Motivation and Adult Learning

In the world of adult education there are many compelling factors and theories into how adults learn.  The idea is that adults may require a different approach than those of a younger generation for various reasons. These may be argued to be due to intelligence, comprehension or even life experience, however in saying that, a key factor can is the motivational reasoning in an adult’s education. Adults choose to further their education and for the purposes of this essay I would like to discuss and ask what I think is one of the most relevant question regards this matter. Why do adults choose to further their education? At the same time we need to consider the opposing side of, why do some adults choose not to further or on occasion even complete their education and how does this affect them in participating in learning tasks.

Malcolm Knowles
Let us first begin buy discussing understanding what Adult Education can mean. One of the foremost authorities on the matter would be Malcolm Knowles. Knowles defined the Adult Learner and education in his theory of Andragogy (Knowles 1984). Knowles makes many references about the way that adult learner is best educated.  All are of great relevance for a discussion on the adult learner but for our discussion what I find of high interest is his point that, Adults respond better to internal versus external motivators. This in conjunction with his point of, Adults tend not to learn what someone else dictates to them, they do however learn what they themselves feel they need in order to survive and progress through life, bring about an interesting question of in the motivation of Adult Education can we motivate the student or is it up to the student to motivate themselves? Knowles seems to be saying that Adults only learn what they motivate themselves into learning in the first place.

As an educator or educational facilitator we must consider this as it is the role of the educator to motivate the learner, and even more so in a business training environment. It has been argued that Knowles may have not fully considered all the various aspects of motivation in his theory as it was a later addition to his original theory (Teixeira 2005). I would be inclined to agree because with the likes of policy and procedure in the business environment or even guides to plagiarism and codes of conduct in academia, these cannot be left to the motivational interests of the learner, these can be a matter of contract or even legality so I propose this, how do we help internalise or even drive the internal motivational aspects to an adult learner.

To discover how we can help internalise motivation in the learner, we need to first understand what motivation means. Although we commonly see motivation used in terms of what guides or pushes in the direction of certain actions or as a dictionary definition - a driving force or forces responsible for the initiation, persistence, direction, and vigour of goal-directed behaviour (Colman, 2006). The understanding must be that there is no predefined motivation to suit everyone. There are therories on how motivations can be structured in a predetermined order of importance (Maslow 1943), but this has be argued in various studies (Max-Neef 1991) that the motivational needs of the indiffidual are non-heirachal. That the needs of the individual are relevant to their surroundings and supporting factors of their life. This means that just because you have food and a home doesn’t necessarily mean you want security in you life before you look after your family as Maslows theory can be seen to suggest. This does by no means discredit Maslows theories of instance, rather it just puts a second perspective that in finding our learners motivation it may not be as simple as seeing what level they are at on the scale, but more in line of what are they missing?

A key in helping to find this may be related back to the theory that adults learn what they want to learn and what they perceive as useful (Tusting and Barton 2003). In the case of a child when we put them through schooling, there is no real questioning from them into why should they learn, it is just perceived as the social norm. This is not the case with the Adult learner who will need to see the benefits of the education before they begin. This is understandable considering that a child’s life tends to revolve around development in one form or another, an adult however generally has a lot more commitments and needs justification in taking the time away from their daily pattern. These can be due to work or family commitments for instance. Another consideration is the social aspect; some adults will be concerned as to what people will think if they are back in education or maybe still associate education with a negative child hood experience of education.

I believe the key to motivation for an adult learner lies in a combination of these theories discussed above. This approach however would need to be tailored to the individual. In finding what an adult would perceive as useful or even interesting we have an opportunity to see if it can fit their circumstances but rather than go through it in a hierarchal manner we could directly try fitting it to their needs. For instance an adult who finds computer technical skills interesting but is unsure as to if they should study it as they have now prior experience, could be explained as to how this could be beneficial to their esteem, at having a broader scope of abilities and safety in possibly helping them be better prepared to progress in the work place in future, as just two examples. In this sense the educator is nearly selling the idea to the learner.  On the other side we could have a learner who needs to learn computer technical skills as perhaps their business is being modernized and this person has little motivation as they can continue working in the fashion they already do using hard copies of documentation. In this instance we need to show the learner how the teachings could be useful and even try to inspire an interest in the field, perhaps finding a common ground on how it could beneficial to their role or development.

In the first case we can see a situation of the desire is there for the learner but not the need and the reverse is seen in the second.  In the matter of motivation for an adult learner I believe it is the role of the educator to adapt to a new role, the role of sales person. With the theories available it could be a case that in amalgamating the theories and adapting the sales approach, we as trainers could facilitate the introduction of motivation to any learner with the right amount of flexibility in our approach. This is what I believe is the key in initiating and sustaining participation in learning for an adult learner.

So in conclusion I believe from the studies and theories discussed that although there may be a difference in our approach to Adult Learning or even to say Andragogy opposed Pedagogy it could be seen that one of the greatest differences is the need for motivation. In realizing this, the goal should not be to hope or just to see the motivation in an individual, but rather to put the motivation in them. Giving the learner the desire to participate and even complete the learning available and for the Educator to adapt to the role of selling the ideas and benefits to the learner, facilitating more than just the education but inspiring the need for the education in itself.

Colman, A. M., 2006. A Dictionary of Psychology: Oxford University Press.
Davenport,  J. & Davenport,  J., 1985, ‘Knowles or Lindeman: Would the Real Father of American Andragogy Please Stand Up,’ Lifelong Learning. 9:3, pgs 4-5
Knowles, 1984, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.), Gulf Publishing, Houston, Texas.
Maslow, A.H., 1943, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4)
Max-Neef, M., 1991, Human Scale Development, Apex Press, New York and London
Teixeira, P., 2005, ‘ANDRAGOGY AND DISTANCE EDUCATION: TOGETHER IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM’, SerProfessorUniversitario, Accessed 29 November 2009, from
Tennant, M., 1996, ‘An Evaluation of Knowles's Theory of Adult Learning’ International Journal of Lifelong Education. 5:2, pgs 113-122.
Tusting, K. and Barton, D., 2003, Models of adult learning: a literature review, National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy. Institute of Education, UK