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The Role of Aging in Adult Learning: Implications for Instructors in Higher Education

by David L. Crawford


Humans begin learning at birth and generally continue this process throughout life, but how much is learned and the value of that knowledge varies greatly from one individual to the next (Sheppard, 2002). Historically, the perception of adult learning and its value has varied greatly among individuals and groups. In the past, many people considered formal education and learning beyond age fifty of little value to society given the limited life span to use such knowledge. Many individuals might have considered such pursuit of knowledge as self-centered at best and viewed work beyond age sixty or sixty-five as unwarranted unless financial considerations dictated otherwise. Other critics of adult learning may have cited various reasons such as illness, genetic longevity, environment, ethnic differences, and individual habits as limiting the career and thus restricting the need for learning. Many of these attitudes were linked to a study by Moody (as cited in Lowy and O'Connor, 1986) suggesting that older adults perceive learning from the vantage point of approximately how much time is left to live. Although never exact, this perspective of time dramatically influences the educational goals of the older adult.

Regardless of these popular attitudes, more recently people have come to view aging differently and have tended to classify learning in that same context. There appears to be an ongoing shift regarding the issue of adult learning that can be dated back to the post-World War II era and the GI Bill of Rights which resulted in millions of veterans flooding college campuses (Sheppard, 2002). In the United States, this legislation further promoted the growing notion that higher education was available for the common citizen and not just the wealthy aristocrat. Out of that setting came a generation of adults forming different views as to who could learn and when such learning was appropriate. Post WWII generations began taking a lifelong approach to learning resulting in an important cultural change that has increased economic productivity while improving the quality of life as well. Increasingly, older adults are seeking formal educational opportunities echoed in the demographic that reports 33 percent of postsecondary students are age 25 or older (King, Anderson, and Corrigan, 2003).

Changing demographics have had a lot to do with continuous lifelong learning by adults. Increased life expectancy during the last half of the 20th century is believed to be higher than any increases from recorded history until 1900 (Swain, 1995). Legislation regarding retirement age for full social security benefits was initiated in the in the mid 1930's which set that age as sixty-five and this retirement age was actually borrowed from the 19th century when people were estimated as living only a couple of years beyond there working careers. The legislation passed in the 1930's has changed very little since then even though life expectancies have increased dramatically . Consequently, until recently the assumption has been that people who live longer will most likely have more leisure time but not, necessarily, longer working careers. The Baby Boomers, those individuals born between 1946 and 1964, resulted in 80,000,000 new Americans, many of whom entered the workforce. Some writers such as Kaplan-Leiseson (2001) believe that a severe labor shortage will come about as the bulk of this group retires. Although more lenient immigration standards may offset the problem somewhat, the idea that people will continue to work and learn as they grow older seems important from an economic standpoint.

An even more apparent demand for adult education is supported by research that suggests a twenty year old today can expect to make six to seven job changes over the course of a working career (Aslanian and Brickell, 1980). Often, these vocational changes lead to additional adult learning out of necessity.

Clark and Caffarella (1999) explain that adult learning can be defined in numerous ways, but that a widely accepted definition refers to those learners as having completed mandatory public schooling, usually around age eighteen. While that may be a common convention among educational theorists, there are various definitions in use and this manuscript will refer to the adult learner as (at a minimum) having finished mandatory schooling in addition to having gained experience in the work force prior to engaging in additional education. Consequently, the focus here is on the adult that has had life experiences and has often been referred to as a non-traditional student in the higher education setting. The age range for this type of student is extremely wide and, for the most part, includes adults over age 25.

Bok (1990) has noted the importance of the adult learner by asserting that the college or university is a central institution of the current post-industrial society. Therefore, the effect of aging on the adult learner and implications for educators will be examined in that context.

Physiological Aspects of Aging on Learning

As one ages chronologically, not only are physical changes taking place such as reduced vision and hearing ability, but other age related factors can impact cognitive function well. Factors such as impaired blood circulation, decreased neurotransmitters, depression, stress, and chronic illness can all have an effect on the ability of the individual to learn (Merriam, 2001).

In 1927 Edward L. Thorndike reported that the ability to learn declined very slowly and very slightly at about 1% per year after age twenty-five. Until then, adult educators had mostly operated under the notion that "you can't teach old dogs new tricks". But later studies by Lorge revealed that the decline was that of speed of learning, not intellectual power, and that even this was minimized by continual use of the intellect (Knowles, 1980). Therefore, to say that one's ability to learn peaks at a young age and then tapers off slowly is generally true for most individuals, but it is also too simplistic and ultimately deficient in describing how aging affects the complex process of learning.

