Some of the most formative teaching experiences over my 16 years in education were during the time I spent in adult education.

Creating and implementing great learning experiences for all students was always important to me, but there was something about working with adult learners that made me reflect on the urgency of delivering the most relevant, authentic learning possible. The validity of the learning curriculum and content was essential, but the relationships I built with the learners became more critical than ever.

Adult learners come to us with a lifetime of experiences, and often associate their success in school today with the success they felt—or didn’t feel—as young learners in a more traditional academic experience. Not to mention, adult learners are often facing the challenges of parenthood, full or part-time employment at one or more organizations, paying their bills, and ensuring there is a home to live in and food to put on the table.

Adulting, as they say, is hard sometimes.

So, how do we meet the needs of the adult learning population who, according to Osam, Bergman, and Cumberland, represent more than half of all part-time, and over a third of the entire higher education enrollment in the United States?

We must ensure that all learning offered to adults is durable and authentic. According to work done by MIT and Accenture in 2016, which highlights what Malcolm Knowles coined as “andragogy,” focuses on the specialized needs of adult learners (“pedagogy,” a more familiar term, focuses on the specialized needs of children learners). There are eight identifiable authentic learning principles imperative to successful learning, especially among adult learners. These practices focus on relevance and relationship between the learner and what and how they are learning.

adult learners

One of my very first adult students was a 50-year-old woman named Mary. Mary emigrated with her husband and two children from Zimbabwe to my hometown.

When Mary and her husband first came to the United States, they left their young children with family in Zimbabwe until they found jobs and earned enough money to bring their children to the States as well. Mary often spoke of how difficult it was to be a new immigrant during that time: she was far from her children, and she missed the beauty and nature in Zimbabwe, and how easy it was to find natural, nutritious food there compared to in the States. She also said she knew the sacrifices would be worth it to provide her children with a better life and more educational opportunities.

One of Mary’s primary goals when she returned to school was to become a nurse, with a concentration in the care of older adults. Mary explained that in Zimbabwe, they did not have anything like American “nursing homes,” and she wanted to eventually bring that level of care back to Zimbabwe when her children were older.

Understanding her goals and educational expectations, as well as the potential challenges she would encounter while balancing a full time job and being a parent, was essential to helping her succeed. A significant component of Mary’s education was a clear understanding of the many facets of her life, both in and out of school, to ensure her learning pathway was strategically designed to address these challenges.

To understand the skills and experiences Mary brought with her into our program, I used prior learning assessment. This was essential in bridging the gap between the skills she already had and the skills she needed to be successful, and she was awarded credit for learning she’d already done. Additionally, she felt validation by her prior learning and experience, deepening her emotional connection to the program.

When asked what the greatest challenge facing today’s adult learners is, Art Ellison, Director of the Bureau of Adult Education for the State of New Hampshire, stated, “The lack of alternative education programs that will meet their needs which is the result of limited resources available for those services.” Fortunately, due to increased awareness of the learning needs of adult learners in both industry and education, programs are being developed and refined to meet the growing demands for the adult education market.

As technology revolutionizes the workplace and requires additional skills, knowledge and abilities, businesses and schools that cater to lifelong learning and workforce development will grow in tandem.