Adult and Continuing Education: Its Clientele


The Adult Learner Discovered

Currently, the center of educational gravity appears to be shifting away from traditional public school programs. For example, many charter, special, "for-profit," home schooling efforts, and new state mandates are forcing some public school programs to reexamine their efforts. In several parts of the country, colleges and universities are either struggling to maintain enrollments or have needed to institute new programs. These type of changes, fewer educational investment dollars, demands for service from special groups such as the elderly and the poor, and workplace training needs have worked in concert to help educators "re-discover" the adult client.

That a great hunger for learning and educational opportunities exists in his country is reflected not only by the changes above, but also by the lifelong learning forces presented in the first chapter. In addition, there are many known statistics about need, interest, and involvement that support the hunger suggestion and serve as partial bases for the increasing interest in adult learners.

For example, in 1997 more than four million adults were served in the Federal Adult Education Program. Enrollment in ESOL classes increased from 396,000 in 1980 to over 1.8 million in 1997. Student literacy enrollments, class sizes, and waiting lists continue to increase throughout the country, especially in California, Florida, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, states where more than 80 percent of the limited English proficient adults reside. In terms of the general adult population, participation in learning activities increased from 38 percent of those in the population age 18 or older in 1991 to 50 percent in 1999.

At the college level, adult students--those students 25 years of age and older--now make up close to 50 percent of all college enrollments in the U.S. For every college student under 25 in a college classroom. there's a student over 25 sitting side by side. This represents a 50% growth rate of adult students in the past 20 years, from 8 1/2 million in 1970 to an expected 15 million by 2000. Traditional-aged students are no longer the norm on American campuses and they have helped to keep overall enrollments at reasonable levels.

When you look at the various learning endeavors outside of formal adult education programs, millions of adults undertake some form of study or learning each year. The immensity of learning activity by adults comes into even sharper focus when added to these figures are the many adults involved in independent study, on-line learning, and necessary on-the-job training. Tough's work (see the Bibliography) and the many other researchers who have looked at adult learning projects enable adult education planners to estimate that as high as 70 percent of all adult learning is actually of a self-directed nature. Consequently, because a large percentage of such learning takes place outside an institutionalized setting, the amount of adult learning going on each year is staggering.

Even given this heavy involvement in learning by many adults, the growth rate in literacy and high school diploma programs noted above suggests there are still many adults in the United States with huge learning needs. In addition, the poverty of millions, coping needs of many resulting from an aging population, access problems experienced by adults with disabilities, and frequent job retraining or upgrading needs are constant reminders that educators and trainers of adults still have many challenges ahead of them.

The Uniqueness of the Adult Learner

To describe an adult learner in specific terms is impossible. There are almost as many different learning styles, needs, and rates of involvement as there are adults. It can certainly be said that every adult has the capability and potential for engaging in learning activities.

Current research is revealing that there are probably many more adults engaged in education and learning than has ever been tabulated by census bureaus and other agencies who identify educational enrollment numbers. A Canadian researcher, Allen Tough (see Bibliography) began investigating the participation of people in adult learning activities both in and out of institutionalized settings in the late 1960's. By focusing on the individual and incidences of self-planned learning, he discovered that many adults spend 700-800 hours each year in recognizable learning endeavors. It is interesting to note, however, that Tough's research and the several follow-up studies by others have shown that a very large share of adult learning is both self-planned and separate from the typical adult classroom-related activity. Thus, many educators are beginning to pay attention not only to the uniqueness of the adult learner in terms of learning styles, but also to the tremendous interest in, and need for, self directed, individual learning [see /sdlindex.html and /iiindex.html for additional information].

Why does an adult need to be a continual learner? The answer to such a question is not an easy one to relay in only a few written sentences. Certainly, because adults are unique individuals, they have many personal responsibilities to fulfill as a members of society or as helpers or providers to others. This encompasses the need for learning as liberal education, in developing oneself to cope as best as possible with the continual problems that plague humans, as a functional vehicle for providing some meaning or bringing some joy to life, and in providing vocational/occupational skills.

