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What Is Adult about Adult Motivation to Learn?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Most employers and educational institutions value and reward self-directed competence. Most adults are socialized with these values. These cultural conventions account for one of the most widely accepted generalizations in adult education: adults are highly pragmatic learners.



The posting below looks at some of the factors that impact adult learning.  It is from Chapter 4 – What Motivates Adults to Learn,in the book Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults, by Raymond J. Wlodkowski. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. SanFrancisco, CA 94104 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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What Is Adult about Adult Motivation to Learn?

Responsibility is the cornerstone of adult motivation. Almost all cultures hold adults more responsible for their actions than they do children. For adults this is an inescapable fact. This deep social value for responsibility is why competence, being effective at what one values, looms so large and so consistently as a force for learning among adults. 

Although there is no unified comprehensive theory of adult learning, certain concepts are especially insightful for teaching adults. In his discussion of andragogy (adult learning as it differs from how children and adolescents learn), Malcom Knowles provided two assumptions that add to our understanding of adult motivation: (1) “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives … [and] develop a deep psychological need to be seen and treated by others as being capable of self-direction” and (2) “Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order  to cope effectively with their real-life situations” [E2] (1989, pp. 83-84). These two assumptions continue to reflect the social norms of the majority society in the United States, a largely individualistic and pragmatic culture. Most employers and educational institutions value and reward self-directed competence. Most adults are socialized with these values. These cultural conventions account for one of the most widely accepted generalizations in adult education: adults are highly pragmatic learners.

Research consistently supports Knowles’s second assumption: adults choose vocational and practical education that leads to knowledge about how to do something more often than they choose any other form of learning (Aslanian, 2001). The largest category of continuing education globally is directed toward upgrading job-related knowledge and skills (Mott, 2006; Schied, 2006). Adults have a strong need to apply what they have learned and to be competent in that application, and institutions and employers have a pressing need for more knowledgeable and skilled workers. The reciprocal needs of adults and employers interact with economics to produce a powerful demand for learning that increases personal and professional competence. 

Adults by social definition, economic need, and institutional expectation are responsible people who seek to enhance their lives through learning that develops their competence. The usefulness of what is learned generally is a greater influence on adults’ motivation to learn than its intellectual value. The second major characteristic that distinguishes adults’ motivation to learn is their accumulated experience and learning. The sum of adults’ personal knowledge and acculturation influences what they regard as useful, relevant, and interesting to learn. Neuroscientifically, prior knowledge determines what matters and to what adult brains are attuned to pay attention to and concentrate on (Zull, 2006). 

One might say that prior knowledge and experience are equally important influences for the motivation of children and it’s true. However, howprevious experience and learning affect what adults and children find interesting to learn and howthey act with that information differs. Maturity of brain development makes the difference. Neurologist and former middle school teacher Judy Willis explains, “The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to mature. This brain region is the center for emotional stability, moral reasoning, judgment, and executive functions such as concentration, planning, delayed gratification, and prioritizing. Because of fluctuations in the developing prefrontal cortex, teens might have difficulty communicating ideas and feelings, making wise decisions, or establishing consistent self identities” (2006, p. 67). 

The prefrontal cortex may not be completely developed until a person is between 25 and 30 years old (Gogtay and others, 2004). The neurons in the frontal lobe form rules from learned experiences (Wallis, Anderson, and Miller, 2001); this is where we create large holistic views of what the world is, what we want to do about it, and in what direction we want to go (Zull, 2002). A fully developed prefrontal cortex with a well-integrated set of life experiences probably contributes to what is conventionally described as maturity – the ability to make responsible decisions on a regular basis with consideration of their consequences for the welfare of others as well as oneself. 

Experientially, adults generally differ from children quantitatively; they have more experience by virtue of being older. Qualitatively, adults have had more time and seen the benefits and outcomes of a greater variety of experiences. Neurologically, their brains are more developed and capable of judging, planning, and making decisions about their experiences in a manner that is more integrated, stable, reflective, and future oriented. This constellation of characteristics probably makes the valueof what adults learn more important to them. Recent research indicates that adult college students (28 and older) have a greater intrinsic goal orientation academically than college students 21 or younger (Bye, Pushkar, and Conway, 2007). This finding may reflect adults’ greater desire to learn for a sense of accomplishment, effectiveness, and value for what is being learned. It may be that the worthof what is learned is more important to fostering their intrinsic motivation than it is for younger students. What these differences in experience mean motivationally is that adults are more likely than children to have these characteristics: 

-      To use relevance (what matters rather than what is playful or stimulating) as the ultimate criteria for sustaining their interest

-      To be more critical and more self-assured about their judgment[E3] of the value of what they are learning

-      To be reluctant to learn what they cannot endorse by virtue of its value, usefulness, or contribution to their goals

-      To be sensitive to and require respect from their teachers as a condition for learning 

-      To want to actively test what they are learning in real work and life settings 

-      To want to use their experience and prior learning as consciously and as directly as possible while learning

-      To want to integrate new learning with their life roles as parents, workers, and so forth 

There are other differences between children and adults in terms of their motivation to learn, but research, theory, and my own history as a teacher confirm that the influences of responsibility and experience are the most notable. Like the roots of a tree, they may not always be obvious, but when it comes to enhancing adult motivation, they are needed to sustain and support everything we do as instructors. 


Aslanian, C. B. Adult Students Today. New York: The College Board, 2001. 

Bye, D., Pushkar, D., and Conway, M. “Motivation, Interest, and Positive Affect in Traditional and Nontraditional Undergraduate Students.” Adult Education Quarterly, 2007, 57, 141-158. 

Gogtay, N., and others. “Dynamic Mapping of Human Cortical Development during Childhood and through Early Adulthood.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,May 25, 2004, 101(21), 8174-8179. 

Knowles, M.S. The Making of an Adult Educator: An Autobiographical Journey.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989. 

Mott, V.W. “Is Adult Education an Agent for Change or Instrument of the Status Quo?” In S.B. Merriam, B.C. Courtenay, and R. M. Cervero (eds.), Global Issues and Adult Education: Perspectives from Latin America, Southern Africa, and the United States.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. 

Schied, F.M. “In the Belly of the Beast: Globalization and Adult Education in the United States.” In S.B. Merriam, B.C. Courtenay, and R.M. Cervero (eds.), Global Issues and Adult Education: Perspectives from Latin America, Southern Africa, and the United States. SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006. 

Wallis, J.D., Anderson, K.C., and Miller, E.K. “Single Neurons in Pre-Frontal Cortex Encode Abstract Rules.” Nature, 2001, 411, 953-956. 

Willis, J. Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2006. 

Zull, J.E. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning.Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002. 

Zull, J.E. “Key Aspects of How the Brain Learns.” In S. Johnson and K. Taylor (eds.), The Neuroscience of Adult Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 110. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.