Adult Learners: Needs Characteristics and Motivation


Nearly all educational studies pertinent to distance learning reveal an increasing number of nontraditional students’ enrollment in schools, especially in the institutions of higher learning and traditional public colleges (Ross-Gordon, 2011). The last two or three decades have seen dramatic increases in adults seeking education. For instance, nontraditional students in institutions of higher learning account for approximately 73% (Ronny Washington, 2013). Precisely, students above the age of 25 constitute more than 38% of all enrollment (Ross-Gordon, 2011). It is projected that the number of adults seeking education will remain the same or even increase.

Therefore, it is prudent for all stakeholders to comprehend the needs, characteristics, and motivation of adults who enroll for distance learning (Ross-Gordon, 2011). As such, it will be easier to cater for the increasing demand for distance learning even in public institutions. In addition, it would be possible to address the dropout levels among adult learners, which research has shown to be two times higher than dropouts among traditional students are, especially within the first year of study (Ronny Washington, 2013).

This paper investigates the needs, characteristics, and motivation of adult learner as illustrated by academic articles from peer-reviewed journals while investigating the same from an adult learner’s point of view.

Literature review

The needs of adult learners

The increasing numbers of adult learners indicate that adults have some needs that can be met by reentry into educational institutions. It is worth noting that adults have somewhat different needs relative to the needs of traditional students. This is can be attributed to the fact that adults are in more stable and relatively established situations. As such, adults have made some of the most significant decisions about their lives, including career paths and other aspects of life. Nonetheless, life is dynamic and changes are inevitable. Therefore, there are increasing needs among adults that increase the demand for education and the consequent reentry into institutions of learning.

The first, and probably the most common need, is the need emanating from vocational or work-related dynamics. Under the vocational needs are all career related goals that adults intend to achieve through reentry into schools. Some of the goals include upward career mobility, meeting the quickening technological change requirements, better jobs and better pay, adapting to constant changes at workplaces, and remaining occupationally viable (Boeren & Holford, 2016).

Second, adults seek education to fulfill recreational needs. Recreation is a key need among many adults. While some get recreational fulfillment by enrolling in educational institutions, some, especially the handicapped, have recreational needs to develop motor skills.

Third, foreign credentials may be different from local educational requirements. Therefore, foreigners enroll in schools to comply with recipient countries’ needs and professional requirements. In addition, many foreigners work in countries where the national/official languages are not their native languages. For instance, many Spanish speakers move to the US seeking employment. They, therefore, enroll for adult learning programs to learn English (Wever, Keer, & Valcke, 2016).

Fourth, adults have personal development needs that can be addressed by reentering school. For example, internal forces such as improving quality of life, augmenting self-esteem and self-fulfillment.

The characteristics of adult learners

Adult learners have unique characteristics that distinguish them from traditional college students.

First, a majority of adult learners deal with other life responsibilities and roles. As such, many of the adults seeking education are workers, spouses, parents, or caregivers. For instance, an investigation was carried out by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on adult learners and the report indicated that adult learners have many roles to play outside learning institutions (Ross-Gordon, 2011).

The report indicated that adult learners put more emphasis on their work relative to learning and, therefore, many of them considered themselves workers first and students second. In addition, the report indicated that most of the adult learners were married. The multiple roles can work to both the advantage and to the disadvantage of adult learners (Ross-Gordon, 2011).

Second, a majority of adult learners have a sense of direction and independence (Tainsh, 2016). As such, many of adult learners make independent and self-directed decisions pertaining their time, modes of study, career paths among other elements pertinent to their reentry to school.

Third, adult learners have relatively higher experiences of real life situations and circumstances as compared to traditional college students. As mentioned earlier, adult learners are above 25 years of age with various roles and responsibilities. With such experiences, adult learners make wise educational decisions. In addition, adult learners are most likely to apply the life-acquired proficiency in their learning practices.

Fourth, adult learners are oftentimes eager to acquire new skills and gain knowledge. As such, they are more likely to be ready and prepared to meet learning objectives. Since they understand the essence of time, adult learners go to institutions of learning with the sole purpose of acquiring skills and succeeding.

Fifth, adult learners are more likely to apply what they learn in solving real life problems. Therefore, they develop more interest in applicable topics and disciplines (Tainsh, 2016). As mentioned earlier, career and work related reasons prompt adults to go back to school. Therefore, they tend to develop interest in learning objectives that are applicable to their workplaces and day-to-day lives.

Sixth, intrinsic and personal motivations are more evident among adult learners relative to forces emanating from the society. Therefore, adult learners are, in most cases, self-driven and self-motivated. Some theoretical outlines propose that societal forces influence personal educational motivation and practice (Wever et al. , 2016).