One adult educator (Bergevin, 1967) summarized this need to engage perpetually in learning activities by defining several goals for adult and continuing education. Even though the goals were derived 35 years ago, they still remain relevant today:

The adult learner's individuality also extends to the actual conduct of most learning activities. The growing body of knowledge and research central to adult and continuing education is replete with evidence of the adult's many unique characteristics, needs, and learning styles. (Chapter 7 discusses in greater detail some theory related to adult and continuing education.) The first and, perhaps, most important characteristic deals with the self-concept of the adult. For most, to be adult means to be independent, to possess a certain amount of self-motivation, and to be capable of making decisions about life and its problems.

A second important characteristic related to this uniqueness aspect is the wide and varied accumulation of experience with life that each adult possesses. A person engaging in a learning activity does not do so with this experience slate wiped clean. Consequently, the type and amount of educational need will vary, as will each person's desire or ability to bring this experience to bear upon the learning endeavor .

Each adult also has a variety of problems or limitations that contribute to individual uniqueness. Just the simple variable of age will impinge on each person differently in terms of visual or hearing acuteness, learning ability, and the energy level required for engaging in learning. In addition, the problems of life that one faces do not disappear when engaging in an educational endeavor and will undoubtedly affect such learning factors as retention, interest, and comprehension ability.

The fear of the new, uncertainty of pushing back boundaries, and remembrance of past learning failures or unsatisfactory experiences also can affect the adult engaged in learning. Becoming convinced that learning is a lifelong pursuit and a necessity will take place on very much an individual timetable.

Understanding the uniqueness of the adult learner is a necessary requirement for effectiveness with the teaching/learning process or in developing educational resources. More specific information on the teaching and learning process is contained in later chapters; however, it seems necessary here to make the point that educators must reckon with the freedom and dignity of each person in society. This is based on the premise that each individual needs to be free to realize  personal potential and that the success of a society is predicated on the interdependence of all its members. Consequently, a teaching and learning process for adults must be built to respond to the unique needs of those engaged in it.

Categories of Adult Learners

There are different categories of adult learners, although no one category is mutually exclusive or all-encompassing. However, the purpose of suggesting some differences as to why people engage in learning is to highlight some implications for the entire teaching-learning process.

Houle completed a classic study of adults and why they engage in learning more than 40 years ago (Houle, 1961). He determined that there were at least three distinct types of learners--distinct in the reasons ascertained for undertaking some educational endeavor. Within each category there will no doubt be differences based on such variables as age, sex, level of educational attainment, and other similar characteristics. However, the three categories provide a means for understanding something about the nature and actions of those people who actively engage in formal learning activities. A fourth category is added to reflect current research findings on learning outside of formal opportunities.


A very visible type of learner is one who has some particular goal in mind as a basis for undertaking some learning activity or activities. Such a goal might be the desire to obtain a driver's license, a high school diploma, or a college degree. Very often such goals are related to one's occupation. The point is that the learner can justify or tie each learning endeavor to a distinct purpose felt necessary or important.


The activity-oriented learner is one who engages in some educational endeavor because of a plain love for going or doing. Because of loneliness, because of a boring day, because of wanting to be with others, or various other similar reasons, certain people seem to thrive on social contact or involvement.


This category is an interesting one to think about but its learners are more difficult to describe. Here is where can be found the truly continuing or lifelong learner. People in this category enjoy learning for its own sake, they typically read a lot, they make use of the community library, the museum, the Internet, or other, similar resources, and they often seem to have an interest in a never-ending number of subjects.

Self-Directed Learner

Not in one of Houle's originally conceived categories, the self-directed learner described earlier in the chapter is now recognized by educators and trainers of adults as a highly active participant in the total domain of adult learning. No doubt, this type of learner has always been around, but because programs, agencies, and enrollees are something visible or countable, the self-directed learner was not always fully recognized or easily recognizable. Suffice to say at this point, however, the self-reliant, autonomous, and independent learner now has the attention of adult education professionals.

Certainly there is considerable overlap in all four categories described above. It is highly probable that learners move through each category, depending upon their needs, their stage of development, or the availability of learning resources. In addition, it is just as probable that many more categories will emerge as the learner becomes better understood.

