EDU 643 Final Project

3 Misconceptions Understood

The following paper will discuss adult education, specifically three misconceptions of adult education and its learners including new understandings of the misconceptions. The first misconception is about who adult learners are, the second is that all adult learners are learning for the same reason, and the third misconception is that adult learners all learn in the same manner. Though an adult is anyone over the age of 18, for the purposes of this paper, it will be most often adult learners as those 24 year or older.

The first misconception surrounds who adult learners are. Often, adult learners are lumped into a very narrow age bracket of over forty years old. They are also often stereotyped as lonely people, and assumed to be failures at their careers.   However, adult learners are very diverse and the circumstances even more.

The second misconception is why adult learners are back in school and that is always for the same reason. However, that is not accurate. Adult learners not only go back to the formal classroom, there is the informal classroom and they are going back for various reasons. The reasons might include for career advancement, new careers, or social interaction.

The third misconception revolves around how adult learners learn and that they all learn in similar fashions, and that you can teach one generation same as another. In reality, all learners regardless of age learn in different manners and different generations learn better using different techniques.

Who are Adult Learners?

Adult learners are often seen as older people who are taking classes at a university or community college for very narrow reasons. Truth be told, and backed by research, adult learners, in its basic definition are any person learning over the age of 18, the legal “adult” age in the United States (US Legal, n.a.). However, in academia, many scholars put the “adult” age around 23-25 making the “traditional college aged student” 18-22. Adult learners come from all different backgrounds and have a wide variety of circumstances that can become barriers to their education including fulltime jobs, family, ect. Adult learners face barriers to education just as a traditional aged college student might, but they are different barriers.

Demographics and Characteristics

For the purpose of this section, adult learners are those students who are over the age of 24 and wanting to enroll or are enrolled in some level of postsecondary learning or greater. This age group makes up forty-four percent of postsecondary students. They are currently enrolling at a growing rate in courses that will directly affect their careers while it is projected that the numbers of adult learners in traditional, degree earning fields will decrease (Jobs for the Future, 2007).

Adult learners have various other descriptors as well. Some of these might include additional first-hand experiences that can be utilized or compared within the classroom, set opinions, greater pride of work, more internally motivated, respond to positive reinforcement, and have a strong need to apply what is being learned (Thoms, 2001). These characteristics are different from the traditional aged college student and can create classroom challenges and opportunities. For example, adults might be stubborn in the classroom due to their previously formed opinions, but they might also be able to more eloquently explain why they have those opinions.


Barriers to education face all those who want to further their education but they differ for adults and traditional aged college students. Adults often have a more developed life and have fulltime jobs, families, and civic responsibilities that can limit the amount of time they can devote to learning (Fairchild, 2003). Once adult learners have decided that enrolling is right for them there are additional barriers them to overcome. As Fairchild (2003) describes there are three types of barriers that can restrict retention of adult learners; 1) The situation that adults are in are called situational barriers. At home those students who have kids have a harder time than those without, or those with older kids do better than those with younger kids. The situation varies among adult learners. 2) Typically more of a barrier for women than men, the strain on the learner’s role is described as a dispositional barrier. The learner’s role can have conflict of demands, overload (time), or overlapping roles. 3) Institutional barriers are those that effect adult learners uniquely. Most brick and mortar schools are not properly setup to support adult learners. Career development, restricted services hours, and the way classes are taught are all institutional barriers (Fairchild, 2003).

Why Adult Learners are Learning?

Adult learners are often assumed to be going back to school to learn skills for a new career. However, there are two parts to that statement that are related misconceptions. The first is the reason that adult learners are going back to school and the second is that they aren’t always learning in formal setting such as a school.

Motivation to Learn

Adult learners often have various reasons to learn. These reasons might include career advancement, new careers, skill refinement, socializing, or just obtaining new knowledge (Baumgartner, Caffarella, & Merriam, 2007). The more obvious reasons, career advancement or new careers, are fairly easy to understand. The motivation behind these reasons are often extrinsic such as more financial compensation or social status (Lei, 2010). However, there are other reasons why adults return to or enroll in classes. Social interaction is one reason where an adult might enroll just to be able to be around other people also interested in similar subjects. General knowledge acquisition is also another reason where the reason to learn is simply to just become more knowledgeable. The motivation with this reason very intrinsic as there are no external motivators (Lei, 2010).

