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UCD Adult Education Centre

Lárionad an Oideachais Aosaigh

Adult Learning Styles

Exercise - Reflection on Learning

Characteristics of Adult Learning

Motivating Factors in Adult Learning

Learning Styles

Implications for Delivery

Practical Classroom Tips



Exercise - Reflection on Learning

  • Think of something you are good at - how did you become competent?


  • Think of an unsuccessful learning experience - what went wrong?


  • How did you learn when you were in school/college?


  • How do you learn now?


  • What are the differences?


  • Can you identify your own learning style?


  • What is your preferred learning environment?


  • What motivates you to learn?


  • What hinders your learning?


All adults come to courses with varied experiences and varied educational backgrounds. This impacts on how courses are delivered. While each student is an individual there are some characteristics which are common to adult learners.

  • Adults have accumulated life experiences. Adults come to courses with experiences and knowledge in diverse areas. They favour practical learning activities which enable them to draw on their prior skills and knowledge. Adults are realistic and have insights about what is likely to work and what is not. They are readily able to relate new facts to past experiences and enjoy having their talents and knowledge explored in a teaching situation
  • Adults are intrinsically motivated. Learners increase their effort when motivated by a need, an interest, or a desire to learn. They are also motivated by the relevance of the material to be addressed and learn better when material is related to their own needs and interests. For learners to be fully engaged in learning their attention must be fully focused on the material presented
  • Individual differences. People learn at various rates and in different ways according to their intellectual ability, educational level, personality and cognitive learning styles. Teaching strategies must anticipate and accommodate differing comprehension rates of learners
  • Adults learn best in a democratic, participatory and collaborative environment. Adults need to be actively involved in determining how and what they will learn, and they need active, not passive, learning experiences
  • Adult students are mature people and prefer to be treated as such. Being 'lectured at' causes resentment and frustration
  • Adults are goal oriented/relevancy oriented. Adults need to know why they are learning something. Adults have needs which are concrete and immediate. They can be impatient with long discussions on theory and like to see theory applied to practical problems. They are task or problem-centred rather than subject-centred. Adults are interested in theory when it is linked to practical application
  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They are self-reliant learners and prefer to work at their own pace. Individuals learn best when they are ready to learn and when they have identified their own learning needs. Where a student is directed by someone else to attend a course, e.g., by an employer, then that individual may not be ready to learn or may not see the value in participating on that course. This can lead to a mismatch of goals between all parties, student, employer and trainer
  • Adults are practical and problem-solvers. Adults are more impatient in the pursuit of learning objectives. They are less tolerant of work that does not have immediate and direct application to their objectives. Problem based learning exercises are welcomed as they build on prior experience and provide opportunity for practical application of materials/theories covered
  • Adults are sometimes tired when they attend classes. Many students are juggling classes with work, family, etc. They, therefore, appreciate varied teaching methods that add interest and a sense of liveliness to the class
  • Adults may have logistical considerations, including:
  •      family/caring responsibilities,
  •      careers, social commitments,
  •      lack of time,
  •      lack of money,
  •      lack of child care,
  •      scheduling problems,
  •      transportation problems
  • Adults may have insufficient confidence. Students come to class with varying levels of confidence. Some may have had poor prior experiences of education leading to feelings of inadequacy and fear of study and failure
  • Ageing concerns. Adults frequently worry about being the oldest person in a class and fret about the impact this may have on their ability to participate with younger students. Creating an environment where all participants feel they have a valuable contribution can work to allay such concerns


Adults have a range of different motivations for selecting a course/programme:

  • professional advancement
  • to meet employment expectations--upgrading of skills required by employer
  • to bring additional skills to the workplace, e.g., conflict resolution, industrial relations expertise
  • personal development, e.g., communication or financial management skills
  • to develop skills which will benefit the local community
  • to sample a topic which they might consider studying in greater depth
  • to prepare for further study/full-time education
  • to facilitate/accommodate life changes, e.g., retirement, parenting
  • to resolve personal problems
  • to make or maintain social relationships
  • for escape or stimulation
  • for interest only

Tutors should be aware of the possible motivations behind their students' enrolment in order to have a better understanding of how to shape/modify their teaching materials and classroom exercises. It is likely that any group of students will have a variety of motivations and all need to be catered for.


All students have different intellectual abilities. They think and learn differently. Some learning patterns will have been developed as a result of the schooling experience where materials were largely presented in a way that benefited students with linguistic/numeric abilities. As a result innate learning styles may not have been developed and students may need to be encouraged to identify their own learning pattern.

