Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

This content was published: July 15, 2014. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Are your online learners adult learners?

Posted by

We who teach – especially those of us who teach online – are sometimes unaware of the assumptions we make about our students. Take the following quiz to check on some of your own assumptions:

  1. True or false: My students need to know why they need to know something before they will learn it.
  2. True or false:  My students are self-directed – they want to direct their own learning.
  3. True or false:  My students have important life experiences that I need to take into account in order for them to get the most from their education.
  4. True or false:  My students won’t learn unless they have achieved a state of readiness, usually related to their real lives, not to my class.
  5. True or false:  My students’ orientation to their learning is life-centered (or task-centered or problem-centered), not subject-centered.
  6. True or false:  My students are internally motivated to learn: grades may be somewhat important to them, but they are motivated most by self-esteem, quality of life, and love of learning.

If you answered “true” for most of those questions, then you may be surprised to discover that your assumptions about learners align nicely with a body of thought known as “adult learning theory,” pioneered mainly by Malcolm Knowles beginning in the 1950s. Knowles led community-based education programs and started to notice that the adults in his classes seemed to learn differently than school-age students. He and other researchers distilled their ideas into the six adult-learning principles above.

Okay, already I can sense your discomfort with some of these principles! I share your discomfort – and I think anybody who has taught college students, either face-to-face or online, might have some objections:

Progression from infancy to childhood to adulthood to old age

Learning apparently happens a bit differently at different ages

  • “Students are self-directed? Are you kidding?? If I didn’t give my students deadlines, they would never do anything!”
  • “Students don’t care about grades or other external motivators? – on which planet, exactly?? Students care about grades more than anything else, and in fact won’t do anything unless it’s tied to a grade.”
  • “Most of my students are in my online class because they need to check a box and fulfill a requirement somewhere else. My class exists within this world of program requirements, grades, and other external requirements.”
  • “Hello?! – this is community college, so I have students of all ages in my classes – everyone from retiree octogenarians to middle-schoolers. How can I design an online class that would appeal to such a wide range of ages and life experiences?”
  • “How can I even know about the ages of my students? They are online so I’ll never see them.”

These concerns are certainly valid, but I think we’d be remiss or closed-minded if we failed to acknowledge that there is wisdom in adult-learning principles as well. Consider the following points:

  • As a busy and well-educated – and aging – adult, you recognize the value of time. Aren’t you more motivated to learn when you know why it would be good for you to know something – because it would help you in your career, in your family life, or in meeting your goals? I know that as my aging brain gets more and more cluttered with everything I’ve stuffed into it over the years, I find myself conducting a kind of mental triage every time I look at a newspaper, magazine, or online news site: if the info isn’t useful to me, I won’t pursue it. As instructors of online adult learners, we can improve learner motivation by providing a more productive context for learning. Yes, there’s lots of “just plain interesting stuff” in all of our fields, but chances are low that our adult learners will be motivated to learn for that reason alone.
  • All learners – but especially adult learners – learn most effectively when they are able to connect prior learning with current experiences. And the more relevant experience a learner brings to your class, the more opportunity you have to tap into this experience and use it to advance the learning objectives of your class. Since students often learn more from peers than they do from instructors (sad but true), a class with more experienced learners offers more potential learning “nodes.” If your experience as the instructor is the only experience that matters in your class, you’ve shut off a rich vein of experiences that could also benefit students.
  • Of course we all recognize that our classes occur within the larger context of our academic departments, our academic divisions, our college, and even the larger educational system, which require grades, assessment, learning outcomes, etc. It’s important to acknowledge the motivators within this context, but I try to remember that education is not only about these things. A student’s readiness to learn, her life experiences, and her goals cannot help impacting the experience in an online class, and even if we don’t understand everything about how these factors impact education, we are prudent to honor them.
  • At a community college, we certainly see a range of ages among our students – from early teens to retirees. For those early teens, a strict pedagogical approach (teacher-directed, subject-centered) might be entirely appropriate. For your older learners, you should consider a growing body of brain research that seeks to describe how students of various ages apprehend and process information. Roger Anunsen, for example, taught me that the best person to teach older adults is usually an older adult who processes info at the same speed (check out Roger’s wonderful collection of videos). While we can’t change who we are, we can try to tailor instructional experiences to match the level of receptivity of our learners. For this reason I think the student’s introductory discussion posting is one of the most important pieces of information a student can provide. From it you can learn much about the student’s life experiences, goals, and even age. While it’s probably not appropriate to ask students directly about their ages, you can create a survey that asks students for general info about their backgrounds, their goals, and their ages (in a range such as 20 and under, 21 to 30, 31 to 40, and so on). In this way you can get a good idea of the ages and experiences of your students. If you see that an online class contains mostly under-20 students but also a few older students, you’ll know that you might need to appeal to those older students a bit differently.

The bottom line is that we can only improve our online classes by taking into account the ages and life experiences of our learners, and considering the sources of their motivation and their desire to direct their own learning (or not).


Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Horton III, and Richard A. Swanson. The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. (6th ed.) Elsevier, 2005.

Available from Cascade Library – you can read it when I’m done with it. ♥