Tips for Teaching Adult Students Online

Demographic studies of distance learning students indicate that they are older than students in traditional campus-based programs, they usually work outside the home, and many are married with families. Most students take courses on a part-time basis while holding down a job, with the intention of pursuing education to help them advance in their careers.

These characteristics of distance learning students lead them to learn differently and require different learning situations than traditional on-campus students. Therefore, in order to provide this group of students with educational experiences that address how they learn, it is important to understand the principles of adult learning. Additionally, we need to understand how these principles can be applied in the online environment.

Benefits of Incorporating Adult Learning Principles into Online Courses

  • Students are more engaged in the learning process.
  • Students feel positive about the learning experience and perceive a great deal of value in what they have learned.
  • Students learn content, make connections to their past experiences, and gain new perspectives.

Techniques for Incorporating Adult Learning Principles into Online Courses

The principles of adult learning presented below are largely based on Malcolm Knowles’ 1980 theory of “andragogy,” which is defined as “the art and science of teaching adults.” Principles from general adult learning theories have also been included.

Principles of Adult Learning Application to Online Courses
Adult students have a need to know why they need to learn something before they undertake learning it. Adults look for the practicality of content.Traditional learners tend to take courses without questioning why the course is important to their education.
  • In the course syllabus, expand on the official Registrar’s description of the course to explain the relevance of the course content to the field of study. Give real-life examples to help students put the content into context.
  • When introducing new content, such as a new lesson, introduce the content by explaining its significance and putting it into a meaningful context.
  • Get to know your students at the beginning of the class by asking them to introduce themselves, provide background on their prior knowledge and experience related to the course, and their expectations for the course. This can help you position content so that it will be meaningful to students.
Adults have a need to be responsible for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction.Traditional learners, on the other hand, have a need for direction to be provided by instructors.
  • Make your course learner-centered. Provide assignments that are somewhat open-ended and allow the students to pursue their own direction and strategy for the assignment. For example, ask students to do a web search to find sites or articles with information relevant to the content. Ask them to explain why they selected the item(s) they did. An assignment such as this allows the students control over what they learn and they get as much out of the assignment as they desire.
  • Design assignments that allow students to select a topic or project that reflects their own interests.
  • Focus more on active learning exercises and less on lectures. Students learn more when they are actively engaged in an activity rather than passively listening to lectures. This approach also gives students more control over their own learning.
Adult learners have a variety of life experiences which are their richest resources for learning.This is in contrast to traditional learners who rely heavily on the instructor’s knowledge.
  • Give the students opportunities to learn from each other by using open-ended discussion questions that draw out their knowledge and experiences. Questions that require students to discuss, debate, critique, and apply reasoning allow them to draw on past experience and perhaps gain a broad, diverse perspective on the content. Students may end up learning more from each other than from the instructor.
  • Design assignments that allow students to either incorporate their own experiences or apply what they’ve learned to a situation they’ve encountered. This allows students to see the relevance between their content and their own lives.
Adults are motivated to learn things that they perceive will help them cope with real-life tasks or problems.Traditional learners are more subject-oriented and they seek to successfully complete courses regardless of how the content is related to their own goals.
  • Focus on theories and concepts within the context of their applications to relevant problems.
  • Orient the course more towards direct applications rather than toward theory.
  • In the syllabus, clearly define the goals and objectives of the course and put them into context so students can see how the course will help them achieve their goals in real life.
  • Show students how their new knowledge can be applied to real problems or situations. Case studies and simulated exercises work well. Students can either work on their own or complete small group assignments over the course of several weeks.
  • Ask students to suggest real life situations they’ve encountered in the past and have the class discuss solutions to the situation as they relate to the course content. This helps students understand how the content can be applied to their real life problems.
Adults are also motivated by a sense of self-esteem.Traditional learners are more motivated by how others perceive them.
  • Establish a friendly, open atmosphere through your discussion posting and content introductions. This will help put students at ease and make the experience of learning online less threatening to them.
  • Set the expectation that in discussion forums and other class communication, students and the instructor will show that they value and respect the input from all students.
  • Provide positive feedback to students both publicly in discussion forums and privately via comments on assignments and individual e-mails.
  • Give students a chance to moderate the discussion forums. For example, assign each student to moderate a specific week. This gives them a feeling of importance and gives them some control over the direction of the discussion.


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Lieb, S. (1991). Principles of adult learning. Retrieved June 15, 2005.

Moore, J. (n.d.). Learner-focused education, andragogy. Retrieved June 15, 2005.

Moore, Michael G. and Greg Kearsley. Distance Education: A Systems View of Online Learning. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2012.

Rochester Institute of Technology. (2000). Some characteristics of learners, with teaching implications. Retrieved June 15, 2005.

St. Clair, R. (2002). Andragogy revisited: Theory for the 21st century? [PDF]Retrieved June 15, 2005.