You Can’t Teach An Old Dog New Tricks? Instructional Support For Adult Learning

The saying, ”You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” depicts a common view many people implicitly share: Learning is best done young. For instance, the younger you learn a language, the better your chances of success. But is that actually true?

Can old dogs learn new tricks? Only if they want to!

Can old dogs learn new tricks? Only if they want to! (Image by Mark Robinson)

Changing demographics and increasingly knowledge-based economies have heightened the demand for lifelong learning. We no longer learn for life during our school years, but prepare for a life full of learning. The concept of lifelong learning implies plasticity, the capacity to adapt and reorganize to respond to new learning requirements throughout life – in our neurological system, in our cognitive processing, and in our social learning environment.

Data on Adult Skills & Adult Education

How to support learning in adulthood is a challenge on the national and international level. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released a comprehensive survey on adult skills. Based on data from 166,000 people from 23 countries, the survey assessed the proficiency of adults learners in literacy, numeracy and problem solving with information technologies.

Individuals with lower proficiency levels are more likely to report poor health, to believe that they have little impact on political processes, and not to participate in associative or volunteer activities.

For a summary of the results from the US perspective, see “Time for the US to Reskill?

The OECD and the US Department of Education have made several data browser available to work with and explore the PIACC data. PIACC results can be filtered by different variables, for instance by professional background.

Who is an adult learner?

Although definitions vary, it seems most productive for adult education to avoid age-based definitions and focus on qualitative characteristics. The European Commission defines adult learners as ‘people who undertake formal or informal learning activities after a break since leaving initial education and training to acquire new knowledge and skills’ (Litster, Carpentieri & Vorhaus, 2010).

How does adult learning differ?

Adult learning differs from learning experiences in other developmental periods in our lives, i.e., childhood and adolescence. The way we think about how learning changes over the lifespan depends on how we study the question how learning works in general. There are at least four different perspectives on learning.

  • Neuroscientific – What happens in the brain?
  • Cognitive – What happens in the mind?
  • Metacognitive – How does the mind monitor what happens in the mind?
  • Social –What happens in the world?


The brain contains 100 billion neurons, each of which has up to ten thousand connections. From a neuroscience point of view, all learning occurs as changes of connections between neurons. Current research suggests that the brain matures at age 25 and starts loosing plasticity, the ability to reorganize, soon after. But although the rate of learning decreases with increasing age, as long as the brain is trained continuously, learning is possible throughout one’s entire life. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain has evolved to do nothing else better than learning. Although the rate of learning decreases with increasing age, learning occurs at every period of life. At each period, new roles are undertaken, new challenges must be faced, and, as a result, new capacities emerge, in other words, we learn.


Ever since the cognitive turn in the 1970ies, the learning sciences have not only seen learning as observable changes in behavior, but also tried to develop and test theories of how learning happens in our minds. We understand how the mind works in similar ways as a computer functions. The working memory is the place where we keep bits of information accessible and where we perform cognitive operations. This is where we mull things over, where we manipulate or transform information.

The long-term memory is our hard drive – it is where we store information long term in forms of schemas.

Cognitive processes that underpin learning are subject to age related changes. Research on age-related changes in cognitive processes generally states that cognitive faculties peak where development ends, and development ends with biological maturity (around age 20). Aging is characterized by decline, decline in working memory capacity, decline in speed of information processing, and decline in attentional control, which means adult learners may have a harder time to ignore distracting noises or extraneous information.

On the other hand, adulthood is characterized by an accumulation of experience. We have established complex knowledge systems that are stored for our disposal in our long-term memory. The quantity and quality of such knowledge systems very much depend on the individual opportunities for and the individual level of dedicated engagement in learning activities over the life span. Different life trajectories amplify the effects of both mechanisms, decline and growth, resulting in a large diversity amongst adult learners.


Due to their learning and life experience accumulated over time, adult learners have high levels of self-directedness and self-regulation. They are able to monitor their learning progress, to choose learning strategies, and to identify learning success. These metacognitive abilities, together with their prior knowledge can make adult learners highly efficient and effective learners. Furthermore, the abilities that allow adult learners to self-regulate one’s own learning is in itself a skill that we can promote through instruction.

Adult learners’ self-directedness in learning is associated with higher levels of selectivity. They are selective about what they consider necessary to be learned as well as how to learn it. Catering to these preferences may be beneficial to learners’ engagement in the short term, but it can have detrimental consequences in the long run, because instructors risk that learners are staying within their comfort zone. In addition, learners do not necessarily know what they don’t know.


Learning does not only occur in the mind, it is an activity that happens in the world. Societies have age-graded expectations about the competencies that are desired and opportunities for participation in settings and roles. Interpersonal relationships, social roles and expectations, communication patterns, and resources impact the way adults learn.

When it comes to the learning resource time, the adult learner is typically at a clear disadvantage. Adult learners usually do not have fixed times set aside to focus on learning. Instead, they rely on informal and ad-hoc learning. In formal learning settings, adults are more likely to multitask which makes it less likely that they actually learn, because it hinders the processing of information. And as they already have a professional status, they are more likely to avoid making mistakes or admitting that they do not know something.

In formal learning settings, adults are more likely to multitask which makes it less likely that they actually learn, because it hinders the processing of information. And as they already have a professional status, they are more likely to avoid making mistakes or admitting that they do not know something.

On the other hand, adult learners have established their own personal learning environment and network. They have a network of colleagues and peers and they incorporate the expertise of professional peers and mentors into their learning. Learners use websites, communities and social media to locate as connect to others, to manage information and build their personal knowledge repository.

Ideally, learners should be able to connect what they learn in the classroom with their experiences and resources outside the classroom. E-Portfolios are an example for an instructional support technique to foster this connection.

What does it mean for instructional design?

In the 1970s, Malcolm Knowles coined the term ‘andragogy’ as a counterpart to pedagogy to create a theoretical framework that is focused on they way adults learn. Andragogy is an instructional theory focused on mature learners. It can be summarized into 6 broad principles of adult learning.

  1. Relevance: Adult learners need to know why they need to know something. Their motivation to engage in learning is directly related to how they perceive the relevance of the content to a particular challenge that they face.
  2. Life-Experience: Adult learners come equipped with life experience – they want their instructors to respect them as experts and allow the to contribute to their learning. This calls for collaborative settings like small groups and instructional approaches like experiental learning .
  3. Self-Directedness: They have strong preferences on what and how they want to learn, so it is good to offer them choices and let them influence the course of their learning, for example by using audience response systems (clickers).
  4. Timing: Adults shift from learning for the future to learning for an immediate application. If I teach them something they do not need at the time, they will be less likely to pay attention.
  5. Problem Orientation: Adult learners approach leaning problem- or solution-focused rather than learning for the sake of learning. This can make things difficult if my material is concept-focused, so for instance if am trying to teach foundational knowledge or theories.
  6. Intrinsic Motivation: Certification and mandated training left aside, adults are more often intrinsically motivated to learn since they usually have more control over what type of learning activity they engage with. They really want to learn, if we manage to provide instruction that is effective for them.
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