There are various ways of classifying differences in learning styles. Many theories and models have been proposed. This section will look at three of the most common learning styles classifications:

  • left and right brain
  • auditory, visual and kinaesthetic
  • activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists

Left and Right Brain

In the last 20 years, research has revealed that the two hemispheres of the brain perform different functions. According to Rose and Nicholl (1997):

'the left brain specialises in academic aspects of learning - language and mathematical processes, logical thoughts, sequences and analysis. The right brain is principally concerned with creative activities utilising rhyme, rhythm, music, visual impressions, colour and pictures. It's our metaphorical mind, looking for analogies and patterns.'

Although each hemisphere is dominant in certain activities, they are both involved in almost all thinking. Both sides of the brain can reason, but by different strategies, and one side may be dominant. Therefore, this has a major implication for how we learn:

Experimentation has shown that the two different sides, or hemispheres, of the brain are responsible for different manners of thinking. The following table illustrates the differences between left-brain and right-brain thinking:


LEFT (Analytic) RIGHT (Global) 
 Predominantly left-brained people prefer a slow step-by-step build up of information; they are sometimes called 'linear' learners.  Predominantly right-brained people need to see the big picture, to have an overview; they are the 'global' type of learner.
 Successive Hemispheric Style  Simultaneous Hemispheric Style
 Verbal  Visual
 Responds to word meaning  Responds to tone of voice
 Sequential  Random
 Processes information linearly  Processes information in varied order
 Responds to logic/Logical  Responds to emotion/Intuitive
 Rational  Holistic
 Objective  Subjective
 Analytical  Synthesising
 Plans ahead  Impulsive
 Recalls people's names  Recalls people's faces
 Speaks with few gestures  Gestures when speaking
 Punctual  Less punctual
 Looks at parts  Looks at wholes
 Prefers formal study design  Prefers sound/music background while studying
 Prefers bright lights while studying  Prefers frequent mobility while studying
 Adapted from



Most individuals have a distinct preference for one of these styles of thinking. Some, however, are more whole-brained and equally adept at both modes. In general, our school system has tended to favour left-brain modes of thinking, while downplaying the right-brain ones. Left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. In order to be more "whole-brained" in their orientation, schools need to give equal weight to the arts, creativity, and the skills of imagination and synthesis.

To foster a more whole-brained learning experience, teachers can adopt delivery methodologies that connect with both sides of the brain. They can increase their classroom's right-brain learning activities by incorporating more patterning, metaphors, analogies, role playing, visuals, and movement into their reading, calculation, and analytical activities.

Assessment -- For a more accurate whole-brained evaluation of student learning, educators must develop new forms of assessment that honour right-brained talents and skills.

Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic Learners

Research by neuro-linguistic programming experts Bandler, Grinder and
Grinder has identified three distinct communications and learning styles:

  • Visual Learners
  • Auditory Learners
  • Tactile/Kinaesthetic Learners

Visual Learners: learn through seeing...

Visual learners relate most effectively to written information, notes, diagrams and pictures. These learners need to see the tutor's body language and facial expression to fully understand the content of a lesson. They may think in pictures and learn best from visual displays including:

  • Diagrams
  • Illustrated text books
  • Overhead transparencies
  • Videos
  • Flipcharts
  • Hand-outs

During a lecture or classroom discussion, visual learners often prefer to take detailed notes to absorb the information. They may be unhappy with a presentation where they are unable to take detailed notes - to an extent information does not exist for a visual learner unless it has been seen written down. This is why some visual learners will take notes even when they have printed course notes on the desk in front of them. Visual learners will tend to be most effective in written communication, symbol manipulation etc. 


          Visual learners make up around 65% of the population.

Auditory Learners: learn through listening...

They learn best through verbal lectures, discussions, talking things through and listening to what others have to say. Auditory learners interpret the underlying meanings of speech through listening to tone of voice, pitch, speed and other nuances. Written information may have little meaning until it is heard. These learners often benefit from reading text aloud and using a tape recorder. They will tend to listen to a lecture, and then take notes afterwards, or rely on printed notes. Auditory learners may be sophisticated speakers, and may specialise effectively in subjects like law or politics.

Auditory learners make up about 30% of the population.

Tactile/Kinaesthetic Learners: learn through , moving, doing and touching...