Most theorist believe that intelligence consists of several factors. These factors can be separated into primary mental abilities and secondary mental abilities (Cavanaugh and Blanchard-Fields, 2002). A common subset of the primary mental abilities is made up of numeric facility, word fluency, verbal meaning, inductive reasoning, and spatial orientation.

Using a longitudinal study over a period of several decades, Schaie (1994) noted that scores on primary mental abilities improved gradually until about age forty at which time the abilities tend to stabilize until approximately age sixty. The decreases are small until the mid seventies at which time scores are usually measurably lower than they were in the mid twenties. Therefore, when a composite measure of mental abilities is used, learning ability does not decrease until the sixth or even seventh decade for most individuals. The significance of this seminal study seems to be that noticeable overall mental decline in the primary abilities does not generally occur until later in life.

Additionally, it should be noted that research pertaining to the secondary mental abilities usually focuses on two: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence (Cavanaugh, et. al., 2002). Younger people perform at a higher level where rote memorization that is part of fluid intelligence is measured whereas older, more experienced people make up for this in what is called crystallized intelligence through better developed verbal abilities and judgment (Merriam, 2001).

The good news here is that research supports the notion of lifelong learning in healthy individuals at least well into their seventies. While no one can stop the aging process, there are some things that have been associated with increased retention of mental processes: education; exercise; absence of chronic diseases and illness and otherwise stimulating activities to the brain have all been shown to help the cognitive process (Merriam, 2001). While older adults are not as quick to learn as are younger people, they can often make up for this through a wealth of experiences that tend to support superior reasoning and judgment abilities if given time to think and reflect on the learning activity.

Experiential Aspects of Aging on Learning

Adult learners have already been partly educated through life experiences. The concept of the experienced adult engaged in learning is an interesting and popular concept in higher education where it is generally accepted that adults have more experiences, different kinds of experiences, and that these experiences are organized differently (Long, 1983). According to Knowles (1980), adults derive much of their self identity from their past experiences. In that respect, they are much different from children who tend to view themselves largely from external sources. Because of this factor, adult learners place a great deal of value on their experiences and if they cannot use those experiences, or, if those experiences are rejected, it may feel similar to being rejected as an individual. Related to this is the fear of failure that an adult learner may bring to the classroom, particularly if this is a new environment where they might fear further rejection from their peer group (Kennedy, 2003) or their instructor.

While it may be true that adults often have a highly specialized or even expert knowledge base via extensive past learning activity, some researchers speculate that slowing of new information may occur because of a large knowledge base (Sternberg & Berg, eds. 1992). Additionally, adults may or may not bring experiences with them that are related to their current learning. Not all experiences are of equal value to the task at hand. Finally, not only can experiences be unequal in value, in some cases those experiences might actually be detrimental to their learning. Kennedy (2003) notes this phenomenon and indicates, "past experiences can also be a handicap in acquiring new learning." This type of handicap could occur from past habits or old ways of thinking about some important issue. A preconceived way of thinking and doing something is not always easily changed, especially when it has been previously backed up by some perceived expert advice. It could be added then, that adults are more skeptical about accepting new information, especially if it appears to contradict what they already believe.

Determining the trade offs between the size and value of the prior knowledge base and an older adult's ability to access information and add to that knowledge base is a challenging agenda for the teacher of an adult learner (Sternberg & Berg, eds., 1992). Many teachers may enjoy the challenge that adults bring to the table while others might feel threatened because of the expertise that such a student could use to challenge the instructor. These are both important issues that must be addressed by the instructor when developing a learning environment for the experienced adult learner.

Psychological Self-Image of the Adult Learner

Havinghurst (as cited in Knowles, 1980) asserts that people do not simply pass into adulthood and then just coast along to old age. He claims that adulthood has transition points and developmental periods as complete as that of childhood. Other theorists such as Erikson and Levinson also present stage or phase theories sometimes linked to life events and transitions that adults encounter and pass through (Clark and Caffarella, 1999). Kohlberg's (as cited in Merriam and Caffarella, 1991) 1973 theory of moral development promotes three stages that individuals pass through from youth to adulthood in relation to moral and ethical judgments influenced by the relationship of the individual to his or her social setting. All of these theorists tend to break development into various stages and recognize that although adults do not always fit neatly into each of these categories, by and large each phase has its own challenges and adjustments that could be viewed as developmental.

Regardless of which theory is most correct, Knowles (1980) argues for a dramatic change to self-image when one defines him or herself as an adult. The switch is away from being a full-time learner to one that takes on other responsibilities and thus creates more of a self-directed personality. People reaching adulthood do not just inherit a chronological progression of aging but also often include taking an attitude that is more self-directed along with a need for others to view them as such.

Much of the self-directed image of the adult is mirrored in how they view work. The working role of many people often provides a significant and meaningful factor in self-identification. The old notion of "we are what we do" is an apt description of how a person may view his/her own self-image. While work itself is usually an important factor, another factor appears to be the differences in occupations among individuals. Many times lives outside of work are strongly influenced if not dictated by occupational activities (Long, 1972).

