What Motivates Adults To Learn?

As kids, we went to school because we didn’t have a choice; motivation to learn really wasn’t necessarily a factor. Teachers approach young children as empty vessels waiting to be filled; the kids don’t know why what they’re being told is important, i.e. algebra, but the expectation is that they’ll soak it up like sponges, pass tests, and get promoted. Their true motivation in showing up to class was more about not-getting-in-trouble and having to spend their precious free time sitting in detention. Adults, however, are a different matter entirely. By the time we are able to make our own choices, our motivation is a major factor when making those choices. But what motivates adults to learn?

Since each person is unique in terms of what motivates them to do anything from taking a trip to enrolling in a class, that’s not an easy question to answer. But popular guidance distills adult motivation to learn down to four distinct factors: self-esteem; relatedness; autonomy; and competence (Source: www.selfgrowth.com). When adults are offered an opportunity to attend a training program, or are told they must attend one, at least one of these four factors should be taken into consideration in order for the learning experience to be successful.

Self-esteem is just as important to an adult as it is to an adolescent. (Check out the self-help section in your local bookstore if you need proof!) Adults like to feel worthy and accomplished, and so completing that degree or pursuing a certification is the means through which they can get a needed boost. Every adult student that I’ve encountered still gets a kick out of earning a certificate of completion at the end of a training class.

Adults are social creatures, and as learners, they want to feel connected to others; they want to engage as part of a group that is learning together. As part of that group, they are motivated to participate – to ensure their sense of relatedness and of belonging. They want to contribute to the discussion, and training class activities enable them to fulfill this desire to relate.

Being independent is what adulthood is all about – right? Learning to do something and becoming good at it reduces an adult’s need to reach out to anyone for help, or to depend on someone else when we can do it for ourselves (think of the “teach me to fish” philosophy). Adults see their autonomy as valuable and is something that they will guard and protect. Successful learning experiences help to ground their independence.

Finally, feeling competent is how adults want to feel in life and in their jobs. We want our co-workers, colleagues, and higher ups to see us as the competent and capable employees that we are, and attending a class to gain new skills or to enhance the ones that we have will keep us feeling that way. 

Adults need to feel motivated, by one or more of these factors, to not only attend the class but to engage and to learn while they are there. Expecting an adult to feel motivated to learn simply because you’re sending them to class is like expecting a kid to feel that way – it’s not realistic. Their motivation may be different, but the result will be the same if it is not addressed properly; precious time spent in detention!