Skip to main content


Open Main MenuClose Main Menu

The Volunteer Teacher Series: Teaching Adults

Teaching Adults

Teaching adults is challenging and rewarding. Every day, adults teach other adults in a variety of situations, including informal ones. Teaching in an informal setting includes volunteer teaching for civic, service, and church groups, or Extension programs. Some adults do nonformal on-the-job teaching or training as part of their work assignment. Nonformal teaching is any organized noncredit or noncertification education.


As a teacher of adult learners, you can strengthen your teaching by understanding adults’ needs and their concerns about learning. Successful lessons include strategies that help adults overcome their concerns and build on their strengths.


Flexibility is also important in teaching adults. A teaching situation can change or become less than ideal. The effective volunteer teacher creatively adapts the lesson and methods to meet the needs and the situation of the adult learner.


Adults as Learners

When adults teach other adults in a nonformal or volunteer situation, they often teach the way they were taught in school. Learning served a different purpose then, and they were taught for that purpose. Youths and adults are different, however, and how and why they learn can vary, too.


Adults and youths tend to differ in how they learn in five areas:

  • Self-concept (including physical ability)
  • Life experiences
  • Readiness to learn
  • Concept of time
  • Motivation


Table 1 outlines these differences. As you review the information in the table, note that it describes adults and youths/children as learners in general. There are always exceptions.


Table 1 also suggests teaching strategies you use can accommodate the characteristics of adult learners. For these tips, check the What does this mean for your teaching? section under each general characteristic. You can use these suggestions as you focus the topic of a lesson, select teaching methods, and make audiovisuals to support a lesson. Consult fact sheet T-8203, “Do-it-yourself Visuals,” for more in-depth information on visuals.


Table 1


Special Concerns of Some Adult Learners

As a teacher of adults, you may meet some adult learners with special concerns. For example, some adults may doubt their ability to learn simply because they have been away from a formal classroom setting for some time. Also, some adult learners have unpleasant memories of school. They may believe that learning situations are hopeless. With the appropriate teaching strategies and environment, you can help them overcome their concerns and build on their strengths.


The Learning Environment

The learning environment includes the physical setting as well as the relationship between learner and teacher. It can directly affect the motivation and behavior of the learner.


You have some control over the learning environment. Review the following checklists to prepare for your teaching.


Checklist for Physical Surroundings

  • Comfortable space
  • Appropriate furniture
  • Adequate lighting
  • Minimum outside or inside noise distractions
  • Comfortable temperature
  • Good ventilation
  • Seating that promotes interaction with others
  • Healthy, appropriate refreshments
  • Rest rooms available
  • Safe, adequate nearby parking
  • Easy-to-read nametags
  • Suitable audiovisuals and equipment


Checklist for Interpersonal Relations

  • Welcome, friendly tone
  • Get acquainted exercise
  • Good communication techniques
  • Balance between teaching that is people-
  • centered and task-oriented
  • Some way to help you and the learners
  • identify their learning needs
  • Mutual planning of what is to be learned
  • Appropriate breaks and snacks
  • Democratic leadership
  • Learners’ evaluation of learning experiences



A comparative study of adult education in Indianapolis and Richmond: A third-party evaluation final report. (1990). (Report No. CEO56754). Indianapolis: Indiana Opportunities Industrialization Center of American State Council. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 327697).


Beaudin, B. P., & Williams, R. E. (1990). Improving human performance: Applying adult learning principles to enhance meetings. Performance and Instruction, 29(9), 7-11.


Brookfield, S. (1992). Why can’t I get this right? Myths and realities in facilitating adult learning. Adult Learning, 3(6), 12-15.


Caffarella, R.S. (1994). Planning programs for adult learners: A practical guide for educators, trainers, and staff developers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.


Cross, K. P. (1981). Adults as learners: Increasing participation and facilitating learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Darkenwald, G. G., & Merriam, S. B. (1982). Adult education: Foundations of practice. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.


Heisel, M. A. (1986). Learning activities of disadvantaged older adults. Community Education Research Digest, 1(1), 14-21.


Imel, S. (1994). Guidelines for working with adult learners. Columbus, OH: Center on Education and Training for Employment, Ohio State University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 377 313).


Knowles, M. S. (1992). Applying principles of adult learning in conference presentations. Adult Learning, 4(1), 11-14.


Knowles, M. S. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species (4th ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing Co.


Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (rev. ed.). Chicago: Follett Publishing Co.


Lenz, E. (1982). The art of teaching adults. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.


Ratliff, S.A. (1996). Planning programs for adult learners. Adult Education Quarterly, 46(4), 240-242.


Schuchardt, J., Marlowe, J., Parker, L., & Smith, C. (1991). Low income families: Keep to successful outreach. Advancing the Consumer Interest, 3(2), 27-31.


Seaman, D. F., & Fellenz, R. A. (1989). Effective strategies for teaching adults. Columbus, OH: Merrill Publishing Co.


Seevers, B., Graham, D., Gamon, J., & Conklin, Nikki. (1997). Education through Cooperative Extension. San Francisco, CA: Delmar Publishers.


Sisco, B. (1992). Setting the climate for successful teaching and learning. Adult Learning, 3(6), 26.


Smith, S. B., & Alford, B. J. (1988). Literate and semi-literate audiences: Tips for effective teaching. Journal of Nutrition Education, 20,238B-238C.


Tough, A. (1968). When adults learn. Ontario, Canada: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.


Ulmer, C. (1972). Teaching the culturally disadvantaged adult. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Ulmer, C. (1969). Teaching the disadvantaged adult. Washington, D. C.: National Association for Public Continuing and Adult Education.


Suggested Readings

In addition to the references above, the reader will find the following to be worthwhile sources on teaching adults.


Adult Learning. The journal of the American Association for Adult & Continuing Education.


Draves, W. A. (1988). How to teach adults in one hour. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network.


Draves, W. A. (1984). How to teach adults. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network.


Knox, A. B. (1986). Helping adults learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


McLagan, P. A. (1978). Helping others learn: Designing programs for adults. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.


Fact sheets in The Volunteer Teacher Series

T-8201 Becoming a More Effective Volunteer Teacher


T-8202 Teaching Adults


T-8203 Do-it-yourself Visuals


Renée A. Daugherty PhD

Assistant Professor

Ext. Educational Methods Specialist

Was this information helpful?
Fact Sheet
Facebook Metrics Exposed: A Deep Dive into Facebook Metrics and What They Mean for Your Organization

By Audrey King and Linnea Langusch. Learn how to make strategic choices in Facebook and other digital marketing when considering audience, awareness, engagement, conversion and customer care metrics.

4H Youth DevelopmentBusiness Strategy & MarketingCommunity & Rural ImprovementLeadershipLeadership & Volunteer DevelopmentMarketing Strategy & TacticsWebsites & eCommerce
Fact Sheet
Duties and Responsibilities of Elected County Officials

An in-depth look at the elected official’s county positions including commissioners, clerk, assessor, treasurer, sheriff, court clerk and district attorney.

Community & Rural ImprovementCounty & Local GovernmentLeadership & Volunteer Development
Fact Sheet
The Role of the Board Chair

A board chair is a member of the board of directors elected by the panel for a specified term and has a key leadership role within the duties that follow.

Community & Rural ImprovementLeadership & Volunteer Development
Fact Sheet
The Volunteer Teacher Series: The Effective Volunteer Teacher

Understand the importance of the role of volunteer teachers and find tips and aids on how to be a successful teacher.

Community & Rural ImprovementLeadership & Volunteer Development
Back To Top