Adult Learning & Education

How Mature Students Learn Differently from Their Peers

Explore the unique learning experience of adult learners. Discover the theory behind adult learning, their motivations, and the distinct aspects of their skill acquisition.

Many may think that all students learn the same way, even mature students and that learning successes are based solely on hard work, following instructions closely, and getting good grades. In reality, the difference is much more subtle and reflective, making the higher education learning experience for adult students quite different than for other students.

For the adult student, learning is about more than just the curriculum, course content, and learning outcomes outlined in their instructional program.

Adult learners demonstrate self-direction, goal orientation, and problem-focus in their learning. They utilize prior knowledge, require practical and relevant learning opportunities, and are driven by self-efficacy and skill acquisition.

While there are also many parallels to traditional students in terms of skill acquisition, content mastery, and good performance, the main difference is in expectations and perceptions of the learning experience and opportunities. We will dive deeper into the adult learning theory on how and why adult learners learn and acquire skills differently and what makes the learning experience unique for adult learners.

Learning from The Wealth of Experience and Knowledge

Adult learners have a distinct advantage over their younger peers when it comes to learning. Their wealth of accumulated work and life experience is a valuable resource and a solid foundation for new learning activities.

In contrast, younger students often find it difficult to see the relevance of their studies or how they relate to their future careers or personal needs. The breadth and depth of previous knowledge and experiences that mature students bring to their adult education make their learning experience more holistic compared to other students.

Related article: 10 Steps to Prepare for College as an Adult Learner

They can relate new knowledge and skills to their existing expertise, which helps them develop a deeper understanding of the material and apply it more effectively.

One of the main reasons mature students learn better is their ability to connect learning activities to their professional or personal needs. They have a clear idea of their goals so they can focus their learning efforts on acquiring the knowledge and skills they need to achieve those goals.

For example, compared to a fresh young learner, an older undergraduate student pursuing a degree in accounting may have several years of past experience in finance. They can use this experience to guide their learning and supplement their coursework with real-world examples and case studies that are relevant to their careers.

Related article: Second Chances: The High School Experience as an Adult Learner

Adult learners use their past experiences to learn better as students (Photo credit: Vlada Karpovich).

In addition to linking learning activities to their careers or personal needs, mature students also have the advantage of being able to connect their studies to potential opportunities. They can see how their coursework might open up new opportunities for career advancement or personal development.

A mature student pursuing a degree in nursing may see the possibility of advancing to a supervisory or management position in the future. They can use their education to prepare for these opportunities and increase their chances of success.

The holistic nature of the learning experience for mature students is another factor that contributes to their success. They draw on a wide range of life experiences and skills that they have developed over the years.

A mature student who has worked in customer service for several years may bring with them a range of skills such as problem-solving, communication, and conflict resolution. They can apply these skills to their studies and improve them through new learning activities.

In this way, their adult education not only prepares them for their future career but also helps them develop as a person. Here’s an article that explains why mature students are better learners.

What Is in It for Them

Adult students have a unique gift when it comes to education. Unlike other students, they place a high value on the reasons behind learning needs and outcomes and how they can achieve their personal goals.

They want to know what’s in it for them and what personal benefits they can derive from the learning opportunities provided to them.

This approach to adult learning is based on the fact that adult learners often have competing priorities in their lives, such as work, family, and personal commitments. They need to carefully weigh and plan ahead to ensure that their learning schedule balances with their other commitments.

As a result, adult students tend to approach their studies with a goal-oriented mindset, which makes it easier for them to stay motivated and engaged. One of the key factors in adult students’ engagement in their studies is the relevance of the material to their future plans.

If they can see that what is being taught will be relevant in the near future, they are more patient and persistent, even if they are currently experiencing difficulties and problems. They understand that the investment in their adult education will pay off in the long run, and they are willing to put in the effort necessary to achieve their goals.

However, when adult learners cannot see the relevance of the subject matter, they tend to become disengaged and less likely to remember what they are learning. Therefore, instruction must be intentionally targeted to make it worth their time and effort.

