Understanding and Harnessing Adult Learner Motivation

What motivates adults to learn?

Welcome to our deep dive into the intriguing world of adult learning! If you're thinking about creating content or learning journeys and want to better understand adult learners, keep reading. If you've just wondered why some adults seem to leap at every opportunity to learn something new while others might be more hesitant, you're in the right place. In this post, we'll explore what motivates adults to learn, enhance their skills, and expand their knowledge base. But first, we'll explain what adult learning is all about.

In this article

Understanding Andragogy

Andragogy, as defined by Malcolm Knowles (1, 2), is the art and science of adult learning. This means that adults learn differently than children, and the principles of andragogy relate to the motivation of adult learners:

1. Self-direction: As a person matures, their self-concept moves from that of a dependent personality toward one of a self-directing human being. Adults prefer to be in charge of their learning, so allowing them to take initiative in their learning process can be highly motivating. 

Tip: You can give learners options and allow them to take control of their learning. For example, they could provide a list of topics or resources and let the learner choose what to study or explore first. Ask them about the challenges they want to solve with your course and how they like to learn.

2. Experience: Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base. To facilitate their learning, they need to be given time to share and reflect on their experiences. 

Tip: Use activities that relate to learners' experiences. For example, a training session for managers might include real-life scenarios that they've encountered in the workplace. Or, you can organise your training around specific challenges your learners face in their day-to-day work.

3. Readiness to Learn: Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope effectively with their real-life situations. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life. 

Tip: Ensure that the learning content is relevant to their current roles or responsibilities. For instance, if teaching a computer programming course to adults, focus on programming skills that are immediately applicable to their work or personal projects.

4. Orientation to Learning: Adult learners are life-centred, task-centred, or problem-centred in their orientation to learning. They want to solve problems and apply new knowledge immediately. 

Tip: Use problem-solving exercises and case studies in your instruction, which will allow them to apply what they've learned immediately. If you're teaching a finance course, you might use a case study about investment strategies.

5. Motivation to Learn: Adults are responsive to some external motivators (better job, promotion, higher salary etc.), but the most potent motivators are internal such as self-esteem, recognition, a better quality of life, self-confidence, and self- actualisation.

Tip: Highlight how the knowledge and skills they gain can benefit them personally and professionally. For example, a public speaking course can help them be more confident and articulate, which could lead to career advancement.

Remember, adult learners are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves with the support and guidance of their instructors. They require an adult-oriented educational experience that taps into their existing knowledge base. Incorporating these principles when designing learning journeys will increase your learners' motivation to learn. 

Motivational Styles in Adult Learning

Adults are driven to learn by various factors - from the desire to achieve specific goals, enjoy the learning experience itself, or simply quench a thirst for knowledge. Cyril Houle (3) classified learners into three categories based on their motivational styles:

  • goal-oriented
  • activity-oriented
  • learning-oriented.

Years later, in 2017, Bulluck (4) conducted another study using Houle’s typology as a framework and concluded that these motivational styles were still valid. Here are examples for each style:

Take Susan, for instance, an accountant who decided to learn French. Not because she needs it for work or she's planning to move to France, but simply because she loves the language and the process of learning it. Susan represents the 'learning-oriented' category of Houle's classification.
*In one of my language courses, I asked my learners about their motivation to join the course. One answer was different from the others, "I don't know what to tell you. I don't need it for work because I'm retired. I just love learning English. It's like keeping my brain young."

Or consider Raj, a software engineer who enrolled in an advanced data science course. His motivation? To acquire the necessary skills for a promotion, he's been eyeing at his tech firm. Raj's learning is 'goal-oriented.' 
*Most learners in my courses wanted to learn English because they wanted to progress in their roles or get better positions.

But what about Jane, who signs up for a cooking class every weekend? It's not about becoming a professional chef for her. Instead, she relishes the interaction with fellow cooking enthusiasts and the joy she derives from the activity itself. Jane is an 'activity-oriented' learner.
*Thinking about my learners, many attended and continued with their courses because they liked meeting other learners, getting creative, playing games, or reading about different cultures. 

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Understanding what drives us to learn is pivotal for designing effective educational experiences, particularly in adult learning. This motivation can be traced back to two key sources - internal and external motivators. Each plays a unique role in the learning process and can influence our desire to engage in and continue learning. Let's delve deeper into these motivators, shedding light on how they shape our learning journeys and the potential they hold for enriching our educational experiences.

Extrinsic motivators originate outside of the individual and involve the pursuit of rewards or the avoidance of punishment.

Intrinsic motivation refers to the drive to do something because it's personally rewarding, not because of external pressures or rewards. When adults learn for the sake of learning itself, or because they find pleasure and satisfaction in increasing their knowledge and skills, they are driven by intrinsic motivation.

What do you think - which of these motivators are extrinsic and which are intrinsic?


         Financial Incentives


                                      Curiosity and Interest

Intrinsic Motivation

Curiosity and Interest: A successful entrepreneur with a background in marketing decides to learn coding out of personal interest. They're not motivated by the potential business benefits or financial gains; they're simply interested in understanding how coding works. They dedicate a few hours each week to studying coding languages and eventually develop an app just for the fun of it.