The Undereducated-Disadvantaged Adult

The undereducated or disadvantaged adult presents a continual and plaguing problem within the American society--a problem that deserves special mention because of its pervasiveness and impact economically and socially. Many of the country's unemployed are in the jobless situation because of a lack of proper training. Most poor people and many minority people in the United States are unable to read well enough to compete adequately with the literate majority. Thus, in a society that can build a space station, that sees billions spent each year on entertainment, and that can produce consumer goods at a rate considerably higher than elsewhere in the world, the educational deficiencies are difficult to understand.

This dilemma is highlighted even more starkly by examining some known statistics. While the 2000 Census shows that 84% of all adults age 25 or older had completed high school and 26% had completed four years of college, those percentages drop dramatically when you look at older or many minority groupings (see The country's increasing numbers of individuals for whom English is not a native language has put additional pressues on literacy and English as a second language programs. Many community members also face problems of job obsolescence, unemployment or layoffs, and low paying jobs where attaining a living wage is very difficult. Add to this the continuing problem of school dropout, violence among young people, and a growing number of elderly poor and alarm bells need to go off for caring individuals. Finally, a look in the corners, alley ways, and shelters of many communities is a reminder of the misery existing below the glittering facade that is often displayed as the American way of life.

The breadth of problems facing the undereducated or disadvantaged adult has only been partially sketched out here. However, the point is that a large task remains if the educational resources of this country are to be harnessed for more viable utilization in solving some of these problems. The opportunities for the educational field, and for educators and trainers of adults are immense. Hopefully, such opportunities will not be overlooked.

The Older Adult

The largest minority group in the United States is the elderly and it is growing larger each year. Yet equal educational opportunity for the older person is more a myth than a reality. There are several problems the older person faces as a potential participant of adult and continued education. For example, transportation limitations and lack of mobility are often factors preventing participation in formal programs of education. In addition, many of the elderly population have some chronic health condition. While the majority of the chronic conditions do not interfere to a great extent with mobility, many older people need to be assisted by another person and some are even housebound.

Many of the elderly also are subjected to inadequate housing, poor nutrition, and substandard health care due to a low and usually fixed income level. An unexpected and prolonged heat wave in a large urban area may result in the death of several older people. Fear of violence in the streets or even in stairwells keep many older people away for the very educational or training programs that could help them in various ways.

The older person also faces various cognitive inhibitors to learning. Although there are many individual differences, some elderly people face declining memory potential, a slowing of conditional responses, and difficulties in sorting out learning that is based on long, sequentially related tasks. Some potential psychological limitations are lack of interest, fear of learning, and negative self-concepts.

Even given the variety of problems and low educational participation rates that are typical, there is available considerable evidence that the older person has a tremendous, mostly untapped, potential for learning. Community colleges, other institutions of higher education, and many community organizations are beginning to offer special programs for senior citizens with considerable success in terms of the numbers enrolling. In addition, older persons are beginning to enroll in regular undergraduate programs throughout the United States.

That the older person is willing to be an active learner and become even more active as opportunities are made available can be shown when their involvement in learning outside of institutionally sponsored programs is examined. A large study of older adults in Nebraska thirty years ago by the author revealed that the average person over 55 years of age spends nearly 325 hours each year in some form of learning activity. However, more than 50 percent of that activity was informal, self-planned, and self-directed (see for a discussion of older women as learners).

The older person has a need, yearning, and potential for active participation in lifelong learning. Strides are being made to help the elderly become full partners in educational activity. Hopefully, the educational field will continue to make available to people of all ages increasing opportunities and resources for learning.

Implications for Teachers and Trainers of Adults

Most of the implications that could be mentioned here are also related to the lifelong learning and teaching ideas expressed in Chapter 1. Consequently, they are repeated in this chapter. Instead, it is the intent here to suggest some implications more specific to the uniqueness of adult clientele.

First, there is a need for experienced teachers, those being trained, and younger people considering education as a career to realize that a huge market for good teachers still exists. Perhaps some areas of specialization are currently overloaded; however, the growing need for educators of adults (as described in Chapter 1) might provide for some a career area to be considered.

A second point related to the first is the requirement that experienced and potential teachers must become familiar with the uniqueness of the adult learner. In addition to the several implications related to the adult as a learner suggested in the first chapter, the concept of self, wealth of experience, variety of real problems, and various reasons for learning that the adult brings to the educational setting must be reckoned with by the teacher or trainer. Consequently, even more so than with younger people, the teacher who works full time, or even part time, with adults must be facilitator, needs-diagnoser, resource locator, counselor, and colleague.

