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TEACHING: Adult learners

By Kay Moody

The purpose of this article is to enhance and enrich teaching methods through a better understanding of how adults learn. For many years, educators thought adults and younger students learned in the same way. In the 1970s, Malcolm Knowles researched how adults learn and found there are profound differences between adult learning and that of younger students. He published the book The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species in 1973, which set off hundreds of research projects over the next 40 years.
In order to be categorized as an adult learner, the student must meet at least one of the following criteria: enters postsecondary school at least one calendar year after finishing high school; studies part time for at least part of the academic year; works full time (35 hours per week or more) while in school; is considered financially independent for purposes of financial aid; has dependents other than a spouse, which may or may not include children; is a single parent; or does not have a high school diploma (but may hold the equivalent). The major reason most adults learn a new career is to change their life. Frequently they are unhappy or frustrated with their present situation: possibly they’re in a bad marriage, have just gone through an ugly divorce, are financially unable to support their family, or dissatisfied with their present job or career. Adults who love their job and are making a good income, happy with their current status, and satisfied with their career rarely enroll in an extensive program such as court reporting. Educators must keep this in mind as they create course assignments and adapt their teaching methods.
Knowles and other researchers identified characteristics of adult learners and suggested specific teaching strategies or methods on how to teach adults. Learning must be autonomous and self-directed in academics and machine shorthand. Adult learners have remarkable backgrounds, and they want to develop their study plans; they want to decide what they need to learn and how they are going to do it. They are goal-oriented, and they know what they hope to achieve in their classes. Educators need to identify goals and objectives and create lessons that meet their students’ expectations.
Researchers discovered that adult learners depend on themselves to manage their lives and to manage what they learn. Children basically learn what they are told to learn and view it as important because adults have told them it is important. Adult learners, however, learn best when they view the potential outcome to be of personal value to them.

  1. Young learners have yet to experience much of life, but they learn quickly. Adult learners, on the other hand, have experienced life and tend to learn more slowly even though they learn well. 
  2. Because of the younger learners’ limited experience, they tend to be open to new ideas and readily accept them. Adults, however, have opinions of their own and reject new information if it doesn’t “fit” into their life experience. Adults don’t like change – change creates frustration. 
  3. Young people learn because they are told it will benefit them in the future, but adults generally expect learning to have immediate applicability in their lives. 
  4. Feelings of achievement, self-worth, and self-esteem are more important to adult learners than to younger students.

The chart below summarizes the differences between children and adult learners.

Child and Adult Learning Characteristics



Rely on others to decide what is important to be learned. Decide for themselves what is important to be learned.


Accept the information being presented at face value. Need to validate the information based on their beliefs and values.


Expect what they are learning to be useful in their long-term future. Expect what they are learning to be immediately useful.


Have little or no experience upon which to draw, are relatively “blank slates.” Have substantial experience upon which to draw. Have fixed viewpoints.


Little ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource to teacher or fellow classmates. Significant ability to serve as a knowledgeable resource to the trainer and fellow learners.


There are four critical elements that promote learning for adults: motivation, reinforcement, transfer of learning, and retention.
Motivation: The best way to motivate court reporting students is to make every class relevant and meaningful. Adults resent what they perceive to be busy work or non-productive assignments. They want to decide what they need to learn and how to learn it. Students are motivated when they know that every course, every class, and every assignment is truly relevant. They focus and work on what they think is useful or important to them. They will not study or work on something until they know it is relevant. The court reporting instructor must explain the purpose of an assignment or activity each time it is presented.
Nothing motivates students more than immediate constructive feedback. Feedback must be specific and contain a compliment or “reward.” In addition to posting a grade on an assignment or test, tell them specifically what they did well and where they could have spent more time. Sometimes, it’s as simple as, “Great job on this difficult material; take time to proofread carefully.” Feedback should be immediate and stated positively rather than negatively. Teachers always praise and congratulate their students for a job well done. They create a positive, rewarding environment. Getting a good grade or passing a dictation test is not always the best reward. There are five ways to squelch motivation:

  1. Have little personal one-on-one contact.
  2. Be negative and sarcastic.
  3. Do not give examples.
  4. Be critical.
  5. Be predictable.

Adults evaluate a class with their feet: If they find they their program is a negative experience, they will find a reason to drop out and walk away from the program before completing it. The primary reason court reporting schools have such a high dropout rate is that students are not motivated as adult learners.
Reinforcement: Students need constant reinforcement in a variety of ways. For example, they don’t want to do the same drill or dictation over and over the same way; instead, they want variety. Although speed is developed through repetition, it must contain various teaching methods, dictation materials, and different class routines. Review and reinforce previous lessons, and include at least one or two concepts that are easily understood.
In all classes, teachers should begin with an introduction and end with summarizing what was learned. Students will feel that they benefited from class, and they will be glad they were there. The summary should repeat or echo the introduction. For example, if you start a lesson with, “Today we’re going to focus on control; therefore, I will dictate at a speed comfortable for all of you,” complete the lesson with, “Today your control was good, your notes were cleaner, and as a result your readback was outstanding.”
Transfer of learning: The third element that promotes adult learning is transfer of learning: the ability to apply or use new information in a new or different setting. Adult learners must be able to associate the new information from each class with something they already know. Show students the similarity or relationship between a previous lesson or to another class. Demonstrate that there is a relationship from one lesson to the next.
Adults have remarkable and unique life experiences, and there is a wide spectrum of backgrounds in each class ranging from those who earned GEDs to students who have master’s degrees and post-graduate work, from those who are already working as reporters to stay-at-home moms. Adult learners progress better when their teachers have assignments and appropriate teaching methods meeting the needs of individual students.
Generally speaking, if students do well on the first lesson, they will do well on subsequent ones. Experienced educators plan to have the easiest lessons the first few weeks of a term, and they don’t plan difficult or intense assignments before or after a break or holiday.
Retention: The fourth major element that promotes adult learning is the adult learners’ ability to retain information.
Principles of Retention

  • Adults retain 10 percent of what they read.
  • Adults retain 20 percent of what they write.
  • Adults retain 30 percent of what they see.
  • Adults retain 50 percent of what they see, hear, and write.
  • Adults retain 70 percent of what they say.
  • Adults retain 90 percent of what they see, hear, write, and repeat repeatedly.

Educators develop lessons, assignments, and skill building activities incorporating multiple principles of retention.
In conclusion, adults have specific needs when enrolled in a court reporting program, and they will remain in school and progress faster when the program is developed to meet the needs of adult learners.
Kay Moody, MCRI, CPE, is an instructor at the College of Court Reporting in Valparaiso, Ind. She can be reached at