A study was done to evaluate the validity of these theoretical frameworks among adult learners. The study was done in 23 countries involving more than one hundred thousand adults. The findings revealed that the theory is not entirely suitable for the justification and explanation behind adult education. It is generally agreed that the society has some influence on personal education participation. Nonetheless, the influence is somewhat indirect and has fewer effects on adult learners’ readiness and motivation to learning (Wever et al. , 2016).

Seventh, adults develop the interest in comprehending and appreciating the worth of what is taught (Tainsh, 2016). Therefore, they opt for courses and learning objectives that add value to their day-to-day lives. In addition, adult learners, like traditional learners, display diverse responses to classroom interactions. While some are interactive and are eager to respond to questions, some opt to be silent and exhibit withdrawal and reserved traits. Nonetheless, reticence is more of a personality phenomenon and should not be confused with lack of interest or understanding of concepts (Carter & Henrichsen, 2015).

The motivation among adult learners

Adults participating or intending to enroll for education are motivated by various factors. These factors vary from person to person and among communities (Boeren & Holford, 2016).

First, many adults are motivated by employment-related factors. They are motivated to go back to school, improve their credentials, and consequently be in better chances of upward professional mobility, higher salaries, better jobs, and remaining occupationally viable.

The second group of motivating factors among adult learners emanate from internal pressures. Arguably, internal motivators are the most potent factors among adults seeking additional education. Some of the most outstanding internal motivating factors among adult learners include augmenting self-esteem, improving personal quality of life, and fulfilling the desire for education and self-fulfillment.

It is worth noting that societal expectations and group conformity may be motivating factors among those seeking distance learning. Nonetheless, societal expectations and group conformity are more likely to influence traditional learners than they are likely to motivate adult learners (Wever et al. , 2016).

An adult learner’s reflection on needs, characteristics, and motivations

It is worth noting that individual learners’ views on needs, characteristics, and motivation are more or less similar to those addressed by educational articles. For instance, a learner’ needs can be compared with any of the needs illustrated by experts on their articles on adult learning and distance learning. The learner’s characteristics and approaches to learning are comparable to the characteristics outlined in most educational articles on adult learners. For the motivation to learning, an individual learner is likely to be motivated by comparable elements that motivate other adult learners.

However, some personal needs, characteristics, and motivations cannot be or have not been illustrated by educational articles on adult learners. Educational articles are based on surveys that depend on responses from certain participants. Therefore, findings are limited to responses provided and theoretic frameworks and assumptions. As such, educational articles may or may not be as comprehensive or accurate enough. Therefore, individual learner’s reflection on needs, characteristics, and motivations may or may not be completely similar to those provided by educational articles.

For instance, many literature materials do not comprehensively discuss some extrinsic motivating factors that influence adults in reentry into learning institutions. A perfect example of the extrinsic motivation is the support that an individual is given by family members, including children and spouses. Although going back to school have negative financial implications, some family members give adult learners moral support and this is a motivation to many adult learners.


There is a steady increase in the number of adults seeking education. A considerable percentage of learners in learning institutions, including mainstream public colleges are above 25 years. The numbers of adults enrolling for distance education is predicted to increase.

It is evident that adult learners have distinct needs, characteristics, and motivation that distinguish them from young or traditional learners. This research paper has investigated the needs, characteristics, and motivations portrayed by adult learners as discussed in diverse educational articles. In addition, the paper has given a personal reflection on the needs, characteristics, and motivations of an adult learner. Apparently, personal reflection compares more than it contrasts the views provided by educational articles on needs, characteristics, and motives of adult learners.

Some of the needs that push adults to pursue education include vocational, recreational, personal development, and social needs.

Adult learners exhibit distinctive characteristics, which include dealing with other life responsibilities, self-directed, experienced on life matters, self-motivated, eager, and ready to learn, apply/value what is taught among other attributes.

Lastly, motivators like better jobs, upward professional mobility, increased job satisfaction, social status, self-esteem, augmented quality of life among others influence adult learners.


Boeren, E., & Holford, J. (2016). Vocationalism Varies (a Lot) A 12-Country Multivariate Analysis of Participation in Formal Adult Learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 66(2), 120-142. Web.

Carter, S. J., & Henrichsen, L. E. (2015). Addressing Reticence: The Challenge of Engaging Reluctant Adult ESL Students. Journal of Adult Education, 44(2), 15-20.

Ronny Washington, J. (2013). Traditionally Nontraditional: The Barriers College Students with Children Face while Pursuing a Degree in a Traditional Undergraduate Program. Texas State Undergraduate Reseach journal, 1(1), 19-27.

Ross-Gordon, J. M. (2011). Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population that Is No Longer Nontraditional. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 13(1).

Tainsh, R. (2016). Thoughtfully Designed Online Courses as Effective Adult Learning Tools. Journal of Adult Education, 45(1), 7.

Wever, B. D., Keer, H. V., & Valcke, M. (2016). The Influence of Social Background on Participation in Adult Education. Adult Education Quarterly, 66(2), 143-168. Web.

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