Sense of Achievement: An administrative assistant who's always been anxious about public speaking decides to take a public speaking course. After several months of practice and feedback, she gives a presentation at a company meeting and receives positive feedback. This sense of achievement motivates her to continue refining her public speaking skills and to seek out more opportunities to present.

Self-Confidence and Esteem: A factory worker enrolls in a night school program to earn his high school diploma. As he progresses through the program and masters new academic skills, he becomes more confident and starts to see himself as a lifelong learner. This newfound confidence motivates him to continue his education and pursue a college degree.

Empowerment: A woman with a passion for community service learns grant writing to help secure funding for a local nonprofit. By acquiring this new skill, she's able to have a greater impact in her community, which further motivates her to learn about other aspects of nonprofit management.

Self-Improvement and Personal Growth: A middle-aged man decides to learn a new language purely for the sake of self-improvement. He has no professional or financial reasons to learn the language; he simply enjoys the process of learning and the challenge of mastering a new skill.

In each of these examples, the adult learners are motivated by internal rewards rather than external factors. They learn because they want to learn, not because they have to. This intrinsic motivation can be a powerful driver of adult learning and can lead to deep, meaningful learning experiences.

Extrinsic Motivation

Career Advancement: The desire to move up the career ladder can be a powerful motivator. For instance, an individual might pursue a Master's degree in Business Administration (MBA) to qualify for management positions in their company.

Professional Requirements: Sometimes, learning is necessary to meet professional standards or maintain licensure. For example, a nurse might attend a continuing education course on the latest advancements in patient care to fulfil professional licensing requirements.

Financial Incentives: The promise of a higher salary or a bonus can drive learning. A salesperson might engage in a training program to learn new selling techniques that could help them increase their sales and, as a result, their commission.

Social Recognition: Recognition from peers, superiors, or society can also motivate learning. For example, an individual might learn a new language to gain recognition from their multicultural colleagues or friends.

Employer Expectations: Often, employers expect their employees to learn new skills or software to improve their performance. An example could be a graphic designer learning a new design tool because it's being adopted by their company.

Competition: The desire to outperform others can also motivate learning. For instance, a business analyst might learn advanced data visualisation techniques to produce superior reports compared to their peers.

what motivates you to learn

In your opinion - which motivation better supports learning?

Many studies have focused on this question.

Self-Determination Theory (5, 6, 7) posits that people are more motivated and perform better when their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are met - all factors that fuel intrinsic motivation. They foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

In 1999, a meta-analysis of 128 studies (8) found that rewards tend to have a significantly negative effect on intrinsic motivation in learners. This suggests that over-reliance on extrinsic rewards can undermine the intrinsic motivation that leads to better engagement and learning.

Another group of authors (9) conducted a longitudinal study and found that students who were more intrinsically motivated performed better academically over time, while those primarily motivated by extrinsic rewards saw their performance decline.

This tells us that higher salary, being better than our co-workers, or recognition from peers might motivate us to learn, but  fostering intrinsic motivation is key for sustained learning and long-term success.


The motivation for adult learning is a dynamic interplay of internal and external factors. Intrinsic motivators stem from the individual's inner curiosity, personal satisfaction, or the joy of gaining proficiency in a new skill or knowledge area. These could be personal interests, such as learning a new language for the sheer pleasure of it or embarking on a challenging educational program for the intellectual excitement. Many studies underscore that intrinsic motivation often culminates in superior learning outcomes and persistent involvement in the learning process in both young and adult learners.

On the other hand, extrinsic motivators are influenced by external factors like career progression, compliance with professional regulations, or achieving social approval. While these motivators can initially spark learning, they should be balanced with intrinsic motivation to sustain engagement and ensure quality learning.

Furthermore, Cyril Houle's classification of learners into goal-oriented, activity-oriented, and learning-oriented styles sheds light on the varying motivational styles of adult learners, which can be leveraged to design education strategies that cater to these different learning styles.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations both contribute to adult learning, but intrinsic motivation often results in enhanced learning outcomes and long-term engagement.

  2. Understanding the varying motivational styles of adult learners - goal-oriented, activity-oriented, and learning-oriented - can help customise educational strategies to optimally engage learners.

  3. Enabling a learning environment that nurtures autonomy, competence, and relatedness can augment intrinsic motivation, as suggested by the Self-Determination Theory.

  4. Lifelong learning is often fuelled by a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Recognising and nurturing these motivations can aid adults in accomplishing their learning objectives and perpetuating their learning journey.

Further reading on the topic:

(1) Knowles, M. S. (1970). The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy vs pedagogy. New York: Association Press. 

(2) Knowles, M. S. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

(3) Houle, C. O. (1993). The inquiring mind (3rd ed.). Norman, OK: Oklahoma Research Center for Continuing Professional and Higher Education. (Original edition published in 1961).

(4) Bulluck, K. T. (2017). A Qualitative Study Examining the Learning Orientations of Adult Doctoral Students in a College of Education Using Houle’s Typology as a Framework. USF Tampa Graduate Theses and Dissertations. https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/etd/6687

(5) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

(6) Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.

(7) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

(8) Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627–668. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.125.6.627

(9) Lepper, M. R., Corpus, J. H., & Iyengar, S. S. (2005). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivational Orientations in the Classroom: Age Differences and Academic Correlates. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 184–196. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.97.2.184