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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Quality learning environments: What makes adult learning different?

by Mary-Clare O'CONNOR
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR DE IT PL ES LT




When thinking about what constitutes a quality learning environment for adults, it is useful to start with asking, what makes adult learning different from the learning of young people?

Picture yourself as a young pupil in school and compare that with how you would like to be treated as an adult learner: as an adult, most probably you won’t accept the teacher reading from a textbook, or ask you whether you did your homework or follow the same pace as all your fellow pupils. That is if you even like being treated as a learner at all – you could be fed up with learning as a result of these previous experiences as a child.

You would probably like to be treated more as an equal, as someone who brings in life experience and someone who learns for a specific (your own) purpose. This requires the adult learning professional to construct a different learning environment: one that is more active.

In the figure below traditional learning approaches and active learning approaches are described.

Traditional learning approaches

Active learning approaches

  • Learning is basically a steady accumulation of discrete entities of knowledge and skills that can be presented to learners.
  • There is one best way of learning.
  • Learning is essentially an individual activity.
  • Learning that is non-transparent or tacit is inferior.
  • Learning centres on the stable and enduring – facts and proven evidence.
  • Learning is replicable.


  • People build up their own meanings, based on what they already know and how they see the world around them.
  • Different people give different interpretations to the same thing, may retain different aspects and may act differently on the basis of the same information.
  • There are many ways through which people can learn without someone else passing on pieces of expert knowledge.
  • Learning is a social activity and a lot of learning is tacit.
  • Learning is dynamic and context-bound and, therefore, good learning depends on meaningful learning environments.


Literature does not provide a definitive and complete answer on the question what can be considered as a quality learning environment for adult learners and to facilitate this more active learning approach. However, there are many (European) studies providing some indications of elements or criteria that are associated with the quality learning environment.

Based on these studies, one could conclude that to establish a quality learning environment;

  • It should be motivational for the learners,
  • It should be rich and reflective,
  • The provision should be tailor made, learner centred and attuned to the specific learning needs of the adult learning.
  • The provision should respect the background of the adult learner and the knowledge and experience of the adult learner should be used as resource in the learning process.
  • The provision should be offered in a flexible manner in terms of duration, time, and place.
  • The learning should be both relevant for the adult learner and – potentially – other stakeholders (e.g. employers, societal organisations).

Coming back to comparing your time in school and how you would like to treated as adult learner: would you not have liked an activated learning environment when you were young as well?

Of course you would!

This raises the question what initial education could learn from adult learning: should all learning resemble quality adult learning?


Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.

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  • Krzysztof Pach's picture

    Odbywając staż w Technikum zauważyłem, że coraz więcej młodych ludzi ma niską motywację. Wynika to z tego jak prowadzone są zajęcia oraz jak zachowują się nauczyciele. Nie trudno się dziwić, że młode osoby nie są zaangażowane w zajęcia, jeśli nauczyciel jest monotonny lub rygorystyczny. Myślę, że jest to duży problem w Polskich szkołach i należałoby przeprowadzić pewne zmiany w systemie oświaty. W szkołach powinno się kłaść nacisk przede wszystkim na motywację, bowiem to od niej najwięcej zależy. Dzięki niej jednostka ma w sobie siłę, wie co chce robić w życiu, jest zaangażowana. Myślę, że motywując osobę uczącą się można zyskać więcej, niż strasząc ją, czy ignorując.

  • Alina Respondek's picture
    Thank you for posting this article, it is very clear and useful and we already passed it to some key stakeholders in Poland:-) When I think about the subject I would add one more very important in my opinion feature of adult learning: adult learner have bigger or even maybe full responsibility for own learning aims and outcomes, which is not usually in case of pupils and even students, because teachers prepare curricula and teachers usually set up the education targets for their class or module or group of pupils/students. All the best. Alina