many educational scholars (i.e. Freire, hooks, Bovill, Bondi, etc.). For example, a banking model of teach-memorize-repeat does not (necessarily) require the critical thinking skills that a problem-based model does.

It can be difficult and humbling to look inward and be willing to recognize that some of the practices we’ve been utilizing for years might not be the most effective or might, even, be harmful to certain groups of students. But that is part of the beauty and challenge of our jobs; we get the opportunity to continue learning, to make changes, to assess, and to experiment semester to semester, week to week, day to day. Our colleagues in the two previous community of practice events have presented us with a lot to reflect on in terms of how inequities show up in our teaching, in our policies, in what we decide to grade, and how we decide to grade. Many of us have been working diligently to consider and implement what we have learned in order to best serve our students. However, this process is not one we need to do alone; our students can be active participants in helping us create the changes needed to improve the outcomes of the courses, overall student learning, and the quality of our teaching, especially as adult learners.

Adult learning is at the center of what we do. Before discussing the benefits of co-creation in adult learning contexts, we feel it is important to briefly revisit what we already know about adult learners, and why practicing through the lens of an andragogical framework (rather than a pedagogical one) is vital to adult learning success. Adult Education experts Merriam & Bierema (2014) clarify specific ways that adult learners differ from children.

A pedagogical framework assumes that child learners are still developing physically and cognitively, relying on others for their general care, well-being, and guidance in transitioning to adulthood. Being a student is the main activity in their lives. In contrast, adult learners are often in a completely different position in their life cycle. Years of prior life experiences constitute and construct adult learners’ reality, which guides how they navigate their learning context, let alone the world around them. Adult learners already have several roles and responsibilities within their social context, such as worker, caretaker, and parent. The “student” role may be one aspect of their identity.

Therefore, adult learning needs are significantly different from children, as motivation in the classroom is often connected to improving adults’ life situation, whether in relation to work, personal, or social life. This leads to the fundamental assumptions of andragogy, that adults have a desire and readiness to learn, are problem-centered, and desire direct application of knowledge to their lives (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). These needs are all adequately addressed through co-creation strategies and activities.
Co-creation is defined as “occupying the space between student engagement and partnership, to suggest a meaningful collaboration between students and staff, with students becoming more active participants in the learning process, constructing understanding and resources with academic staff” (Bovill 2019). The act of co-creating in the classroom can come to fruition in many different ways and at different stages of the learning processes. For example, students can co-create assignments or assessments, can co-evaluate courses or activities, or even co-create curricula.

But co-creation can only happen when we, as instructors, fully trust our students and see them as equals in the classroom, fully capable of engaging in this teaching and learning process with us. It means we have to loosen our reins on what we think is best and be open and willing to try new approaches to teaching and to really listen to what students are saying, not as a performative gesture, but as a genuine attempt at giving them the opportunity to contribute to their learning in meaningful ways.

One concrete way Stephanie Bondi argues students can co-create is by engaging in “cogenerative dialogue” (cogen). Cogen takes place through “dialoguing with participants about what is happening in the class” and then coming “to consensus about changes to be made for subsequent classes” (Bondi, 2013). She emphasizes how cogen allows students to share their personal needs and through this, students can consider “how to incorporate the needs of the individual as part of the needs of the collective” (Bondi, 2013). Cogen is built upon the idea that “learning is a social process” and “hing[es] on social interactions” (Bondi, 2013). Instead of individualism or competition being the core value in the learning process, true collaboration and co-creation can take place.

Cogen often begins with this question: “What did you notice in class?” This question is intentionally open-ended. It allows for students to comment on what they felt was effective that day, what they felt was not effective, what parts of the lessons were unclear or confusing, who dominated conversations, how our body language or instructions affected them, etc. They can basically share their response to any part of the class. From there, the discussion transitions into how their responses can shape how the future classes unfold. For example, during my last cogen meeting with one group of students (my Puente class is split into Familias, and each week, I do cogen with one familia), they shared that even though they found peer review helpful, they noticed that many of their peers were still focusing too much on grammar and punctuation errors, not larger scale feedback. They express how this was not helpful for their revision process. One student suggested that we do more practice peer reviews. Another student suggested we practice peer review two essays the next time: one that has lots of grammar errors, but was a high quality essay, and one that had no grammar errors and was a low quality essay. He said this would be a way to show students that even though a paper has some grammar errors, the organization, cohesion, and quality of ideas can still be really strong, while a paper that has no grammar errors might still have larger problems that need to be addressed. So, by one student sharing their own needs, another student was able to step in and provide a suggestion that would address the larger, collective need.

Many of us are likely already using the strategies of co-creation and cogen. Opportunities for collaboration among students, such as discussions or group projects, can become co-creation experiences when educators clearly define the value placed on cogen and provide a timescape for how the process will develop collectively (Wallin, 2019). Redesigning a syllabus or module might be one example of a single task completed over varying class sessions, while sustained research requires a different set of scaffolding. As with any methodology, there are some challenges and possible instances of resistance, both from students and from or among educators. Foremost from an equity perspective may be establishing inclusive and accessible approaches. This reality is most apparent in a shared-work setting, in which students and faculty contribute varying degrees of content and time to a research project, for example. Clarifying the roles that students take is key: co-researcher, consultants, co-designers, or representatives are a few possible categories for distinguishing the responsibilities and expectations of students and faculty (Bovill et al., 2015). In these instances, consistent role definitions and providing proper credit is key.

Institutional culture from macro to micro levels can pose other challenges. Lecture-based models of teaching and high-value placed on assessments as a sign of learning or student success can feel at odds with the co-creation methodology (Bovill et al., 2015). Starting with establishing trust within a single class (versus an entire division or institution) through partnerships between students themselves and together with educators can help ease the perceived challenge (Bovill et al., 2015). Staff report in Bovill’s 2019 study that co-creation can feel risky, unpredictable, and challenging in getting the pace right, whereas students feel surprised to be invited to co-create and ultimately felt valued in the process. Class size matters, with smaller convenings or settings being ideal but that should not rule out gamification and cohort models in larger contexts, which in turn can mirror larger institutional structures and offer insights into how macro change is possible (Bovill, 2019). An important reminder cited in several studies about the benefits of cogen is Taylor and Robinson’s 2009 statement that, “student voice itself is a project of ethical responsibility.” The high-level aims of an institution – to be an equitable environment in which all feel included and can access the content and services needed to succeed – can be achieved through co-creation precisely because students know how students learn best (Bovill et al., 2015).

Questions to Consider:
1) In your own educational experience, were you ever given the opportunity to co-create in the classroom? What did that look like?
2) What does it look like for an instructor to fully trust their students? What might an instructor need to unlearn in order to establish that trust?
3) What challenges do you anticipate facing when trying to co-create with students?


Bondi, S. (2013). Using Cogenerative Dialogue to Improve Teaching and Learning. About Campus, 2-8, doi: 10.1002/abc.21117.
Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., Felten, P., Millard, L., Moore-Cherry, N. (2015). “Addressing Potential Challenges in Co-Creating Learning and Teaching: Overcoming Resistance, Navigating Institutional Norms, and Ensuring Inclusivity in Student-Staff Partnerships.” Science + Business Media, 195-208.
Bovill, C. (2019). Co-Creation in Learning and Teaching: The Case for a Whole-Class Approach in Higher Education.” Higher Education, (79), 1023-1037, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00453-w.
Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.