Kinaesthetic Learners learn effectively through touch and movement and space, and learn skills by imitation and practice. They learn best through a hands-on approach, actively exploring the physical world around them. They may find it hard to sit still for long periods and may become distracted by their need for activity and exploration. Predominantly kinaesthetic learners can appear unresponsive, in that information is normally not presented in a style that suits their learning methods.

Kinaesthetic learners make up around 5% of the population.

All of us utilise all three types of learning, but most people display a
preference for one over the other two. In early life the split amongst the overall population is fairly even, but by adulthood the visual side has become dominant.

Adapted from:

Reflectors, Theorists, Activists and Pragmatists

In the mid 1980s Honey and Mumford identified four types of learners. They developed a detailed questionnaire/self-perception inventory for use in determining individual learning styles. Detailed descriptions are available online, and in texts, (see bibliography). The following summary outlines the main characteristics of each of their four types of learner and explains briefly how each style can be best accommodated.

The Reflector

  • Likes the opportunity to think and consider implications
  • Prefers passive role in discussions
  • Learns from listening, observing and working independently

Learns most effectively through individual project work lectures and independent study

  • Dislikes being forced to contribute to discussion without considering all evidence.
  • Resists being rushed from one activity to another
  • Worries if deadlines force work to be produced without careful thought

Learns least effectively from spontaneous activity with no time for careful planning

The Theorist

  • Learns most effectively when dealing with models and theories and likes a clear and definite purpose for work
  • Enjoys exploring connections between ideas, issues and concepts

Learns most effectively through problem solving, discussion and questioning theory, or reading and evaluating books.

  • Dislikes being involved in unstructured situations with no obvious theoretical framework
  • Likely to be more comfortable with objective facts

Learns least effectively from open-ended questions, explorative project work, skills training, etc.

The Activist

  • Enjoys new experiences and challenges
  • Thrives best in situations which involve changing range of activities
  • Enjoys being the centre of attention
  • Benefits from the opportunity to develop ideas through discussion and interaction with others

Likely to learn most effectively through group work, discussions, seminars, workshops, etc.

  • Dislikes taking a passive role in learning and does not enjoy tightly constrained tasks. Prefers to work with others

Learns least effectively from lectures, labs, reading, writing on own.

The Pragmatist

  • Enjoys seeing how theory relates to practice
  • Enjoys practical techniques relevant to subject/employment and practical problem solving
  • Prefers practical rather than theoretical
  • Likes clear guidelines to work to

Learns most effectively through work based projects, practical problem solving, etc.

  • Dislikes learning situations where material is too theoretically based and application or relevance cannot be seen.

Learns least effectively from theoretical discussion, debate, etc.

Clearly, these basic types are extremes, and most people have some characteristics of all four. However, an awareness of such diverse learning styles highlights the need to create a participative learning environment through the use of varied teaching methodologies, creative and focused classroom exercises, group/individual work, and problem based learning exercises.

Many other theories and models on learning styles have been proposed. One of the most influential is Howard Gardner's theory on Multiple Intelligences. His work further suggests that there are a number of distinct forms of intelligence that each individual possesses in varying degrees. Gardner proposes seven primary forms: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal (e.g., insight, metacognition) and interpersonal (e.g., social skills).

According to Gardner, the implication of the theory is that learning/teaching should focus on the particular intelligences of each person.



While it may be difficult to identify the variety of learning styles in your class, some measures can be taken to facilitate and encourage all types of learners. A study of the learning styles outlined above highlight the need for order, structure, creativity, group work, and practical exercises. In essence, the message for tutors is to incorporate as much variety as possible into courses. However, exercises/discussions which are introduced should have a purpose and serve to develop understanding and knowledge, rather than merely being included to add a different dimension.