Teachers must use examples to make clear how the subject matter relates to students’ future plans so that they see the relevance of the information presented. For example, an adult student pursuing a degree in marketing might have difficulty with a course on advanced statistics.

However, if the instructor can show how the statistical concepts being taught relate to analyzing marketing data and making data-driven decisions, the student is more likely to stay with the course and be engaged in it.

Related article: Maximizing Adult Learning: Malcolm Knowles’ Principles

Instruction Has to Be Relevant and Practical

One of the main concerns of adult students is to ensure that the active learning process they undertake is not a waste of their time and effort. Unlike a traditional student who engages in a subject out of interest or to fulfill academic requirements, the adult student is often driven by practical and immediate reasons.

They are more likely to have specific goals in mind, such as career advancement or acquiring new skills to start a business.

Because of this intrinsic motivation, adult students tend to be self-reflective, constantly asking themselves if what they are learning is relevant and how it can be applied in real-world situations. They want to see the connection between what they are learning and their personal goals.

This need for relevance and practicality is important for retaining what they learn. In fact, according to adult learning principles, studies have shown that without efficient recall methods, an adult learner’s retention rate drops by a quarter every hour, and they may almost completely forget everything they have learned after about a week.

Therefore, adult learners tend to be interested in courses that have practical applications in their lives. They want to know how the knowledge they have acquired can be used to solve real-world problems and to do that they often need practical training or hands-on experience.

For example, if an adult learner wants to start a business, they want to learn not only the theory of business management, but also practical skills such as accounting, market research, and financial planning.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

Benjamin Franklin

Another important factor in adult learning is the need for flexibility. Many adult learners have other commitments, such as work and family, and need to manage their time effectively.

This means they need learning opportunities that are flexible and can be adapted to their busy schedules. Online courses, part-time courses, and evening classes are some examples of types of courses that adult learners find useful.

In addition to practicality and flexibility, adult learners also need support and guidance during their transformative learning process. Because they often have a lot at stake, such as their career advancement or personal development, they need to feel supported and motivated to continue.

This means that educators and mentors must be sensitive to the special needs of adult learners and provide them with empathetic care.

Learning Is Self-Directed, Goal-Oriented and Problem-Centred

Adult students’ motivation to learn is often based on the need to improve their social and professional roles as well as their self-concept, which drives them toward greater independence. Unlike younger students in high school or college, who often rely on teaching adults or parent guidance, adult learners seek autonomy and control over their adult learning environment.

They value the freedom to make choices that support their adult learning style and approach, allowing them to become more self-directed and self-motivated in their pursuit of knowledge. Consequently, adult students prefer to adopt voluntary study habits and learning methods that are more goal- and results-oriented.

Unlike traditional students who are content to acquire knowledge for its own sake, mature learners typically have clear goals and expectations they want to achieve through their education or training. For example, an adult student who returns to college to earn a degree may be doing so to qualify for a promotion or to change careers.

As a result, adult learners often approach experiential learning with a goal and outcome in mind, which enables them to apply their newly acquired knowledge to real-world situations more quickly.

Adult learners also tend to prefer adult learning methods that are more problem-based, as this suits their preference for practical application. They want to solve problems rather than simply acquire knowledge from content.

This means they are more inclined to participate in case studies, simulations, and other exercises that allow them to apply what they learn to real-world situations.

In addition, adult students often have a strong need for hands-on experience and, if possible, practical corporate training. They want to get a full picture of what they are learning and how it all relates to their original motivations for pursuing a degree.

This hands-on approach helps adult learners better internalize and retain what they learn and gives them the opportunity to put their knowledge into action.

Motivation Is Tied to Accountability and Competency

For adult learners, motivation to learn is mostly internal and is triggered by external factors such as situations and circumstances in their lives. Read more about the key motivators for adult learners to continue learning.