Various Learning Settings

Adult learners are learning through a variety of venues. Some venues, such as colleges, are formal settings that have a set curriculum, a grade, and knowledge assessment (Folkestad, 2006). Formal settings have predetermined lessons that are lead by a teacher or an instructor. These learning settings are most similar to what most people envision when they think of a classroom. Informal learn, in comparison, is learning that happens with no predetermined lessons (Folkestad, 2006). These settings have no curriculum, no true assessments, and there are no grades distributed. In this setting, the learner must determine if the information they have learned is worth pursuing further or moving to another idea.

How Adult Learners Learn

Another misconception is that adult learners all learn the same way. Almost as if one style of learning worked for one adult learner, it will work for all adult learners. However, adult learners just like being motivated for different reasons, do not learn the same way. There are several learning theories that detail various methods of teaching to adult learners; the quantity alone is a sign that there is not one way to teach adult learners as demonstrated by Baumgartner et al. (2007). In this section two theories will be detailed that demonstrate different learning styles.

Knowles’ Assumptions

Malcolm Knowles created a concept called andragogy in 1973 which is a new way to describe the teaching of adults (Baumgartner et al., 2007). Similar to how pedagogy is the term that refers to teaching children, andragogy is the term that refers to teaching adults. Malcolm Knowles created a series of assumptions to which andragogy is based upon (Cercone, 2008). These assumptions are a) adults can direct their own learning, b) adults have experiences that can add to future learning, c) adults reasons of learning is tied to their social roles, d) adults want to know how they can apply the knowledge now, rather than later, e) internal factors motivate adults to learn rather than external, and finally f) adults need to know why they are learning something (Cercone, 2008). These assumptions, originally thought to be a theory of adult learning have been challenged and are more recently considered principles of learning for the simple reason that they don’t all apply to all learners. As stated above, adult learners can motived externally, such as pay raises or career advancement, which directly challenges the fifth assumption.

Transformative Learning

Another theory of adult learning is transformative learning. This theory is built on the idea that adults should not just learn, but be able to master what they are learning and become and responsible thinkers (Cercone, 2008). They theory says that adult learners need to become aware of assumptions; not just their own assumptions but also the assumptions of others. Once aware of the assumptions the adult learner needs to challenge these assumptions and transform their understanding should it be deemed necessary.

Transformative learning relies on previous knowledge, which is why it works well for adult learners. The more knowledge one has, the more information they can use to challenge the assumptions. The adult learner has to be able to think critically and be able to challenge ones self. For these reasons, this may be difficult for some adult learners which is why this theory may not prove perfect for each adult learner (Cercone, 2008).


In conclusion, adult learners are a very diverse group of students in terms of demographics, characteristics, and reasons for learning. Though the exact definition of what an adult learner is there are some things that are understood. Adult learners are those who are 24 years or older advancing their knowledge for a wide variety of reasons. Some scholars feel that adult learners are anyone over the age of 18, which by definition they are adults, but for the purpose of research and understanding how different generations learn, 18-23 year old students are best described as “traditional aged” college students (Thoms, 2001). Finally, it is too narrow to assume that the way one adult successfully learns, they all learn is similar fashions. Andragogy provides a good set of baseline assumptions but there are many theories and strategies to teach various adult learners. Colleges and universities need to embrace adult learners, as they are a large population that will continue to enroll and demand various services specific to their needs.



Baumgartner, L. M., Caffarella, R. S., & Merriam, S. B. (2007). Learning in adulthood; A comprehensive Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cercone, K. (2008). Characteristics of adult learners with implications for online learning design. AACE Journal, 16(2), 137-159.

Fairchild, E. E. (2003). Multiple roles of adult learners. New Directions for Student Services, 102(summer 2003), 11-16.

Folkestad, G. (2006). Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs formal and informal ways of learning. British Journal of Music Education, 23(2), 135-145.

Jobs for the Future. (2007). Adult learners in higher education barriers to success and strategies to improve results Employment and Training Administration (Vol. 03).

Lei, S. A. (2010). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: Evaluating benefits and drawbacks from college instructors’ perspective. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37(2), 153-160.

Thoms, K. J. (2001). They’re not just big kids: Motivating adult learners. Proceedings of the Annual Mid-South Instructional Technology Conference, April(2001), 1-11.

US Legal. (n.a.). Adult law and legal definition from


Zive_Final Project PPT


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