  • Pre-learning preparation: As adult students come from varied educational backgrounds, it is necessary to state clearly if there are any prerequisites for taking a course. Are students expected to have any particular skills or abilities? What prior knowledge is assumed? Outlining the necessary prerequisites eliminates the possibility of having to spend early sessions revising material which you might have assumed to be fundamental background knowledge.
  • Learning objective: Learning objectives, which have been negotiated and agreed by tutor and students, ensure that everybody is working towards the same goal. When learners agree a target with a tutor they feel more involved in the learning process. This helps focus attention and promotes a unified sense of purpose.
  • Organisation of content: Learning is easier when content and procedures or skills to be learned are organised into meaningful sequences. Learners will understand and remember material longer when it is logically structured and carefully sequenced. Also, the rate of information to be presented should be determined in terms of the complexity and difficulty of content. Thus the learner can be helped to better synthesise and integrate the knowledge to be learned. You need to provide the signposts that will help learners to perceive the structure.
  • Emotions: Learning that involves the emotions and personal feelings, as well as the intellect, is influential and lasting. Learners also have positive and negative emotional attitudes that can interfere with learning or can increase motivation. A moderate amount of anxiety or challenge activates most learners and increases learning; however, excessive anxiety interferes with learning. Exams cause great anxiety. Essay writing or project writing can also be very stressful but particularly so when students are unsure what is being asked of them, or if they feel they have no guidelines/criteria with which to work.
  • Participation: In order for learning to take place, a person must internalise the information; merely seeing or hearing is not enough. Therefore learning requires activity. Active participation by the learner is preferable to lengthy periods of passive listening and viewing. Participation means engaging in mental or physical activity that will help the learner to understand and retain the information presented.
  • Feedback: Learning is increased when individuals are periodically informed of progress in their learning. Knowledge of successful results, a good performance, or the need for certain improvement will contribute to continued motivation for learning. Doing and feedback lead to successful learning.
  • Reinforcement: It is important for learners to receive reinforcement. Learning motivated by success is rewarding; it builds confidence, and it will affect subsequent behaviour in positive ways.
  • Association: Learners will learn and remember information better if they have many associations to it; the learning of isolated information is more difficult and less permanent than the learning of information that is related to prior knowledge.
  • Practice and repetition: Rarely is anything new learned effectively with only one exposure. Provision should be made for frequent practice and repetition, often in different contexts, for long-term retention to be encouraged.
  • Application: Complete understanding has taken place only when the learner is able to apply or transfer the learning to new problems or situations. First, the learner must have been helped to recognise or discover generalisations (concepts, principles, rules) relating to the topic or task. Then opportunities must be provided for the learner to apply the generalisations or procedures to a variety of new, realistic problems or tasks.

Attention: 90:20:8 Rule

  • Adults can listen with understanding for 90 minutes
    And with retention for 20 minutes
    So try and involve them every 8 minutes

Brenda Smith



  • Present and illustrate content concisely in simple terms
  • Define technical terms when using them
  • Avoid jargon
  • Organise and structure content appropriate to the level of the course
  • Begin each learning session by motivating learners, expressing positive expectations, and sharing your objectives
  • Be enthusiastic
  • Vary methods of presentation/teaching styles
  • Use audio visual aids, charts, etc.
  • Involve the students - provide opportunities for questions and group work
  • Use student led seminars - team presentations, research exercises
  • Pose challenging questions
  • Encourage feedback
  • Promote peer tutoring
  • Use varied forms of assessment
  • Explain assessment
  • Give real life examples/practical applications/case studies
  • End each session with a conclusion that connects what has happened today with what will be covered during the next session
  • Be guided by learners during teaching. Continually observe their reactions, acknowledge them, and modify teaching when indicated.


  • Create trust and encourage questions early
  • Build in time for questions
  • Ask an easy question first
  • Write the questions on the board or OHP
  • Ask students to formulate questions in groups
  • Ask students to answer in groups
  • If you do not know the answer say so!


Obtaining feedback

  • Show of hands
  • Student feedback groups
  • The easiest part of the session was...
  • The most difficult part of the session was...
  • I would like to spend more time on ...



Adult Learning Styles

Brookfield, S.D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Adams Bullock, A., & Hawk, P., Developing a Teaching Portfolio: A Guide for Preservice and Practicing Teachers,  New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001.

Daines, C. & J., Graham, B. (1993)  Adult Learning Adult Teaching. University of Nottingham, Department of Adult Education.

Pont, T. (1996) Developing Effective Training Skills. 2nd ed.  Berkshire: McGraw Hill

Notes taken from workshop on Adult Learning Styles presented to UCD Adult Education Centre tutors by Professor Brenda Smith, Head, Generic Centre, Learning Teaching Support Network, UK

Assessing Adult Learners

Daines, C. & J., Graham, B. (1993)  Adult Learning Adult Teaching. University of Nottingham, Department of Adult Education.

Notes taken from workshops given by Professor Brenda Smith, Learning Teaching Support Network, UK, and Dr. Maggie Coates, Open University.

Course Design and Planning

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives:  The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. New York ; Toronto: Longmans, Green

Brookfield, S.D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Covey, Steven as quoted in Inquiry in Curriculum Design, BANDL Curriculum Design Tools. San Francisco, 1999.

Daines, C. & J., Graham, B. (1993)  Adult Learning Adult Teaching. University of Nottingham, Department of Adult Education.

