Ask an Expert: Six Key Questions to Help Adult Learners Thrive in 2023

Jan 13, 2023


Adult learners represent a diverse population with unique needs. From professional development courses to professionals switching fields and individuals completing degrees later in life, adults are a growing portion of the education market and deserve educational opportunities that acknowledge the value of their life experiences and support them in meeting their goals.

At Six Red Marbles, we work with clients to build effective and engaging courses and training programs for a wide variety of learner profiles. We acknowledge that adult learners have distinct needs and unique educational goals and believe that adults can pick up new skills, even in new fields. We sat down with Kim Canuette Grimaldi, a Senior Instructional Designer on our Learning Experience Design team, to learn more about her philosophies for designing learning experiences for adults and how she works with clients to tailor courses to meet the needs of their unique learner profiles.


1. Why do you love working with adult learners?

KIM CANUETTE GRIMALDI: I’ve been working with adult learners for the past 13 years, first as a university instructor and now as an instructional designer. What I love about this group is that they have made the choice to invest in education and they know it. You can ask adults directly, “Why are you here? What do you want to get out of this experience? What would make this course or learning experience better meet your needs?” And they will have direct answers that make it easier to tailor your approach to their specific needs and goals.


2. What does it mean to be an adult learner?

Graphic of a learner at her computer

KIM CANUETTE GRIMALDI: At its most basic, an adult learner is anyone over the age of 18 who is enrolled in a course or training.  We should acknowledge that college students are adult learners, but we also have to recognize the impact of different educational trajectories on the needs of the 18-25 age group and the 25+ age group. Many college and university students move straight from high school into college and aren’t used to taking an active role in advocating for their own educational needs.

One of the challenges of designing courses for adults is managing the balancing act of knowing that adult learners can articulate their own needs and building trust in the instructor as a subject matter expert who can help them meet those needs. With younger learners, it’s almost easier because you can take a top-down approach to education. Elementary school students can’t articulate their own goals. It’s up to the instructor, curriculum designer, and instructional designer to decide what they need and how to design a curriculum that best serves them.

For adults, it’s a different story. They show up with clear expectations and need an expert that they can trust to help them accomplish their goals. It’s all about finding the right group of people to support the adult in their education journey. Adult learners are making an obvious financial decision to invest both time and money in their education and they want to see a documented return on that investment.


3. What unique challenges do adult learners face?

KIM CANUETTE GRIMALDI: Honestly, at a cultural level we are predisposed to think that adults have a harder time learning new things. It’s like the old adage says, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” That is one of the key biases that you have to overcome in working with adult learners. They absolutely can do something that is totally and completely new even if they have no prior experience. Career changes don’t only happen for people in their 20s and 30s.  Societally, we are seeing a broad-spectrum desire to align career goals with personal values and that means adults of all ages are seeking educational opportunities to help them make that transition.

That also means many of those learners are facing educational programs that are radically different from their past experiences. Many adults attended school before the internet became an integrated, central part of the classroom. Their experience with learning was through lectures and reading textbooks. Pedagogy was completely different when research wasn’t something that you could do on your phone. Now, educators are focusing on skill building over knowledge acquisition. In the classroom, it’s less about rote memorization and more about developing critical thinking skills to make use of information that is readily available and easy to acquire. That transition, however, means that many adult learners have to develop new learning strategies.  


4. Are today’s universities and colleges designed to serve working-class adults?

Graphic of scale weighing graduation caps

KIM CANUETTE GRIMALDI: I think that depends on the college or university. It’s clear that many colleges and universities are aware of this challenge and seeking opportunities to remedy it, especially faced with a shrinking population of “traditional learners” in the 18-25 age cohort.

The transition from high school to college is heavily supported by high schools, but if someone takes a more circuitous route to higher education, they don’t have access to the same resources and support for applying to college, then navigating college. Even transfer students who start at a community college and transfer to a four-year institution, often miss out on the resources provided to freshmen in four-year institutions.

This is further complicated by the fact that many working-class adults can’t attend college full-time. It can take longer to complete a degree because their college classes have to work around a busy schedule, and most institutional policies expect a full-0time student without work or family obligations. 


5. How do you approach corporate training differently from traditional educational experiences? 

Graphic of corporate learners

KIM CANUETTE GRIMALDI: Corporate training represents a unique challenge for instructional designers because building learner enthusiasm can be a challenge. Setting clear expectations and stating those for the learner from the very beginning improves the process for clients, instructors, and the learners. As part of the process, we also think deeply about the duration of the training. When corporations launch employee training, they aren’t just paying for the course, they are also investing in the time that all of their employees spend in the training. So we work with corporate clients to make sure that they get the highest possible return on that investment.   


6. How does Six Red Marbles support adult learners?

Graphic of person walking tightrope

KIM CANUETTE GRIMALDI: I work with a wide variety of clients in the higher education and corporate sectors to analyze their curricula to see where improvements can be made. Adults want to know that everything they’re doing is important, why it’s important, and how it’s going to meet their goals. There is no space for busy work, so we work with clients to help them hone in on their specific expectations of learners in their courses.

Students and learners of any age are investing their time, money, and energy in education and they need to be able to trust that the course itself will meet their needs and that the instructors are there to assist them. Six Red Marbles works with instructors to ensure that their students can see the return on their investment.

With the help of an instructional designer, teachers gain clarity on what the learners will get out of the course. We work with clients to set clear expectations for what students would know walking into a course. Then we review or set learning objectives that build on and acknowledge the expertise that adults are bringing to the classroom. Sometimes that means acknowledging that an important part of an introductory class is covering research methodologies like how to use a library or how to evaluate online resources. 

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Six Red Marbles seeks to partner with clients to exceed the expectations of adult learners, especially when it comes to mitigating the risk of missing the resources to serve adult learners adequately.

Learning doesn’t stop. The key to increasing opportunities for adult learners is to reframe your content and provide context. What is the why? We work with you to determine the unique needs of your learners and establish frameworks that help you build on their existing knowledge to deliver more relevant and motivating educational experiences.

At Six Red Marbles, we pride ourselves on always learning, adapting, and advancing so that we can help people of all ages become learners for life. If you want to explore more about how we leverage learning sciences’ best practices to create engaging materials for adults, contact us for a free consultation.

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