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How do adults learn?

Research by an American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike proves that people between the ages of 25 and 40 show greater capacity for learning than in their early youth. But you have to remember that adults learn differently than kids.

People reach their peak mental capacity for both absorbing and using knowledge at the age of 25. After that it decreases, but at a slow pace of 1% per year. Thorndike observed that for an average person this kind of change isn’t even noticeable. With age we mostly lose the effectiveness of our mechanic memory, which is the ability to collect logically unrelated information. But what we begin to lack in our mechanic memory, we make up for with the ability to relate problems to our past experiences. People between 25 and 45 analyse problems longer but they tend to be more successful at coming up with effective solutions than those in their early twenties.

Which abilities diminish with age?

David Wechsler’s research allowed to create a curve of change in intelligence for people at various ages. His test illustrated that for adults knowledge and understanding of words remains at the highest level for adults - they retain the majority of their vocabulary throughout their lives. The biggest drop is in the ability to quickly perform arithmetic calculations and memorising their results. Adults also have difficulties with learning manual activities, such as sketching sections or left-handed writing. It’s also a paradox that people with higher education and working within sciences perform weaker in the mechanic memory tests than other groups. Wechsler explains that it’s natural - those people use logic on a daily basis, so absorbing unrelated information is a lot harder for them.

After finishing his study in 1931, Thorndike said that in general anyone who is under the age of 45 should not abstain from trying to learn anything just because they fear they are too old to do it. After so many years his words are just as valid today. Some psychologists claim that nowadays even people over the age of 45 shouldn’t be afraid to take new challenges.

How should adults learn?

A new scientific discipline dedicated to adult learning - andragogy - was created by Malcolm Knowles in 1972. That’s when its main assumptions were born; and they are still used today.

The most important fact is that adults learn more effectively at their own pace. Time pressure is destructive when it comes to their ability to memorise. It’s also important for them to be able to make their own decisions. No one should tell them which technique they should be using while learning something new - adults feel the most comfortable with a wide variety of options. The reason behind it is that more mature learners see new information through the lens of the old ones. When we consider that every person collects different experiences in their life, it is obvious that they will organise new information differently to any other person.

Differences between pedagogy and adragogy

In his research Knowles distinguished four key differences between child and adult education. At school, the pupil is dependent on the teacher and has to submit to the teacher’s will. They also have no control over which goals, methods and forms of education the teacher will choose. In andragogy the teacher is more of an advisor - first they support the adult in defining what else they have to learn. Then the adult, together with their mentor, creates a teaching program and decides which learning methods are most suitable for them. Education process requires primarily substantive support, not strict steering.

Another difference is the experience that the students have. School pupils have almost none, therefore the teacher serves as an expert, passing on the already tried information. Adults should, as often as possible, draw from the resources they already have and absorb new information through association. Many tests also point out to the elicitation methods - experiments, discussion, or group work - being more effective.

Preparedness to learn is also judged differently. Youth teaching programs are divided according to the subject and strictly adapted to different age groups. That kind of system doesn’t work for people over the age of 25 - information divided topically based on field it belongs to (e.g. genetics or zoology, which fall under biology) is quickly removed from memory. The education process must be tailored individually - every adult wants to receive a different, specific information package. Its expansion can only reduce the effectiveness of learning.

The last aspect is the motivation to study. Children learn primarily what the teachers want them to, because they know that only then will they be rewarded. Adults look at material from a practical perspective - if they can use it in their own life, they are more willing to study it.

When you need a little encouragement

The tests ran by Knowles and his many successors show that both punishment and external motivation has little meaning for adults. As Katarzyna Mikołajczyk writes in her article “How do adults learn, or what a coach should know about educating training session participants”: “You have to awake the motivation for self-improvement, and you must search with them for an important goal and make them realise how much they can gain from the situation they are in. Another way to help elicit internal motivation is getting the students involved in creating the programme or specifying its goals.

A standard model of study which should be used by adults is the processual system. This is how Knowles describes the sequence of education stages in his book “The Adult Learner”: preparing the student, creating a learning-inducing atmosphere, activating mechanisms which allow collective planning, diagnosis of educational needs, formulating goals to satisfy those needs, designing a pattern of educational experiences, guiding said experiences with the use of appropriate techniques and means, judging the effects of education and re-diagnosis of educational needs.

Krzysztof Andrulonis