How to Motivate Adult Learners

Adult learners can be some of the most difficult to motivate. Unlike elementary age people, they do not respond as well to immediate reinforcer like candy, stickers, or high fives and loud praise. Unlike secondary school students, the delayed gratification of earning good grades and the carrot on the end of the stick - college and a good career with matching salary sometime within the next decade - is useless as well. They're adults. They are either in a class voluntarily, in which case you won't need to do much to motivate them, or they are there because they are forced to be in some way or another. Usually family obligation (if you're not in school you're not living under my roof for free! said my mother). Or career obligation (no GED, no job). Most likely it is the latter type of student you are working with - the type who is forced to be in your class, more or less against their will.


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    Assert yourself as the type of leader that the students would like to follow and learn from. The best way to work with adults is to respect the fact that they're essentially your equal once you leave the classroom. Try to assert the kind of image that allows them to respect your outside of the classroom, too.
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    Structure your class. Set expectations on day one and hold all students accountable for their actions. Make no exceptions for the first couple of meetings, too. Own your class and control the direction it goes in, you will find that the students will choose to follow or to leave. Luckily, they are adults, and you do not have to put up with their displeasure. If they don't behave appropriately, YOU have every right to ask them to leave.
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    Have high expectations and your students will naturally want to achieve highly. If they stumble and don't perform to your expectations, give them fair and honest grades. If they come to you seeking help, assist them in identifying their specific problem areas and provide resources that the student can use to improve their skills. That is just plain good teaching and it works for all students at all ages.
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    Relax on the last day. Be the kind of teacher that is interesting and fun. Don't be so by-the-book that the students find you dry, but don't be wild and unpredictable. Maintain strictly professional relationships with students, but feel free to loosen your tie, or let down your hair, when the occasion calls for it. They are adults. You're not their role model, though you might be their mentor.


  • Research some basic classroom behavior management techniques. Generally the theories used to development effective strategies for the public elementary and high school classroom can be modified to fit a classroom full of adults. The average person, no matter the age, tends to respond to same kind of positive attention and reinforcement. Only the reinforcer tends to change - for example, a kindergarten child gets a sticker, a high school student gets homework pass or free time in class, an adult gets recommended for new projects, encouraged to further their studies, or makes professional connections.

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Categories: Learning Techniques and Student Skills