Knowles, M.S. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. 2nd ed.  New York: Cambridge Books.

McNair, Stephen Learner Autonomy in a Changing World in Boundaries in Adult Education. Editors, Edwards, Hanson & Raggett. Routledge/OU Press: London 2000

Pont, T. (1996) Developing Effective Training Skills. 2nd ed.  Berkshire: McGraw Hill

Reay, David G. (1994) Understanding how People Learn. London: Kogan Page.

Reay, David G. (1994) Understanding the Training Function. London: Kogan Page.

Tyler, R, W. (1971)Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction.  London:  University of Chicago Press

Wiggins, G.,  & McTighe, J., (1998)  Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD,

Facilitation Skills: Working with Adult Learners

Brookfield, S.D. (1986) Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass

Daines, C. & J., Graham, B. (1993)  Adult Learning Adult Teaching. University of Nottingham, Department of Adult Education.

Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitators Handbook.  London: Kogan Page

Lawler, P. A. (1991). The challenges of the future: Ethical issues in a changing student population. Philadelphia, PA: Research for Better Schools. (ED 340 305)

Lawlor, M. and Handley, P. (1996) The Creative Trainer: Holistic Facilitation Skills for Accelerated Learning. Berkshire: McGraw Hill.

Tuckman, B. (1965)  Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.

Tuckman, B. & Jensen, M. (1977)  Stages of Small Group Development. Group and Organisational Studies, 2, 419-427.

Professional Portfolio Development

Adams Bullock, A., & Hawk, P., Developing a Teaching Portfolio: A Guide for Preservice and Practicing Teachers, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001

Campell, D., Cignetti, P., Melenyzer, B., Nettles, D., & Wyman, R., How do Develop a Professional Portfolio:  A Manual for Teachers, 2nd ed., Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.

Costantino, P., &  De Lorenzo, M., Developing a Professional Teaching Portfolio – A Guide for Success, Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.



Adult education in Ireland has developed greatly over the past number of years. A number of organisations and groups have formed or expanded to respond to the needs of adult learners. Likewise, people familiar with the sector use a growing range of terms and acronyms to refer to concepts, processes or organisations. For people new to the area some of the terms and acronyms used can be a little confusing. Below is a list of some of the acronyms used and following that are links to some of the organisations involved in the adult education sector in Ireland and Europe.



AEO:      Adult Education Organiser

APEL:      Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning
APL:      Accreditation of Prior Learning
CPD:      Continuing Professional Development
ECTS:      European Credit Transfer Scheme
EFL:      English as a Foreign Language
EHEA:      European Higher Education Area
ERASMUS:      European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students
ESF:      European Social Fund
ESOL:      English for Speakers of Other Languages
FE:      Further Education
HE:      Higher Education
ICT:      Information and Communications Technology
PLC:      Post Leaving Certificate
VEC:      Vocational Education Committee
VTOS:      Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme


Organisations & Links

AHEAD:      Association for Higher Education Access and Disability

AONTAS:     Irish National Association of Adult Education

ARASI:      Association of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ireland

ASTI:       Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland

CAO:      Central Applications Office

CDVEC:      City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee

CHIU:      Conference of Heads of Irish Universities

CORI:      Council of Religious in Ireland

DALC:      Dublin Adult Learning Centre

DCU:      Dublin City University

DENI:      Department of Education in Northern Ireland

DES:      Department of Education and Science

DETE:      Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment

DIT:      Dublin Institute of Technology

EAEA:      European Association for the Education of Adults

EUA:      European University Association

EURYDICE:      Information Network on Education in Europe

FAS:      Training and Employment Authority

FETAC:      Further Education and Training Awards Council

HEA:      Higher Education Authority

HETAC:      Higher Education and Training Awards Council

IBEC:      Irish Business and Employers Confederation

ICTU:      Irish Congress of Trade Unions

INTO:      Irish National Teachers Organisation

IPA:      Institute of Public Administration

IVEA:      Irish Vocational Education Organisation


NALA:      National Adult Literacy Agency

NALC:      National Adult Learning Council

NCGE:      National Centre for Guidance in Education

NDEC:      National Distance Education Centre (OSCAIL)

NQAI:      National Qualifications Authority of Ireland

NRB:      National Rehabilitation Board

NUI:      National University of Ireland

NYC:      National Youth Council

TEAGASC:      Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority

TUI:      Teachers Union of Ireland

Trainers Network:

UCD:      University College Dublin

USI:      Union of Students in Ireland



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