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Four Never-to-Be-Forgotten Principles of Adult Learning

When teaching private classes, one may inevitably have to teach adults. The method in which adults learn, called andragogy, is a lot less talked about when compared to pedagogy, the way children learn. Not surprisingly, the word pedagogy rings many bells whilst andragogy is an unknown term by many.

Teachers focused on adult learning would undoubtedly yield better results by appropriating andragogical teaching techniques. In this article I will explore four principles that strike a chord with my experience as an ELT professional, and are in line with academic research on adult learning. I also set parallels between those principles and how they can be applied in the ELT classroom in order to promote better chances of language acquisition.

Adults have a sense of independence.

Four Never-to-Be-Forgotten Principles of Adult Learning

Adults tend to have a clear picture of themselves as individuals. They value a teacher- student relationship that takes into account who they are, and their preferences. Many adults associate “education” with traditional teaching, which is patronising and void of any genuine concerns on the students active role in the learning process. This psychological conflict of an adult living again traditional teaching may generate a fight-or-flight response being the latter the most common.

Retention rates for adults tend to be lower than other segments partially due to the association that many adults make: Education = traditional education. Any signal is enough to trigger their psychological defence. One way to mitigate this issue is by not measuring efforts to make adult learning more and more self directing.

In our classes, a good example would be to assist adult learners in raising their awareness of their own responsibility in the learning process.  Coaching techniques in ELT show amazing results and I strongly recommend Marcela Harrisberger site on the issue, . The coaching tools she designed help me a lot when I’m delivering courses for my business students.

Another winning strategy is to design tailor-made courses bearing in mind learners’ goals, background, preferences and previous experience with the language. The co-design (and thus the involvement of the adult learners in the creation of the syllabus) is often the best way to provide learners with the independence they so much appreciate. Learning pathway oriented courses are undoubtedly the way forward!

Learner’s need to know the “Whys”

Four Never-to-Be-Forgotten Principles of Adult Learning

Adult learners are less likely to slavishly follow teaching concepts. It’s important for them to understand the “whys” involved, the underlying reasons for choosing a book at the expense of another or even why they ought to delve in a topic and not another. The idea that students are going to follow your lead because you’re the expert is not only naive but also dangerous.

In my 20-ish years of experience teaching mostly adults I learned that they respect signs of authority (not Authoritarianism). When a teacher shows that there are reasonable reasons for an educational decision making, adult learners are more likely to respect this ELT professional, even when they do not agree with the decision. The point here is that adult learners are more inclined to follow a prerogative rooted in a rationale than bowing to decisions they barely comprehend.

My suggestion is that you should always voice the reasons for your teaching practices, especially in one-to-one classes. My experience also indicates that by checking and negotiating students expectations in the beginning of the term is a healthy measure, respected and desired by adult learners, especially if you bring into the open the reasons for what can be done, how it can be done and why it can/cannot be done.

In a nutshell, don’t expect adult learners to respect you only because of your title, years of experience or certificates. They expect to be led by someone they personally trust. This means clear communication of your educational and professional “whys”.  This will lay the groundwork for a healthier professional relationship with your adult learners.

Prior experience of the learner.

Four Never-to-Be-Forgotten Principles of Adult Learning

Adult learners (if any) are not empty vessels. They have a learning path behind them and teachers who use students experience as the “brick and mortar” for their classes have more motivated and productive learners. Adults see this as a sign of respect, thus decreases learners’ affective filter, and increases learning odds.

When observing teachers, I noticed that the ones who contextualised their lessons, bearing in mind students’ background and focused on learners’ real needs, were not only more admired and cherished by students, they also had higher retention rates. Students had higher satisfaction score and performed better in the classes.

One way to address this is to add elements of your students’ previous experiences in your classes. This can be done especially in lesson stages such as contextualisation, language clarification – use the target language in sentences that are related to your students’ daily lives – and, definitely, freer practice! The latter should by all means be related to your learners’ lives.

Real life oriented learning

Real life oriented learning

Adults tend to be more pragmatic than kids. If they notice the connection between what they’re learning and the benefits they’ll have in their lives you increase their motivation and involvement in the class.

Methods which are “hands on” such as task based yield interesting results due to its strong link with students’ real life problems. Notwithstanding, mainstream methods such as PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production) can also meet the mentioned criterion by incorporating life like problem solving in the freer practice moment.

When teaching business English students, I often adapt case studies from the book Market Leader by Pearson. I personalise everything. I can and incorporate my learners real-life business challenges to the activities in such a way that what happens in my classroom mirrors what my adult learners do in real life.


These are the principles that stand out when Andragogy comes to mind. A book that really helped me to cement my take on andragogy is “The adult learner” by Malcolm S. Knowles. It also inspired me in my early days teaching adults back in 2000s and even today is my reference bedside book in keeping with andragogy. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

What’s your take on andragogy? What are the main difficulties that you’ve encountered on your ELT path? Which insights would you like to share with us? Feel free to write them down on the comments bellow 🙂

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