Another aspect of work that appears to influence the adult's perspective to learning has to do with job dissatisfaction. Rapid changes in technology and other socioeconomic factors may influence a great number of individuals to change occupations over the course of their working lives. The need to update or acquire new skills for vocational reasons may be significant for a growing number of adults.

Learning Expectations of the Adult

The notion of the adult learner as being self-directed is generally accepted in the literature on adult learning. Self-directed learning means that the learner tends to be systematic yet independent while not focusing exclusively on the instructor or the classroom (Merriam, 2001). Additionally, it means that as individuals mature, they may choose the precise means by which to learn certain subject matter and may become selective as to which content they learn. Self-regulation is a similar but not exact term used for traditional students in an educational setting where the student monitors the learning progress independently. Likewise, the self-directed learner is able to monitor learning in the classroom but can take that a step further to learning experiences outside of the traditional classroom as well.

Being self-directed has an important influence upon expectations of the adult learner which is one of the major differences between adults and children in the learning environment. Draves (1984) notes that adults are often eager to learn and approach learning from a mentality of readiness, problem orientation, and time perspective. All of these factors contribute to an internal motivation to learn that is sometimes missing in children.

Learner readiness is evident of a true learning mentality and can stem from the awareness that there is a need to learn. Reasons for learning range from specific career objectives to factors such as personal growth and accomplishment. Long (1983) points out that participation by adults in formal education is multifaceted and that realistically it is difficult to classify adult learners into one category without asking them personally about their education. Regardless of the need to learn, it is a very real need to the learner and thus results in readiness to learn.

Aslanian and Brickell (1980) noted that 83% of adult learners describe "some past, present, or future change in their lives as reasons to learn." These learners encounter change that requires learning in order to make the transition successful. Of this group, the vast majority (56%) named career changes as the reason. Additionally, it was noted that some life event separate from those transitions was the actual "trigger" that prompted them to start the process at that time. Sometimes this triggering event was momentous while other times it was of less significance.

Adult learners are more problem-centered and want to make learning apply to their lives. They view learning as most desirable when it is relevant and can be used currently rather than as something to be accessed in the distant future. Thus, they might be more interested in narrow issues than broad philosophical principles. Related to this issue is that adults also view learning from a different time perspective than children. As learners get older, time becomes more limited and, in many ways more precious (Draves, 1984). Placing a higher value on time seems logical when considering the aging process that adults are experiencing coupled with awareness that they cannot recover lost time. In short, this same concept holds true for adult learners who do not want to waste valuable time in educational pursuits that that they view as pointless.

Implications for Educators in Higher Education

Understanding adult learners and the role of aging on their learning processes is one thing, but what about the implications of this information as it pertains to practicing educators in higher education? Knowing that there is more diversity among adult learners than there is among children who have had fewer experiences means that adult educators may be well advised to take a different approach when applying principles of good teaching to this group. Educators prone to using a cookie cutter approach to teaching may find student dissatisfaction with the instructional efforts that result in few rewards and less professional satisfaction for the instructor and student. Therefore, it seems imperative to develop some inferences appropriate to teaching in the higher education setting given the discussion of the aging process and its relationship to adult learning.

Most educators may be somewhat disappointed to find that the majority of adults do not learn for the sheer pleasure of learning. Neither the process nor the possession of knowledge is the main reason for their participation (Aslanian and Brickell, 1980). Quite clearly, the main reason that adults are engaged in learning is because they want to be able to apply and use the knowledge. In fact, many adults are learning out of necessity because of some transition that has interrupted their life and they want learning to be relevant and to the point so that they will succeed at this transition. The corresponding message to educators seems apparent; the instruction must meet the needs of the adult students.

Adults are self-directed learners and are generally capable of monitoring their own progress. One implication is that they are usually more capable of interpreting flexibility that is built into a course such as a choice of assignments. As educators, the challenge may be to understand the various student interests and develop methodology and assessment techniques that allow for flexibility yet adheres to the constructs of the course content. This may be as simple as assigning writing requirements where there are choices for developing a topic within a certain conceptual framework.

Motivation is generally not a problem for the mature adult learner because they are ready to learn. They are often motivated to learn due to or in anticipation of a career change and desire to be successful in obtaining that goal. Because of this, problem centered types of assignments appeal to adults and they are usually eager to demonstrate this ability that is so commonly used on the job. Working in groups by role-playing, using case studies, or simulations may be an appropriate method of engaging the student in this type of learning.

