Teaching the Adult Student

While aviation instructors teach students of all ages, the average aviation student age is 30 years old. This means the aviation instructor needs to be versed in the needs of adult students. The field of adult education is relatively young, having been established in the late twentieth century by Dr. Malcolm Knowles. His research revealed certain traits that need to be recognized when teaching adult students as well as ways instructors can use these traits to teach older students.


Adults as learners possess the following characteristics:

  • Adults who are motivated to seek out a learning experience do so primarily because they have a use for the knowledge or skill being sought. Learning is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
  • Adults seek out learning experiences in order to cope with specific life-changing events—marriage, divorce, a new job. They are ready to learn when they assume new roles.
  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed; they need to be independent and exercise control.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge and draw upon this reservoir of experience for learning.
  • Adults are goal oriented.
  • Adults are relevancy oriented. Their time perspective changes from one of postponed knowledge application to immediate application.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work.
  • As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect.
  • The need to increase or maintain a sense of self-esteem is a strong secondary motivator for adult learners.
  • Adults want to solve problems and apply new knowledge immediately.

Instructors should:

  • Provide a training syllabus (see the Planning Instructional Activity category) that is organized with clearly defined course objectives to show the student how the training helps him or her attain specific goals.
  • Help students integrate new ideas with what they already know to ensure they keep and use the new information.
  • Assume responsibility only for his or her own expectations, not for those of students. It is important to clarify and articulate all student expectations early on.
  • Recognize the student’s need to control pace and start/stop time.
  • Take advantage of the adult preference to self-direct and self-design learning projects by giving the student frequent scenario based training (SBT) opportunities.
  • Remember that self-direction does not mean isolation. Studies of self-directed learning indicate self-directed projects involve other people as resources, guides, etc.
  • Use books, programmed instruction, and computers which are popular with adult learners.
  • Refrain from “spoon-feeding” the student.
  • Set a cooperative learning climate.
  • Create opportunities for mutual planning.

An aviation student may be the retired business executive who always wanted to learn how to fly, an Army helicopter pilot who wants to learn how to fly an airplane, or a former automobile mechanic who decides to pursue avionics. These students may be financially stressed, or they may be financially secure. They may be healthy, but they may be experiencing such age-related problems as diminished hearing or eyesight. Whatever the personal circumstances of the student, he or she wants the learning experience to be problem-oriented, personalized, and the instructor to be accepting of the student’s need for self-direction and personal responsibility.