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     University of Colorado at Boulder

Adult Learning: A Survey and Analysis

Dipti Mandalia, Jonathan Marbach, Payal Prabhu

[mandalia, marbach, prabhu]


We examine and report on the differences between traditional students – "Day Scholars", and Adult Learners. Specifically, we address varying motivational factors and classroom environment preferences. We discuss our null hypotheses based on secondary information, our own primary research, and compare the two. Our research consisted of a survey given to students in the University of Colorado's Continuing Education program from three separate courses.

Adult education is a co-operative venture in non-authoritarian, informal learning the chief purpose of which is to discover the meaning of experience; a quest of the mind which digs down to the roots of the preconceptions which formulate our conduct; a technique of learning for adults which makes education coterminous with life, and hence elevates living itself to the level of an experiment. Eduard Lindeman, What is Adult Education? (1925).


In this investigation, we explored the learning patterns and attitudes that differ between Day Scholars, students who are enrolled in the university at the average student age (18-24), and Adult Learners, those who come back to school after spending some amount of time in a career or otherwise garnering life experience. In particular we wanted to explore two aspects of Adult Learners’ learning experiences: the motivational aspect that draws the individual back to school, and the kind of instruction and classroom environment these students prefer. For each of these criteria we had certain prior notions. Firstly, we believed that the major forms of motivation for returning to school are career demands, a need to change careers, and self-improvement. Secondly, our notion of their preferred instruction medium was that these students would prefer classrooms that are more collaborative, involve active participation, and include hands-on experience - essentially, classes that are more similar to the real-life situations they have encountered.

Based on some initial readings into Adult Learning theory, we developed a survey that would allow us to collect primary data that could be used to corroborate prior findings. The specifics of the survey will be discussed in a later section. In organizing the logistics of the survey, we arranged a meeting with two administrators from the School of Continuing Education: Lou Vang and Armando Pares. We first inquired if they had conducted any surveys of this kind. However, to our surprise, the School of Continuing Education has not done any surveys in this area, aside from the standard Faculty Course Questionnaire (FCQ). With Lou and Armando's guidance, we chose three courses, one from each of the categories Computer Applications, Personal Enrichment, and Boulder Evening Credit. The courses were as follows:

Advanced HTML: In this class we expected students to have come back to school for career-related reasons. It was our assumption that most of them would have taken this class either because their current work demanded additional skills or because they needed to change careers. Hence these students were attending because of extrinsic motivational factors. Also, we expected the students from this class to have well established opinions on how they would like a class to be structured.

Introduction to Drawing: We believed that this class would consist of students who are seeking personal growth or just looking to explore a topic of interest. Therefore, we thought it likely that these students would prefer a more open class structure than might be offered within the other two categories. We hoped that these students' questionnaire responses would give more insight into the intrinsic motivations behind their learning.

Communications and Society: An approved Arts and Sciences core course, this class was to contain a mix of students - both from the School of Continuing Education and the general student population. Based on this we expected a wider range of answers to the survey.


Factors of Adult Learning:

Based on the adult learning theory presented in "30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learners" the key elements for effective adult learning are

  • Individual needs and uniqueness are honored; abilities and life achievements are acknowledged

  • Intellectual freedom is fostered and exploration is encouraged

  • Students are treated as intelligent, experienced adults whose opinions are appreciated

  • Learning is self-directed: students work with faculty to design individual learning programs that address what each person needs and wants to learn

  • Pacing: people are challenged just beyond their present level of ability

  • Active involvement in learning is encouraged: students and instructors interact; students try out new ideas in the workplace; exercises and experiences are used to bolster facts and theory

  • Regular feedback mechanisms are established: students tell faculty what works best for them and what they want and need to learn


Why people learn:

People have various reasons to engage in the learning process, some of which are to enable them to understand something, do something, or create something that they could not previously understand, do, or create. Others might answer that they would like to help at least one other person, or perhaps even leave their mark on the world. However, for adult learners these reasons are augmented by other extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors. Adults seek out learning experiences in order to cope with specific life-changing events - e.g., marriage, divorce, a new job or promotion, being fired, retiring, losing a loved one or moving to a new city. Being able to use the knowledge or skill being sought plays an important role in driving the learning process in adults. In addition, increasing or maintaining one's sense of self-esteem and pleasure are strong secondary motivators for engaging in learning experiences.

The learning environment must be physically and psychologically comfortable; long lectures, periods of interminable sitting and the absence of practice opportunities can hinder the learning process. While day scholars are often more willing to absorb anything that is taught, adult learners need a definite structure to the class and so the instructor must take the time to articulate all goals before getting into content. An additional factor to consider is that adults bring a great deal of life experience into the classroom. This accumulation of knowledge can be beneficial to other students if the adult learner is allowed to share relevant experiences. Also, in allowing the smooth running of the class the element of feedback has to be bi-directional. The students have to relate their concerns about class content, pace, and teaching style in class to the instructor who then appropriately modifies the class plan to adapt these suggestions.

In understanding the learning styles of adults, it is often the case that adults prefer courses that focus on the application of the concept to relevant problems (also called Transformational Learning). There is the need to apply what they learn in class to a concrete problem or issue that they have come across outside of the classroom at different sites. Yet, in having clientele from various spheres of life, adult educators have to accept varying viewpoints from people who might subscribe to different value sets. Furthermore, regardless of media, how-to is the preferred content orientation (hands-on nature of the class).

