UW Continuum College Instructor Resources

Teaching Adult Learners

There are some well-established principles as to how people learn and there are some specific principles to keep in mind when working with adults in particular.


What is special about teaching adult learners at UW PCE?

Most adult learners are not full-time students. In fact, being a student is only one part of their life, and may in fact, be in service of another role (e.g. primarily wage earner, parent, and/or spouse). Adults are intrinsically motivated and self-directed. They have a well-developed sense of identity and much of that is derived from their professional work and life experiences.

Together, these have some important implications for adult learning and UW PCE courses:

  • Most adult learners learn best with real-world, problem-based curricula. When tasks can be tied to tangible applications, students will be more successful and more likely to stick with the program. They want each learning task to be important and very clearly valuable.
  • Adult learners want to be respected and valued as peers; instructors should look for opportunities to draw on student experiences and involve them in customizing learning goals. Establishing a professional and collegial course climate where peers collaborate and respectfully challenge each other will also help adult learners succeed.
  • Three-hour class sessions need to be carefully “chunked” with short breaks, diverse activities and opportunities for students to process and integrate what they are learning.
  • Programs attract students with wide variety of backgrounds, skills, and areas of expertise. Leveraging the different strengths of students can make for a rich learning experience and can help everyone learn to integrate across domain.


What do we know about learning in general?

The following is a synthesis of decades of research into how people learn. These principles are applicable to all types of learners.

  • Students develop mastery when they can acquire and practice integrating components.
  • Students’ motivation directs and sustains what they learn.
  • Prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs can help or hinder; how students organize and connect information affects new learning.
  • Students develop mastery when they can acquire and practice integrating component skills and learn when and how to apply what they’ve learned. They need goal-directed practice with targeted and frequent feedback.
  • Students need a positive and respectful learning environment.
  • Students will become more flexible experts if they monitor and adjust their approaches to learning.
  • Students learn more when they are actively engaged with the content rather than passively absorbing information. (This is sometimes referred to as “active learning”.)
  • Student learning tapers off after about 30 minutes of sustained attention. Breaks give the brain a chance to assimilate information and “make room” for new ideas.
  • Students will produce more nuanced and sophisticated work when they work with others in a productive manner on well-designed tasks.


Video Resources

How People Learn (6:03 min)