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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Adults are not oversized children

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

young boy dressed in men's clothing

I know, there are exceptions. Some adults never really grow up. But, let’s not go there.

A common admonition for teaching children is that “children are not miniature adults.” Conversely, when it comes to teaching adults, don’t treat adults as if they are simply oversized children.

Effective approaches to communicate with an audience vary throughout the life cycle. In addition to recognizing differences in age and developmental stage, audiences vary due to life stage and generation. Tailoring to your audience based on these differences is the focus of chapter 14 in the still-under-construction Academy Guide to Nutrition Communication. Today’s blog features content from that chapter, specifically the characteristics of the adult learner and how to best reach them with your message.

Adult audiences share several core characteristics that are important to account for when designing communication.

Adults are…

Self-directed Adults no longer depend on teachers to determine what is important to learn. Adults decide what is important to them, based on not only their values and priorities, but also their current situation in life. The effective communicator finds out what is important to the audience before developing nutrition messages.

Experts on themselves Adults have a wealth of life experience that impacts learning. Past experiences can serve as either barriers or motivators to learning and change. Food and nutrition professionals are subject matter experts, but to be effective, communicators need to honor adults as the experts about themselves.

Skeptical Adults need to validate information and try it out for themselves before accepting it as truth. Encourage adult audiences to ask questions and search for the answers. Provide them with reputable sources to locate the evidence they need as well as the means to apply it to their situation.

Pragmatic and problem-centered Adults seek information that is immediately useful to solve their problems. Provide adult audiences with practical and realistic action steps to put information into practice to meet current perceived needs.

Internally motivated Adult learning is voluntary and based on internal motivators. Learning is one of many demands competing for an adult’s attention. If learning doesn’t meet their perceived needs and lead to desired results, adults may decide to opt out of the learning situation.

Autonomous Not only do adults decide what they will learn, they take responsibility for what they do as a result of that learning. The effective communicator provides audience members with potential solutions, assists with problem solving, and then allows audience members the autonomy to determine what to do with that knowledge.

Effective approaches to adult learning

Effective approaches to adult learning take into account the characteristics listed above. The following principles are based on the writings of Jane Vella (1), Joye Norris (2), and Patricia Cranton (3) among others. These educators provide useful insights into how to communicate effectively with the adult learner.

  • Needs assessments involve the full participation of the adult audience.

  • Prior experience and learning is acknowledged and built on.

  • Learning takes place in a warm, welcoming environment that promotes feeling safe to learn and participate.

  • Mutual respect exists between teacher and learners and among learners. Open dialogue and active listening are encouraged and practiced.

  • Learning is sequenced and reinforced, encompasses all learning styles, and promotes the acquisition of desired feelings and actions as well as knowledge.

  • Adults use open-ended questions to learn by doing and reflecting.

  • Learning is relevant and immediately useful.

  • Engagement of learners in partner and small group interactions and activities promotes learning.

  • The “teacher” or communicator assumes the role of facilitator, coach, or mentor, not lecturer. In fact, they are a “colearner” – building an authentic relationship with the audience – allowing learners to be “coteachers.”

Think about how you prefer to learn. Do these characteristics resonate with you? Do you like to be taught in the ways described above? Whether you are in the role of teacher or learner, the goal is the same - form an authentic relationship, communicate collaboratively, and discover all there is to learn.

“Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”

~ Josef Albers​

1. Vella J. Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2002.

2. Norris J. From Telling to Teaching. North Myrtle Beach, SC: Learning by Dialogue; 2003.

3. Cranton P. Understanding and Promoting Transformative Learning. A Guide to Theory and Practice. 3rd Edition. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing; 2016.

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