How Adults (Still) Learn

Author: Ilinca Stroe


In everyday life, among ordinary people, the most widespread attitudes towards learning are expressed like this:

1) “I don’t learn anymore, at my age!…”;

2) “People learn for as long as they live.”

The first attitude can be interpreted as resignation, it can mean, quite the opposite, a refusal to learn (by virtue of the life experience which the speaker thinks they’ve gained to a large enough extent) and it is… blatantly contested by the Europe 2020 strategy.

The strategy, launched by the European Commission in 2010 and adopted by the European Union member states, comprises seven landmark initiatives. Among them, “an agenda for new professional skills”, to be put into practice through lifelong training that shapes citizens’ abilities with a view to increasing the participation in the labour force market of adults aged between 25 and 64.

The agenda was adopted by Romania through the Lifelong Learning National Strategy 2015-2020, which mentions that in 2013 the adults’ participation rate in lifelong learning was 1.8%, and sets as its 2020 objective an ambitious increase of that rate to 10%.

Thus, lifelong learning by adults is, irrespective of the age, a prerequisite to maintaining Romania’s workforce competitiveness within the European framework. The attitude expressed by “I don’t learn anymore, at my age!…” is rather inadequate for this space (the EU) and this time (2019). And the truth is, “People learn for as long as they live.”

But how do adults (still) learn? There are three ways of learning, equally applicable to children and adults, and a learning style characteristic of adults only, with its specific traits. Let us review them one by one.

The three ways of learning include:

  • formal learning – in the case of adults, through participation in postgraduate courses or courses organised by institutions integrated into an education system such as the state one;
  • non-formal learning, through participation in training, workshops, teambuilding or short courses organised by companies for their employees or by NGOs for various beneficiaries – a frequent example being the in-company foreign language courses;
  • informal learning which occurs simply by carrying out daily activities related to family, work or leisure – for example, by participating in a community/volunteering action like waste collection or planting trees.

To the latter the very trendy notion of “life hacks” can be added, defined as “shortcuts”, “tips” or “tricks” to find a faster or simpler way of doing something. A good example would be the YouTube tutorials, which teach us how to make up glue out of Coca Cola, how to make a pen case out of a recycled bag, etc.

As far as the adults’ learning style is concerned, being familiar with it is extremely relevant to those who provide formal and non-formal learning programmes to adults, especially language or training centres, as well as the companies’ HR Departments.

A theorist of andragogy, Malcolm Knowles, points out first and foremost that it is different from pedagogy. As a rule, while the pedagogic model conveys information and skills to the (children) students, the andragogic model provides procedures and resources through which the (adult) learners acquire information and skills. Put differently, children are given “for granted” the matter to be learned, whereas adults are presented with the methods and resources (the “know-how”) through which they can acquire, autonomously and selectively, the information and skills they need.

This first feature of adult learning is accompanied by others, such as:

  • learning should be based on what the learners already know, on their life experience;
  • learning should have a definite purpose, it should help solve a specific problem;
  • learning should be experiential, practical, including the making of mistakes and their correction;
  • learning is owned by the learner, who is co-responsible for the content, the direction and the effectiveness of the learning process.

In conclusion, we have seen why lifelong learning is, within the Europe 2020 horizon, essential; we have mentioned three ways in which an adult can learn (whether in a well defined framework or freely in day-to-day life); and we have listed the defining traits of adult learning. If, at the end, we were to ask ourselves, “Still, how exactly can an adult learn best”?, the answer would probably be this: an adult can best learn by wanting to learn. Keeping alive our curiosity about everything we still don’t know, remaining open to the new and unknown – this is how we’ll surely be the best learners all along our lives.



„Europa 2020” <>

„Strategia Naţională de învăţare pe tot parcursul vieţii 2015-2020”


Knowles, Malcolm. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing, 1973.