They often take responsibility for their own educational pursuits and are accountable for the consequences of their actions in the learning experience, both successes and failures. Perceptions of education among adult learners tend to acquire skills and increase competence in areas they consider beneficial to their overall progress.

This, in turn, boosts the self-confidence and self-esteem of self-motivated adult learners in their adult learning experience.

Practical hands-on training helps skill acquisition, increases the level of competency, and effective information retention for adult students (Photo credit:

Mature students also tend to be more motivated and determined in their approach to their studies. They understand the value of education and have made a conscious decision to pursue it.

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They have chosen to pursue education for personal and professional growth, knowing that their success depends on their own efforts. As a result, they are more likely accountable for their own learning and seek out resources and information when they need it.

They are also often more engaged in their studies, more involved in the learning process, and proactive in seeking support and guidance when they need it.

They Tailor Learning Specifically to Their Needs and Style

When it comes to learning, adult students often have a preference for a particular approach or style that they feel most comfortable with. Someone who was an auditory learner in their school years may still prefer learning methods that focus on listening, while someone who was a visual learner may prefer methods that involve pictures or videos.

A study has shown that in these cases, they may still be inclined to use the learning methods that suited them in the past. However, it is important to note that adult learners are open to adapting to other methods as well. In fact, if they are continuing their education to achieve certain goals, it may be necessary for them to adopt new self-directed learning methods in order to be successful.

This adaptability is a key characteristic of successful adult learners.

In addition, adult learners often value constructive feedback because it allows them to evaluate their progress and make necessary adjustments. In a traditional classroom, this feedback may come from a teacher or professor, but adult learners may also seek feedback from peers, mentors, or other professionals in their field.

Related article: 11 Characteristics And Personality Traits Of Adult Learners

Being part of a group or student community can also benefit some adult learners. This provides an opportunity to interact, share ideas and resources, and discuss issues or problems related to their courses or career goals.

Online forums and discussion boards, social media groups, and professional networks can be valuable resources for adult learners who want to interact with others in their industry or area of expertise.

Another factor driving adult student engagement is their desire for personalized learning experiences. Adult learners appreciate it when instructors tailor their adult learning experiences to their individual needs and interests.

They prefer a more self-directed approach to learning, where they can explore topics that interest them and apply what they learn to real-world situations. For example, an adult student pursuing a degree in business administration might be interested in developing leadership and team-building skills.

They can take courses that focus on leadership development, and they can take on leadership roles in student organizations or community groups to apply what they learn in a real-world context.

Related article: Individualized Education: The Importance of Learner Needs


Although mature students and traditional students share some commonalities in their learning methods, the former emphasizes the what, the why, and the how in terms of learning content, outcomes, and practices. Mature students are better learners because they draw from an accumulated body of experience that serves as a valuable resource and solid foundation for adult learning.

They are able to link learning activities to their professional or personal needs, connect them to potential opportunities, and take a holistic approach to their education. They may face challenges, but developing strategies for success can help them overcome those challenges and achieve their goals. Training and education must be relevant and practical so they can effectively retain what they learn.

Nontraditional students have a unique aptitude for education when compared to younger learners. They place a high value on the relevance of learning to their future plans and are more likely to engage and motivate themselves if they can see the personal benefits of their studies.

They are self-motivated and take responsibility for their own learning, seeking resources and support when needed. Adult learners have unique needs and motivations compared to younger students. They need hands-on learning experiences that are relevant and applicable to their personal goals, and they need flexibility, support, and guidance throughout their adult learning process.

Adult students also prefer learning environments that are more focused on problem-solving and allow them to acquire a higher level of competence. They value relevance, practicality, self-direction, autonomy, and hands-on experience. They are also more likely to modify their learning methods as they see fit to better meet their learning goals and learning style.

Overall, mature-age learners have unique needs and preferences when it comes to adult learning, but they are also highly adaptable and motivated to achieve their goals. As more adults continue their education later in life, it is important that adult educators and institutions understand and address these needs to provide the most effective adult learning experience possible.