The Challenges of Being an Adult Learner and How to Overcome Them

Taking a course can be the gateway to a new career, or a vital stepping stone to that promotion you’ve been after. Whatever field you’re in, learning new skills is key to branching out and moving forwards.

The prospect of advancing your career is exciting—but the journey can be difficult. The truth is, studying takes time, money, and energy; it’s a big commitment.

Adult learners face a unique set of challenges. If you fall into this category, it’s important to find the right learning solution; one that addresses these barriers and makes it possible to tackle them.

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at what it means to be an adult learner, the typical obstacles that adult learners face, and what you can do to overcome them.

What does it mean to be an adult learner?

The term “adult learner” basically describes anyone who is not a student in the conventional sense of the word. There is no hard-and-fast definition, but we can draw upon Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory (andragogy) to help us differentiate between adult learners and traditional students.

While pedagogy refers to the process of teaching children, andragogy is the process of helping adults to learn. It assumes that adult learners are autonomous, intrinsically motivated and goal-oriented, and that they have gathered some previous experience.

Based on the theory of andragogy, adult learners may also have external responsibilities and situations that impact the learning process—be it a job, family commitments, or both. Finally, adult learners are normally studying out of choice, so you can reasonably assume that intrinsic motivation is high. However, maintaining this level of motivation can be tricky, as adult learning comes with its own set of challenges.

What are the main challenges faced by adult learners?

The benefits of studying are manifold — whether it’s learning new skills for your job, pursuing a subject you’re passionate about, or boosting your confidence. Despite the many advantages, juggling school and adult life is not easy. Here are some of the most common setbacks that adult learners face:

A lack of time

Balancing work and family commitments whilst maintaining some sort of social life is tricky enough as it is. Throw a class into the mix and you’ve really got your hands full. If your schedule is already packed, the idea of studying can seem impossible — and even if you do find a way to squeeze it in, there’s the question of whether you’ll have any energy left to give. Research from Canada, for example, shows 70% of employers offer financial support for job-related education. But only 22% of employees use it, citing a lack of time and clarity around how, exactly, to advance their skills.

Financial barriers

Money is a huge factor when it comes to adult learning. With bills to pay and mouths to feed, forking out for a class might seem like an unnecessary extravagance.

A recent report by the Million Plus university group in the UK highlights just how much of a barrier this can be. After university tuition fees were increased in 2012, the number of mature students dropped by 20% — and for some courses, like nursing, by as much as 49%.

Whilst studying may ultimately hold the key to career progression, coming up with the funds in the first place is not always easy.


Time and money aside, one of the biggest barriers for adult learners is self-doubt – that feeling of “am I really cut out for this?”

As adults, we often feel like we should have it all figured out, and going to school can feel like a step backwards. The truth is, change is daunting; by embarking on something new, you’re stepping out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to the chance of failure.

Coupled with a lack of time and money, this could well be enough to deter you forever. However, it’s not as bleak as it sounds. Let’s take a look at how you can overcome these obstacles and study your way to career happiness.

I’m an adult learner—what are my options?

The good news is, studying as an adult is actually very doable—you just need to find the right solution. Online bootcamps offer a much more realistic alternative to traditional further education options, and there’s a course out there for just about anything. However, learning is never a case of one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to choose a course that suits your personal situation.

Here’s how online bootcamps break down many of the typical adult-learner barriers:


First and foremost, if you’re juggling a hectic schedule, flexibility is key. Attending a class at set times and locations may not be feasible, but an online course that you can work through at a flexible pace gives you a lot more freedom. You can’t produce more hours in the day, but you can find your own rhythm and study as and when you have time.

Value for money

Financial restrictions are much harder to tackle, and everyone is working with a different budget. Depending on your situation, there are several routes you can take. If you’re already employed and want to study something relevant to your current job, you may be able to ask your employer to cover it. If that’s not an option, look for a course that you can pay in instalments.

It’s also important to find a course that offers real value for money. The cheapest option might be more affordable, but studying is an investment: if you’re going to spend money on it, it’s worth thinking about the long-term value and not just the immediate savings.

Supportive community

When it comes to quashing those feelings of doubt, a strong support network is crucial. For adult learners especially, being able to connect with others who are in the same boat can be extremely reassuring. However, whilst online courses are great for flexibility, this is where they often fall down.

At CareerFoundry, we’ve tackled this by combining the best of both: our courses are online and flexibly paced, but you’ll still have a tutor and a dedicated one-on-one expert mentor, as well as an active community of fellow adult learners. We’ve seen first-hand how this keeps our students on track and reduces the risk of dropping out.

I’m ready to study—what now?

With the right mindset and a mentored online course, you can broaden your skillset without quitting your job or drastically changing your schedule. If you’re ready to join a community of proactive, focused adult learners, take a look at our courses or chat to a program advisor today.

What is CareerFoundry?

CareerFoundry is an online school for people looking to switch to a rewarding career in tech. Select a program, get paired with an expert mentor and tutor, and become a job-ready designer, developer, or analyst from scratch, or your money back.

Learn more about our programs