Adult Learner

Systems Change


Factor Connections

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Motivation comprises the direction and energy that guides behavior. When we are motivated, we engage more in what we are doing, and therefore we learn more. Most adults have greater Motivation for learning when they can see how it applies to things that matter to them, be it their personal and family lives or their work and career.

Main Ideas

For adults, Motivation to learn is centered around their goals. Due to many competing pressures, adults must continually adapt their goals over their lifespan. They can select and pursue goals to optimize the benefits and minimize the costs. Thus, the process of adult learning may involve the following:

  • Goal Setting may vary depending on a learner's life-stage and the opportunities that exist to attain the goal, as well as how many other goals they may be attending to at the same time.
  • Goal Engagement involves investing resources such as time and effort into pursuing and maintaining commitment to a goal.
  • Goal Adjustment can be necessary when a given goal is too ambitious and needs to be adjusted to a less difficult, more attainable goal.
  • Goal Disengagement may occur when a learner decides that a particular goal is unattainable or too costly and shifts to a different goal altogether.

The role of individual agency is critical in adults' Motivation to participate in formal or informal learning. Adults may choose to pursue education for many different reasons including self-improvement, supporting their children, or obtaining a better job. It is common for learners to be driven by motivations that are both intrinsic, or the inherent desire to learn and accomplish goals, and extrinsic, or the desire for external rewards, certificates that open other opportunities, or for recognition.

Motivation for learning can also vary by content area and in different learning contexts; for example, learners may have different levels of Motivation for online versus in-person learning depending on their life circumstances. Adults with ADHD may have differences in the regions of the brain that deal with reward and Motivation. These differences may make it more difficult to pay attention and persist in tasks that they don't find inherently interesting. As such it is important to support learners by helping them see how tasks are relevant to their interests and goals.

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