A third implication has to do with the self-directed learning potential in adult students. If, in fact, many adults prefer to do the most of their learning through self-directed endeavors, teachers need to rethink their educational role. It requires giving up some of the rein, doing a better job of helping learners match their needs and interests with a variety of resources, and finding satisfaction with the job in ways other than immediate feedback from a large class of students. Such a change requires that such educators remove their institutional blinders and begin to think of the classroom as an open-ended laboratory for learning that can extend beyond a school building to a home, a factory, or a community.

Some Definitions

Adult learner--Any adult who engages in some type of activity, formal or informal, in the acquisition of knowledge or skill, in an examination of personal attitudes, or in the mastery of behavior.

Disadvantaged adult--Individuals who are usually classified by any of the following terms: poverty sub-culture person, hard-core poor, low-income person, culturally deprived individual, functionally illiterate person, educationally deficient person, hard-core unemployed individual, economically disadvantaged, unemployed, or the and underemployed.

Older adult learner--In this book, an older adult learner is a person 55 years of age or older who engages in some form of learning. Note, though, that other authors use age 60, 62, 65, or even older to define the term.

Self-planned learning--A learning activity that is self-directed, self-initiated, and frequently carried out alone.

Study Questions or Stimulators

1. What are some of the reasons for the rapid growth in the amount of study by adults through both formal and informal routes?

2. What are the statistics for your state relative to educational levels of the adult population and the number of people with less than a high school education? Are such levels harming your state? If yes, in what ways?

3. Discuss the goals for adult and continuing education described earlier in this chapter. Derive some additional goals you think would be important.

4. What can be done in the United States to solve some of the educational problems related to the undereducated-disadvantaged adult?

5. Determine and discuss adult education job opportunities, pay rates, and career advancement opportunities in your community or state.

6. Discuss various ways a teacher or trainer might provide assistance to the self-directed learner. Should such an assistance be provided?

7. What educational opportunities for older people are available in your community?

8. What more can be done or should be done in your community to meet the educational needs of the older person?

Selected Bibliography

Bergevin, P. (1967). A philosophy for adult education. New York: Seabury Press. The first textbook on philosophy for the field of adult education, it serves as a valuable resource for understanding more about the values on which educators and trainers of adults rely.

Cross, K. P. (1981). Adults as learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The author provides much useful information pertaining to adults as learners and how to work with them. She includes chapters on such topics as recruiting adult learners, why learners do or do not participate, how to motivate adult learners, and how to teach or facilitate adults in their learning efforts.

Houle, C. O. (1961). The inquiring mind. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. Republished by the Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education, Norman, OK, in 1988. The author draws some landmark conclusions in this book based on intensive interviews with several adults. He has determined that there are three basic groups of learners: goal-, activity-, and learning-oriented individuals. Educators should find this little volume very useful in better understanding the clientele they must serve.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning. New York: Association Press. A description of self-directed learning and the competencies required for self-directed learning. The author describes how to design a learning plan, describes how educators can facilitate such learning, and has a whole section entitled "Resources," where he describes various exercises to improve learning skills and various learning techniques.

Knox, A. B. (1986). Helping adults learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This book contains a number of chapters on how to work with the adult learners. It includes chapters dealing with such topics as assessing learning needs, choosing appropriate learning activities, building appropriate learning environments, helping adults apply what they learn, and finding necessary learning resources.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (2nd Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This mammoth book has become the main guide in the United States for thinking through adult learning issues. It contains numerous chapters, including those on such topics as participation, biological and psychological development, cognitive development, intelligence, memory, and key theories of learning.

Tennant, M., & Pogson, P. (1995). Learning and change in the adult years: A developmental approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The authors look at various aspects of adult development. They cover such topics as cognitive development, the development of expertise, how to promote autonomy, and how to develop a good working teacher to learner relationship.

Tough, A. (1971). The adult's learning projects. Toronto, Ontario: The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1971. Republished in 1979. This book represents a breakthrough in research on adult learning. The author discovered that considerably more learning takes place by the average adult in a year than had been previously reported. Most of the learning, however, is self-directed and outside of any classroom setting. Implications, suggestions for working with the self-directed learner, and future need are presented.


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