How to Teach Adults – Three Principles for Successful (and Fun) Classes

Learning doesn’t end with a school diploma. Adults all over the world are sitting in classrooms, community halls and cafes, learning new skills or knowledge, for fun or for profit. But what are best ways to teach them? If you find yourself teaching adults, then using the wide experiences of your participants, creating a learner-centered environment and understanding their needs and expectations will help make it a successful experience for you and them.

Teaching adults sounds relatively easy, doesn’t it? You’d expect them not to read music magazines in class, or pass notes to their friend on the other side of the room, and even for them to do their homework most of the time. In my experience, these expectations have proven correct (although only sometimes for the homework issue!). But there are other challenges to be overcome if you want to teach a group of adults successfully. Whether you’re teaching a community course, training some colleagues or even lecturing in college, the three principles described here will help you create a thriving learning environment where both you and your students are happy.

Use the Motivation and Experience of Your Students

More often than not, adult learners have their intrinsic motivation to be in a class. Perhaps they want to upgrade their computer skills to help them find a better job, or they have found they need specific language skills in their business travel. They will probably be highly motivated if they sign up for a course on gardening or golf because they are keen to develop their skills as a hobby. Whenever the student has chosen to attend a session, their motivation – and very likely, their subsequent effort to learn – is usually very high. Encourage this, and you’re already on the way to having happy students. Of course, not all adults will learn something new by choice – perhaps the boss has insisted they spend a day studying the latest tax laws when they’re not at all interested. But for the most part, adults are self-motivated who are keen to learn something.

Another critical point about adult learners is the experience and knowledge they bring to a course. They’re not school kids who only know about the latest sports results and hottest movies and music – they might be business people who’ve traveled the world, or parents who’ve raised several kids, or experts in all kinds of unique fields. Find out about their existing knowledge on the subject of the course and incorporate this into class activities. If some of the students in a course on carrying out negotiations in a multicultural environment have lived and worked abroad, make them team leaders in group activities so that they can share their knowledge with other participants. Not everything adults learn should come from the teacher – and most are more than happy to learn from their more experienced peers. A corollary to this is that you, as a teacher, should never pretend to know everything. It’s more than OK to answer a question with, “I don’t know” and turn it over to other members of the class – and if that doesn’t work, I always say “It’s my homework to find the answer to that.” It’s better for a facilitator to help students acquire new skills and knowledge, rather than adopt a traditional “teacher-as-font-of-all-wisdom” kind of attitude. Adult students are wise to this: teachers can’t know everything! Finally, give students plenty of opportunities to use their previous experience – for example, provide options in project work for participants to focus on their interests and needs and use their past practice as a basis to which they can add new skills.

Create a Student-Centered Classroom

A traditional teaching method is this: the teacher stands at the front of the room and recites a bundle of facts. The students note down these facts. Finish. But this has been proven an ineffective way to learn. Students should enjoy learning, and they should be stimulated and interested. It certainly seems obvious if we talk about teaching school students, but it applies equally to adults too. When I teach adults, the most important thing for me is that I use a wide variety of teaching and learning activities, and that includes games and having fun.

To ensure variety, I use different versions of individual, pair, group and whole class work for various activities. Pairwork is especially useful for giving students the opportunity to check their ideas with just one other person, which helps them feel validated before having to offer answers in front of a whole class. Group work can involve teams and competitive games – which are just as inspiring for adults as for kids. Every adult was once a kid, and if you as a teacher can provide a comfortable environment for them to behave a little bit like this again, the results can be excellent. When I was teaching Business English to company employees in Europe, then the enormous success in having them learn new vocabulary came from a variety of games. When they might be racing each other to the whiteboard or practicing new words using funny voices – not only did they enjoy themselves, but they could link the new vocabulary to a particular experience, and remember more words more easily.

Of course, not all adult learners are ready for boisterous games, or emotive roleplays – this kind of teaching might be utterly different to anything they’ve previously experienced. In this case, explaining the educational theory behind the activities usually helps them realize that it’s not just for fun, it’s actually to help them learn. Starting slowly and building an environment of trust can help all adults be ready for a more creative, student-centered course. It’s also important to show that you don’t mind making a fool of yourself to help them learn, and then nearly all of them will come on board.

Understand Expectations and Needs

Much more than children, adult learners will come to a class with particular expectations about what they want to get out of it. Sometimes these will be unrealistic, or impossible. The vital thing is that you find out about them, and both let them know which of their expectations will meet, and where possible, adjust your teaching plan to incorporate them better. Ask your students to make a list of their expectations near the beginning of the course, and either share them as a group or take them home to consider carefully. Giving some of the control of the outcomes of the class to your students helps them feel more fully involved, and they’re likely to contribute and participate more. Check if they think that you are fulfilling their expectations. Bear in mind that this can also work two ways – in some situations, it’s also appropriate for you to have expectations of your students. For example, you could explain that you expect them to prepare or study outside of class, or that they will ask you if they don’t understand something.

To further check that you’re meeting the needs of the students in all ways, seek out feedback, both informally and in a more structured way. In class, watch for clues about whether the students are enjoying and understanding the course material. In some adult classes, there’s a tendency for learners to be too polite to tell a teacher when they don’t understand – for example, think of a highly enthusiastic information technology trainer who passionately explains every minute detail of a new piece of software, when the participants don’t even know how to open the program. Sometimes, these students will politely wait out the two or three hours and leave knowing next to nothing more. Ask your participants questions to check that they understand what’s going on, and as above, provide a range of activities through which they can practice or rehearse new knowledge or skills. It can be helpful to give your students a short, anonymous feedback form to get more formal feedback. Concentrate on the critical areas of feedback you’re looking for, and also provide space for other comments. My standard form looks something like “What’s difficult?”, “What’s easy?”, “What do you want more of?” and “What do you want less of?”.

Whenever I teach an adult class, I aim for one crucial thing: smiling students. If a student is happy, there’s a lot more chance they’re going to learn something. And learning – not teaching – is what it’s all about.

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Carolyn Lathrop - July 3, 2018

Very good, usable information. Thank you.


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