Age, for the most part, is just a number when it comes to learning. We’ve already dispelled the myth that older people can’t learn new tricks, but what do we really know about adult learners and how age changes our ability to learn?

When we think of learning, the first thing that comes to mind is absorbing new knowledge. But how do you encourage learning, is it through reward or punishment?

A recent study looked at how reward versus punishment changes by age when it comes to learning. Adults are able to learn from both reward and punishment, while adolescents were able to learn from reward but less likely to learn from punishment.

A corgi dog standing on top of a skateboard looking cute.
Old dogs CAN learn new tricks. Ask this little skateboarding cutie.

To better understand learning at an older age, we first need to understand learning at different ages. Throughout your life the way you learn and absorb information changes because your brain changes. The way you learn at ten is vastly different from how you learn at 35. These developmental differences can be grouped into seven categories ranging from infancy to older adulthood.

Learning through the ages 

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll be focusing on the more relevant learning groups; young adulthood and middle adulthood. General characteristics can be made about both groups, but it’s important to remember that they are just generalizations. Everyone develops and matures at a different pace.

Young adulthood is typically considered ages 20 to 40 years old and can be characterized by:

  • Being an autonomous and self-directed learner
  • Using personal experiences to enhance or interfere with learning
  • Able to analyze critically
  • Intrinsically motivated
  • Makes decisions about personal, occupational and social roles
  • Competency-based learner

For this age group, educational pursuits are oriented towards experiences that can be applied to immediate problems and tasks in their daily lives. Young adults are realizing more that both their personal and educational paths will affect their lives.

Learning a new skill or topic can keep your mind sharp and help slow cognitive decline associated with aging.

An easy example of this is choosing a major in college with the goal of being financially stable or deciding to work part time to help support a family. Basically, while young adults are grappling with their left behind childhood and new found sense of self, they are also trying to figure out the path ahead.

Middle aged adulthood is considered ages 41 to 64 years old and can be characterized by:

  • Sense of self is well developed
  • At peak of career
  • Reflects on contributions to family and society
  • Reexamines goals and values
  • Has confidence in abilities
  • Desires to modify unsatisfactory aspects of life

Middle adult learners have a unique strength that’s different from the previous age group; they are able to see the bigger picture. This gives them confidence in a learning environment because they are able to go between different perspectives when trying to problem solve.

Young adulthood vs. middle adulthood 

Both age groups thrive when the educational framework is learner-focused instead of teacher-centered. This means that knowledge is not being imparted onto the learner, but rather that knowledge is being shared horizontally. Horizontal sharing in this instance refers to how knowledge and skills are being exchanged on an even ground because there is less of a power relationship between two adults.

Another characteristic of adult learners is that learning for them is problem focused. Their primary pursuit for knowledge is driven to find solutions to immediate problems in their lives. This contrasts childhood learning as children tend to direct their learning towards gaining a better understanding of themselves and the world around them.

4 Benefits of being an adult learner 

If you’re nervous about returning to the classroom after some time away, that’s totally normal. It can be intimidating going back to school if you’re a little older than the stereotypical student.

As of 2021, roughly 40% of all U.S. students enrolled in higher education are adult learners. For those 8 million students, there are many upsides.

1. More life experience

This might seem obvious, but as an adult learner you have a deeper pool of experiences to draw on than, say, a fresh faced teenager. These experiences can be a great asset in a learning environment. Maybe you’ve been in the workforce for a while so you know how to juggle multiple deadlines and have perfected skim reading. Adults also tend to know when they’re most productive and efficient, giving them a leg up in being more efficient for class or study time.

2. Mature and motivated

If you have a goal in mind and you want to achieve it, nothing will stand in your way. While that may sound a bit dramatic, it’s true. You are intentionally pursuing an educational goal which means you’re driven. Whether you’re returning to education to get more skills for your job or making a career shift, there’s a strong motivation driving you forward. This isn’t a situation out of obligation; you want to be here and you will own it.

3. Deeper knowledge

As an adult learner not only do you have experiences to build on, but you also have a deeper knowledge bank to draw from. You have a wealth of information that you can use to better understand and conceptualize material. This deeper understanding also extends to being able to quickly build connections and grasp concepts more easily.

4. Independent learners

As an adult learner one of the many strengths you bring to the classroom is independence. In theory, you know what works best for your learning style and how to get things done. All of this is to say that adult learners can be generally categorized as self-directed. This can look like not needing as much guidance or hand holding from the teacher in a classroom setting as would younger students. As a result, teachers take on the role of being a resource rather than an all powerful and all knowing authority figure.

All in all, the characteristics and strengths of adult learners should make any adult returning to a classroom setting feel confident and capable, regardless of how much time has lapsed.