5 Ways to Motivate Adult Learners

For adult learners who are out of the habit of actively learning new things, it can be easy to get discouraged when lessons don’t instantly click. Try these tips with the adults you work with, and watch the spark of motivation carry them through their lessons.

1. Focus on Short-Term Goals

Do you hate cleaning? For me, most of my time “cleaning” is spent standing in the room, looking around, and not knowing where to start because everything needs to get done. The result? I feel helpless, my good intentions go nowhere and nothing gets done.

A single large goal — like passing the GED exam — can feel overwhelming when you don’t know where to begin. Break down the end goal into smaller, manageable goals and dive in. Asking yourself “how?” is a good way to figure out your starting goal.

I want to pass the GED exam. How do I do that? By improving my math skills. How do I do that? By starting with learning fractions. How do I do that? By finishing this fractions packet.

Pick a reasonable timeline for accomplishing that one goal, meet that timeline, and then move on to the next goal. Building accomplishment upon accomplishment is how you reach your ultimate goal, and seeing that you’ve gotten something done is a great motivator that yes, you can do this, and to keep going.


2. Emphasize that all progress matters

Rome wasn’t built in a day and no one learns everything overnight. Some lessons will come more easily and others will require more time and trials. When a student starts to feel discouraged, remind them of how far they’ve come, even from when they woke up this morning.

Asking, “What’s something you understand now that you didn’t when you came into class?” at the end of a session can help focus the student on what they are learning instead of what they’re not. After all, those individual moments when the light bulb goes on are what add up to accomplish each short-term goal.


 3. Let them know it’s okay to get it wrong

As adults, we can feel embarrassed by what we think we should know but don’t. We feel frustrated when we don’t understand things right away, and that’s when giving up starts to look pretty good.

But doing something wrong is the first step to doing something right. Getting it wrong means that you’re trying, and trying is a critical part of learning.

Share with the learner an example of when you struggled to understanding something, when you were flat-out dead wrong and needed help to get it right. Knowing that someone not only sympathizes with that feeling of failing but is an example of someone who kept at it and bested failure can be a huge encouragement.


 4. Make it relevant to their lives

Remember being a kid and your “Why do I need to learn this?” questions were answered with “Because you have to”? Unsurprisingly, that sort of reasoning doesn’t fly with adult learners.

Unlike children, adults have real-world experience and they expect information to be immediately useful. Especially if the adults are taking time out of their busy lives to pay for a bus ride and come to class, what they’re learning better be worth their time. “It’s on the GED test” is rarely a satisfying answer to why they need to learn something.

Lower-level reading and math are easy to connect to daily life because we all need to be able to read and do basic math in order to successfully function in the world. But what of those higher-level lessons?

If the adult plans to pursue college or a trade, you can let them know that understanding higher-level math is a skill they’ll need to know. Even something like probability is useful for understanding the weather report or the odds on a lotto ticket. Familiarity with biology allows you to make better health choices. For social studies and history, knowing more about those can allow you to be more engaged as a citizen and play a bigger part in voting for (or creating) the laws that affect your life.

While the higher-level lessons can be difficult, they are useful — you may just have to help draw the connections.


 5. Tap into their intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation sounds complex, but it just means that once adults start seeing the value in what they’re learning and how it helps in their day-to-day lives, they’ll start to internalize that worth and it will motivate them.

Instead of luring someone with the promise of a good grade or, yes, even a GED certificate, you’ll want to focus on the deep-down “why” an adult is taking on this endeavor in order to connect what they want with the process of learning.

The GED itself is an extrinsic motivation, but rarely does someone want a GED for its own sake. Do they want a GED for a job? Do they want a job to take care of their family? Is helping their family what matters to them? Dig deep and find the root of their motivation.

That “why” gets down to what really matters to them, what means personal fulfillment to each student. When the student is motivated not by an external cause but an internal one, then the will to learn and succeed will likewise come from within the student.

Combined with their senses of accomplishment and the usefulness of the material, the adult will feel more connected and engaged with learning.


You can encourage an adult learner by volunteering as a tutor with Seeds of Literacy.