The 5 Traits of Successful Adult Learners

Is life-long learning really all it’s cracked up to be, or is it simply a buzz word used by higher learning institutions, in order to lure in more tuition payers? The current state of the economy provides the answer. In this day and age, with scarce employment opportunities, high competition levels, and a fast-paced working environment, it seems adults have little choice but to continue their education throughout their lives. The budgets that both private companies and government agencies dedicate to training also stand as proof. According to the most recent data from the Johns Hopkins Institute of Education, companies spend as much as $210 billion per year for training their employees and governments also chip in with an extra $5 billion a year.

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Continue your education throughout your life

But the question of whether or not adult learning can be truly effective for the people involved remains, even in spite of these figures. A recent study, published by Dorothy D. Billington, of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, tried to elucidate this dilemma. Billington analyzed the performance of sixty male and female adult learners, aged 37 to 48, who enrolled in doctoral programs. She found that all the subjects experienced growth, even in mid-life – but they all thrived in a specific type of environment, one in which they felt safe and supported. And, of course, some performed better than others in their mid-life academic careers. So what are the most important traits of highly successful adult learners? Let’s take a look and find out!




1. Picking the right school

Easier said than done, right? With so many options at their disposal, adult learners may come to feel overwhelmed by the range of choice they’re presented with. It’s important to pick a learning environment where one feels safe, appreciated for their unique traits, involved, accountable for the learning process, and shown the proper level of attention via feedback. Perhaps not coincidentally, many adult learners these days opt for online training. Of course, many do so out of convenience: they can arrange for a flexible learning schedule and study from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. While this is all well and good, there’s still a lot to be said about the difference between a good online course offer and a sub-par one. The tell-tale signs of a solid program involve a long track record, numerous certifications offered, and flexibility. HCC online courses, for instance, have been around since 2001 and provide no fewer than 28 different certifications, all of which can be acquired in 6 weeks, up to 6 months. That’s the kind of flexibility and professionalism you’re looking for.

2. Pacing

This is as much about the adult learners’ capacity to time and dose their efforts, as it is about the learning environment in which they perform. Dorothy Billington’s study found that it’s important to optimally challenge the intellects of adult learners. Those who felt too challenged gave up, while those who were challenged too little quickly became bored with the status quo. The secret to efficient adult learning, then, lies in optimally pacing yourself, so as to constantly feel the proper level of challenge. In the Johns Hopkins study, the most successful and intellectually stimulated adult learners were those who reported a constant sense of challenge during their doctoral school coursework.

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The More You Know…

3. Focus on the journey

Remember the old adage, which says that it’s always about the journey, not the destination? Professor Robert Evans, a Pro Vice-Chancellor at Curtin Singapore explains that adult learners need to be very flexible, when enrolling in an educational program. They do bring a lot of valuable assets to the table, such as “life experience and transferrable skills from previous employment. However, mature workers also have challenges, which include the need to be flexible in adapting to the new ways of working”. In between studying and juggling the demands of multiple commitments, such as a family life, a social life, and a career, it’s important to focus on the journey of learning and not simply on the chore of trudging through school, in order to get a certificate.

4. Active involvement

Actively involved adult learners fare far better than those who simply plop themselves down into a chair and passively listen to a lecture. Perhaps even more so than their younger counterparts, adults who become involved in an educational process require interaction, dialog, and safe experimentation in school. This is an important lesson to remember, both for faculty and instructors, as well as for learners. Feedback needs to flow both ways, in order for the learning process to be efficient.

5. Adaptability

This is perhaps the most important trait of a successful adult learner: remembering that in order to stay employed and successful in one’s career, one needs to constantly adapt to the ever-changing pressures of the labor field. According to Dr. Liz Chan, the Director of Academic Institutions Partnerships as the SAA Global Education Center, “an eager to learn attitude is essential for adult learners to be employed and to remain employed so that their skills will not become obsolete. Being adaptable to the environment and receptive to the changes in the economy and business industry is also an important trait that would greatly affect employability of adults.”

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