Barriers to Participation in Adult Learning

Many adults experience mixed feelings about returning to school or participating in job-related training.  These feelings can include nervousness and lack of confidence as well as determination and excitement.  In addition, although adults may have a strong desire to participate in education, they are weighed down with responsibilities of their families and career.  These emotional factors and responsibilities cause barriers that prevent adults from participating in learning.

Why Adults Do Not Participate In Learning Activities

It is unreasonable to make the assumption that adults who are not participating in learning have reached a point in their lives where they are completely happy with their careers, family, and leisure activities (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 1999).

Many adults have the desire to engage in learning activities, but certain factors prevent them from doing so.  Factors that prevent adults from engaging in education are referred to as barriers.  These barriers include lack of time, money, self-confidence, or interest, lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling conflicts, and problems with child care and transportation.

Lack of motivation to learn can also be a barrier.  Adults are motivated when there is a need to learn a new skill.  In the workplace, for example, adults are motivated to learn and barriers are decreased when they are required to obtain a competence or license, have a need to learn skills, or are preparing for an expected promotion.

External and Internal Barriers to Participation in Adult Education

Barriers that are beyond the individual’s control are termed external, while barriers that reflect personal attitudes are termed internal (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 1999).

If adult learners become motivated, internal barriers to participation decrease.  The key is for the educator to learn why adult learners have enrolled to discover those barriers.  Educators must KNOW their learners.  Educators can then formulate an approach that demonstrates the positive effect the newly acquired knowledge will have on all aspects of the lives of the adult learners.

Motivation is the key to overcoming exterior barriers as well.  There are many forms of funding available for education.  Adults who are motivated enough will investigate these options.  Many educational facilities offer child care, and there are support groups that can help with the stress of juggling adult responsibilities.  There are English labs that support ESL students and cultural groups that promote a diverse educational setting.


As adults, we must learn how to overcome the external and internal barriers to participation in learning so that we may continue to grow with each new learning experience.


Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (1999).  Learning in adulthood:  A comprehensive guide (3rd Ed.). San Francisco, CA:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

By Shirley J. Caruso, M.A. Human Resource Development


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