Understanding adult learners — who they are, how they use technology, how they learn, barriers they face, and specific standards for progressing in their educations — allows developers and educators to conceptualize ways to help these learners.

PIAAC Fact Sheet

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Who Are Adult Learners?

The numbers are staggering. 36 million adults cannot read above a third grade level, and one in three do not have basic math skills. The PIAAC Fact Sheet to the right tells us even more. This market is immense, and those who understand it are best poised to become market leaders.

Through the stories of our Beacons, we see the many different types of adult learners who make up the 36 million in need and ways that technology can meet their needs.

Kentucky Educational Television also tells the stories of adult learners in their TV and web series Dropping Back In. The series looks at how a lack of a high school credential affects the lives of adults from a personal, professional, and educational standpoint.

Technology Use by Adults

According to research by the Pew Research Center, Internet access, computer/laptop ownership, and smartphone ownership among American adults is at an all-time high. 84 percent of American adults have Internet access, 73 percent own a computer or a laptop, and 68 percent own a smartphone.

However, the survey results also show that low-income, poorly educated, older, and/or Hispanic and African-American adults still lag behind in significant ways. For example, only 41 percent of adults with less than a high school education own a smartphone and only 29 percent own a computer or laptop.

For more research on adult technology use, visit this page.

How Adults Learn

Four major theoretical perspectives on adult learning have influenced the way we think about how adults learn.

  1. Andragogy … proposes that adults bring a wealth of experience to their learning. Learning is successful when adults can connect new information to their experiences, see how it is relevant to their lives, and apply that new learning immediately.
  2. Experiential learning … stresses the importance of providing adult learners time and space for reflection to help them absorb and make sense of the experience.
  3. Self-directed learning… proposes that adults can and should be active participants in their own learning, including the pace, planning, resources, and evaluation of that learning. Self-direction is a critical component of persistence in adult education.
  4. Transformational learning … proposes that transformative moments, or experiences that change the way people think about themselves and their world, lead to a shift in consciousness and improve learners’ motivation and confidence as they consider new ideas and perspectives.

For more research on how adults learn, visit this page.

Barriers Adult Learners Face

The barriers and challenges most often cited by low-income adult students and adult educators generally revolve around managing the competing demands of work, family, education, desire for a social life, availability of classes and programs, and lack of confidence as learners. Low-Income Adults in Profile: Improving Lives Through Higher Education, a report from the American Council on Education, profiles low-income adult learners, outlines the many challenges they face, and advocates for changes in policy and systems to better needs their needs.

Career Skills and Education Standards for Adults

The College and Career Readiness (CCR) Standards for Adult Education are a framework for preparing adult students for success in colleges, technical training programs, work, and citizenship. Programs and products can be developed around this framework to prepare adult learners for the rigors of postsecondary training, work, and citizenship.

Personal success skills (or soft or non-cognitive skills) are also getting increased attention in the workforce development arena. These skills enable adults to manage the challenges, relationships, transitions, and social systems of working life. Empowering Adults to Thrive at Work: Personal Success Skills for 21st Century Jobs from SRI Education and The Joyce Foundation presents the research on promoting personal success skills for adults and provides specific recommendations for effective and affordable supports for the development of these skills.