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How to Motivate Older Learners

Onground teachers making the exodus toward the online classroom must understand the culture of the adult or utilitarian student.

Maslow (1943) identified a hierarchy of needs in order for humans to be motivated and productive Though he did this research in 1943, there is no reason to believe it will ever become obsolete. The human spirit is unchanged. This is simple psychology. These needs do not suddenly disappear after the age of 18. They can become even greater roadblocks to success, if they are misunderstood by instuctors.

Malcolm Knowles recognized these characteristics in 1950 in his development of the idea of andragogy. He identified a number of specific needs related to the adult learning population.

Knowles found that adult students share several characteristics. They are:

  1. problem centered,
  2. desire active participation with their learning,
  3. appreciate the inclusion of past experience in the development and mastery of learning objectives,
  4. require a feeling of ownership in the learning process,
  5. and prefer experiential learning activities as opposed to theoretical ones (Thoms, n.d.).

The Theory of Heutagogy takes this knowledge even further in the understanding of the "self-determined" or "utlitarian" learner. These students are what we find primarily in the higher education and online classrooms. They see learning for its applicable or "utilitarian" value. They must see RELEVANCY in their learning or else it will be perceived as busywork. Motivation is lost. They have little time for "electives" to create a "well-rounded student" because our economy has forced education into a pocket of need. There is little time or financing available for Americans to become educated for the sake of learning. Stewart Hase and Chris Kenyon (2001) developed this classification of learner that extends beyond the theory of the adult learner (andragogy) and child learner (pedagogy). "Given the right environment, people can learn and be self-directed, " (Hase & Kenyon, 2001, par 5). Nothing is more critical in the development of the life-long learner. Curriculum studies must be based on thes needs of the self-directed learner in order for engagement and success to occur. Some self-determined learners can present themselves in young ages for these characterizations have nothing to do with age and everything to do with learning style and readiness. It is important to include ALL of these theories when designing learning platforms since learners will present to the classroom from all levels of ability.

Kenyon and Hase cite the work of Rogers (1969) as inspiration for the development of curriculum principles for self-directed learners (par. 11). Based on on "student-centered" philosophies, they find the following:

  • We cannot teach another person directly: we can only facilitate learning;
  • People learn significantly only those things that they perceive as being involved in the maintenance or enhancement of the structure of self;
  • Experience which if assimilated would involve a change in the organisation of self tends to be resisted through denial or distortion of symbolisation, and the structure and organisation of self appear to become more rigid under threat;
  • Experience which is perceived as inconsistent with the self can only be assimilated if the current organisation of self is relaxed and expanded to include it; and
  • The educational system which most effectively promotes significant learning is one in which threat to the self, as learner, is reduced to a minimum"

Some educators misunderstand "student centered" to be synonymous with what students "want". Quite the contrary. It takes a seasoned and well disciplined educator (parent) to internalize that student centered still requires inclusion of "best interest principles." Few students will align their needs to that of those who guide them. That's why the professionals must develop the intestinal fortitude to take on the challenge. Quite often, it involves saying "NO" in order to maintain the focus on learning. I always say, "Someone HAS to be the adult." LOL!

Thoms (n.d.) recommends a number of approaches that can be used with adult learners in order to encourage them to remain engaged in the learning process.

These include:

  1. assigning large projects in small segments in order to make the work easier to master;

  2. presenting the entire picture surrounding the need for mastery of material;

  3. ensuring that students understand the relevance of the material as it relates to their jobs or career aspirations;

  4. providing plenty of documentation related to the lesson material and making it available at any time;

  5. and allowing team work since adults would rather ask classmates questions, as opposed to the instructor (n.d.).

Like adults, high school students require relevancy in their learning. Since they are less motivated to learn due to utilitarian reasons such as professional or personal advancement, certain care must be taken in order to keep them engaged in learning. At this level, students are much more concerned with the working relationships they have with their teachers.

As has been my experience, and according to the research of Ronald Luce (1990), young adults do not wish to be condescended to. They remain engaged in courses where instructors are "real people" - where students are allowed to give a joke, the teacher can take a joke. Students prefer assignments that relate to their individual needs so a sense of ownership and relevancy can be derived from the learning experience. High school students are motivated by teachers who are interested in them as people, not just how well they perform in class, and they like clear expectations of what is to be included in an assignment or activity (Luce, 1990).

Adult students have developed a clear sense of why they are learning. Unmotivated high school students, most of whom attend school on a compulsory level, only see this as the end of a very long state-imposed mandate. They have not yet determined a real purpose for their learning - thus their motivational factors are quite different. Adults have real world experience and can clearly see how additional learning can improve their professional and personal status. High schoolers may have been brow beaten with this information, but it is not a real factor to them so they cannot internalize its validity. In addition, media threats regarding unreasonable student debt for higher education is also taking a toll on motivational goals related to highed ed.

As a result, educators can use this information in order to motivate and retain both classes of students. A student can immediately tell if his or her teacher is uninterested in teaching the course material. If this is a first impression, it can be a deadly one for the rest of the term. Smiles, happiness, and engagement can be perceived not only through verbal and physical cues but in emails, discussion posts, and all written communications.

In the adult classroom, this information can be used, too, to encourage students to achieve success. One thing is for sure, retention of both groups is a major concern for educators. Unfortunately, high schoolers can have great difficulty realizing the relevancy of their learning and adult students can have great difficulty balancing educational tasks with their many personal and professional responsibilities. Flexibility and understanding of these issues, on the part of the instructor, is key to encouraging success in any educational setting

I hope this information is helpful...when we make our classrooms work, they can become welcomed retreats from reality. What an awesome way to look at a career!

~Professor Marsha


Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2001). From andragogy to heutagogy.

Retrieved September 9, 2014.

Luce, R. (1990, March 8) Motivating the unmotivated.

Retrieved February 6, 2008.

Thoms, K. P. (n.d.). They're not just big kids: Motivating adult learners.

Retrieved February 6, 2008

I am happy to provide these stress-free suggestions for making your journey to success one to enjoy!

Join the conversation on my Facebook page: Education Coffeehouse: Encourage, Engage and Educate

~Professor Marsha

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