Our Survey

To verify these theories, we designed a ten-question survey. In it we collected information on: age group, last completed level of schooling, break length before returning to school, prior occupation and relation to field of study, reasons for returning to school, preferred classroom environment, preferred classmate interaction, significance of outside experiences, and role of technology in the classroom. The questions were a mix of multiple choice and short answer. This survey is available online in pdf format here.

The Classes

The survey was conducted to students in the Continuing Education classes mentioned earlier. The following are summaries of the results on a class-by-class basis.

Advanced HTML

Age: Largely 20-40yrs

Education Level: Most have Undergraduate degree

Work Experience: 3-5 yrs experience

Course Purpose: Enhancing current job skills

Learning Style: Most preferred hands-on

Group Learning: Individual projects

Technology Integration: Complete

Outside experience steered class discussions

Introduction to Drawing

Age: Broad age range with a majority over 40yrs

Education Level: 50% have Graduate experience

Work Experience: Extensive in unrelated fields

Course Purpose: Personal enrichment

Learning Style: Hands-on

Group Learning: Most prefer individual projects

Technology Integration: None

Outside experiences have little to do with in-class work

Communication and Society

Age: 20yr olds

Education Level: High School diploma

Work Experience: Have little to no work experience

Course Purpose: Convenient time slots (athletes, day jobs, course availability)

Learning Style: Discussion and Hands-on

Group Learning: Most prefer small groups

Technology Integration: Moderate use

Outside experiences have only minor influence



Our findings, overall, corresponded closely to our prior notions. As is evident from the statistical data provided, most of the students in the Advanced HTML class had returned to enhance their current job skills and employ the newly acquired skills in their respective work areas. This supports the hypothesis regarding the extrinsic motivational factor that drives adult education. By indicating on the survey that they had taken this class for personal enrichment, the students from the Introduction to Drawing proved that intrinsic factors had motivated them. Where our results deviated from expectation with regard to class demographics was in the Communication and Society course. All but one, in this class, were day scholars and we attribute this to the fact that the content of this class had no apparent practical application.

The courses we observed were largely informal and employed a "guide-on-the-side" teaching model where the teacher was more of an equal than an authority figure. Running the class in an informal manner provided a comfortable environment for the students, as the established theory suggests is necessary. We observed in the Advanced HTML class that the students brought in experiences from their workplace and shared the ideas. The classroom environment encouraged this sort of interaction, in effect facilitating collaboration and exchange of ideas. However, the survey responses showed that they were not in favor of collaborating outside of class by indicating that they preferred individual projects. This we think that in general this is due to the time constraints and tight schedules by which these students are bound, making coordination with other classmates difficult. We found it interesting though that in the short answer section, some students wrote that they preferred individual projects because they were hesitant to rely on others. The younger students from the Communication course favored working in small groups and cited social benefits as an important factor.

Again in the HTML course, we observed relevant behavior in that the professor allowed and encouraged discussion but still achieved her goals for the class period. Also, she responded to student questions by skipping ahead in her lecture to related course material, showing lesson plan flexibility. Finally, as prior research suggested, how-to was the preferred instructional technique regardless of technology. The HTML students and the Drawing students both chose this method over discussion or lecture based methods, but the HTML course was immersed in technology while the in the Drawing course, computational technology was absent.

In observing and surveying these three classes which had obvious variance in use of technology within the classroom, we were able to conclude that the level of use of technology has to be carefully appropriated according to the demands of the students, the demands of the instructor, and the demands of the course material. Although many of the elements of the "theory of adult learning" coincide with those of learning in general, the areas we explored were those that were imperitive to having a successful adult learning program.

Although our survey was conducted on a relatively small scale, we believe that for a class project our understanding of the theory and its implications, our surveying of "the real world" and our drawing of conclusions from what we observed are good enough to show that there is no one good formula for making lifelong learning a success. It all depends on the person who wants to learn, the person who teaches, and how the learning environment is set up to enable both parties to make good use of available resources.



How would you integrate technology with a class like Introduction To Drawing?

Have 3D modeling software to give students a better perspective of what they are drawing or painting. Without having lecture-style teaching of techniques dealing with color, texture, etc., have software that shows the various techniques with examples. Also, see websites of Art museums (like Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, or local art musuems) online and see what exhibits are currently being held.

How would you avoid technology dominating a class like Advanced HTML?

In contrast to the above, have students and instructors from the Art School come into an Adv. HTML class and talk about the elements of good color use, good layouts and designs, etc.

Do surveys like these help? Are they conclusive?

Yes they do, ONLY if someone intends to use the results of the survey to better design adult learning programs to enhance the learning activity. Also, surveys like these have to be done on a much larger scale to be effective in prompting changes in a current program.


We would like to thank Armando and Lou from the Continuing Education School for arranging us to observe and survey the three classes. Big thank you to Gerhard for helping us focus our project into something do-able and also for narrowing our survey down to questions that would really be helpful. And finally, thanks to all the patient roommates (of the group members) who endured loud banter on weekends while we were working offline.


  • Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective Adult Learning Programs - Dorothy D. Billington, Ph.D., The Adult Learner in Higher Education and Workplace
  • 30 Things We Know For Sure About Adult Learners. Innovation Abstracts Vol. VI, No 8, Mar 1984
  • Brookfield, S. Adult Learning: An Overview. International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1995
  • Brookfield, Stephen D. Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986
  • Cross, K. Patricia. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981
  • Hiemstra, Roger, ed. "Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning." New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 50. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991
  • Merriam, Sharan B., and Rosemary S. Caffarella. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

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