The literature supports the idea of lifelong learning as viable for healthy adults and while the speed of learning may slow over time, the older learners make up for speed through their experience and knowledge base and are usually able to mentally process at a higher cognitive level with respect to such things as analysis, conceptualization, creativity, and judgment abilities. Overall, this means that the instructor needs to implement only slight and subtle modifications for an older learner in a course of study. While most adult learners are not as fast at rote memorization and may not be interested in content driven courses that contain a lot of memorization, they appear to be very adept at contextually based relevant coursework that requires critical thinking.

Draves (1984) suggests that group discussion is the most common format used for adult learning but that care must be used so as to prevent the discussion from wandering and becoming irrelevant to the topic at hand. The instructor is advised to introduce a topic of discussion at the beginning of each session and then facilitate from that point on. Giving adult learners the ability to share their stories among a group of learners is highly desirable because it creates a feeling of collegiality among the group and helps reduce fear among some of the quieter students. If the group is large, it may help promote discussion by breaking up into smaller groups first. This type of environment will promote an atmosphere of trust where students feel they can share narratives and dialogues regarding their own experiences. Some authors assert that humans are instinctively storytellers and are able to make meaning from narrative (Merriam, 2001). The sharing of experiences among adults is an important part of developing a learning community within the classroom.

Adult learners often bring a wealth of experience to the classroom that sometimes results in a dominating personality emerging from the group. This can be threatening to other students as well as to an instructor who is unprepared to deal with this kind of situation. To defuse such a dominating personality, it may be advisable for the instructor to understand when and how to intercede so as to bring others in for participation in the learning process. Creating a non-threatening and more informal atmosphere appears to work best when dealing with adult learners. In addition, it makes the class as a whole feel more at ease and willing to participate in discussion.

Like all learners, adults prefer an atmosphere that is favorable to the task at hand. It may seem obvious to note that the physical surroundings should be free of undue noise and that the temperature in the room is appropriate but the instructor should be cognizant of such things as decline in auditory and visual acuity with age. Instructors need to ask students if they can see or hear adequately in order to fully comprehend the material. Long (1983) says that beyond these physical issues there is some indication that architectural and environmental variables might influence interaction and learning but exactly how is not known.


The literature supports the idea that adults are very capable of learning well into their seventies which is a good reason to accept lifelong learning as more than just a pleasant mantra. Likewise, it seems beneficial for faculty in the higher educational setting to be aware of differences between the older learner and the traditional college age student. The differences are somewhat subtle, so it will take effort on the part of the instructor to understand and implement strategies appropriate to the nuances of the adult learner. Even though it takes time and energy to explore for the optimal environment and teaching methodology, the payoff could be well worth the effort if the result is an enjoyable and satisfying learning experience for the student. While it may be true that adults will learn in spite of the professor's shortcomings, faculty that choose to ignore learner differences run the inherent risk of mediocrity in their teaching.


Aslanian, C.B., Brickell, H.M. (1980). Americans in transition: Life changes as reasons for adult Learning. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Bok, D. (1990). Universities and the future of America. London: Duke University Press.

Cavanaugh, J.C., Blanchard-Fields, F. (2002). Adult development and aging. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

Clark, M.C., Caffarella, R.S. (Eds.). (1999). An update on adult development theory: New ways of thinking about the life course. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Draves, W.A. (1984). How to teach adults. Manhattan, KS: The Learning Resources Network.

Kaplan-Leiserson, E. (2001). Aged to perfection. Training and Development. Oct. 2001. Retrieved July 4, 2004 from database.

Kennedy, R.C. (2003). Applying principles of adult learning: the key to more effective training programs. The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. April, 2003. Retrieved June 25, 2004 from database.

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Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education. Chicago: Follet Publishing Company.

Long, H. B. (1972). The psychology of aging: How it affects learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Long, H. B. (1983). Adult learning: Research and practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lowy, L., O'Connor, D. (1986). Why education in the later years?. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company.

Merriam, S. B. (2001). The new update on adult learning theory. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S. (1991). Learning in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schaie, K. W. (1994). The course of adult intellectual development. American Psychologist, 49, 304-313.

Sheppard, T. (2002). "The learning journey." Navy Supply Corps Newsletter. June-August, 2002. Retrieved July 4, 2004 from database.

Sternberg, R. J., Berg, C. A. (Eds.). (1992). Intellectual development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Swain, L. (1995). "Aging and the aged." Encyclopedia of nursing and allied health. Retrieved June 25, 2004 from database.

About the author:

David Crawford is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, where he teaches in the area of accounting. He is also a current Doctoral student in Higher Education at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. Crawford has been a full-time faculty member in higher education for eight years and previously worked in industry including twelve years in public accounting prior to his academic appointment. He holds a masters degree in accountancy and is a certified public accountant. Previous publications include works in the area of accounting and in education.

He can be reached at

©December 2004

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