aging and learning

How the Aging Process Affects Adult Education

Adults are able to learn new things throughout their lives. Adults who want to continue their education face different challenges than children and adolescents do. However, this does not mean that adults cannot learn the same material that adolescents can. But what adults want to learn and how they want to learn makes their education unique.

Adult Education: What It Is

Malcolm Knowles defined adult education by six principles: Adults are internally motivated and self-directed; adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences; adults are goal oriented; adults are relevancy oriented; adults are practical; and adult learners like to be respected. Adult education means that adults are actively engaged in a learning activity — the activity may not take place within a classroom, and the activity may not be strictly “educational.” For example, a group of adults may be learning how to kayak down a river. Even though the education is not scholarly, it is still a group of people learning a new skill — which makes it adult education.

Factors that Affect Adult Education

The European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA) states that there are many factors that affect adult education. First, instructors need to be mindful that adults have many constraints on their time (children, work, caring for older parents, relationships) that adolescents and children do not have. Also, adults may not be able to attend a class or an event due to geography or transportation issues. They may not participate because they fear rejection. An adult may not participate because they do not have information on a class in their area, or because of socioeconomic or educational factors.

How the Aging Process Affects Adult Education

Adult education is also affected by the aging process, according to Johns Hopkins University ( As adults age, their ability to learn new things may be affected by blood flow, depression, stress and chronic illness. However, adults lose less than 1 percent of their ability to learn each year, so the capacity for new knowledge remains high throughout most of an adult’s life.

Researchers now know that adults are able to learn and acquire new knowledge throughout their lives, which is a shift in thinking from years past when it when thought that adults were not able to learn because of illness, genetic longevity or environment. The brains of older adults still practice neuroplasticity — the neural elasticity that creates new brain learning pathways.

Also, adults change careers many times in their lives and retire later in life than in years past. In addition, adults are more active in their retirement and want to stay active throughout their lives. This may mean that adults need to acquire new knowledge throughout their lives as well.

adult education

Trends in Adult Education

There are many trends in adult education, according to the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Many adult education classes, from botany to zoology, are available online — which may mean that adults need to brush up on their technology skills to participate in online classes. Adults prefer collaborative learning rather than lecture learning.

Adults prefer to learn through doing and their own experiences, rather than being told about a learning experience. Adult educators should take these preferences into consideration when planning classes. Adults enjoy project learning — where there is an end result — such as creating a sweater or painting. Adults like to build on prior learning experiences and to bring their experiences into the classroom to share.

Online, mobile learning that is social provides learning opportunities through interaction and collaboration. Document sharing, blogging and video are allowing students to learn from each other and the instructors take on the roles of facilitators, rather than the traditional “teacher” role. Online, mobile learning gives students flexibility as courses may be available on-demand or be self-paced. Course flexibility also gives students options to learn within a span of time that works with their schedule.

Online learning provides the ability to tailor the content of information to the needs of the student. Learning can be personalized through technology like academic analytics and facial coding built into some online learning environments. Adaptive learning systems and platforms that give real-time assessment provides immediate feedback to the student about their retention of material. Students have the ability to control the pace of their learning too.

Artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) interfaces and applications are giving students a more complete learning experience. Learning is moving from being static to being dynamic and immersive. For example, instead of learning about the circulatory system through a diagram in a textbook, students can experience the heart beating through an AR-supported device that enables visualization.