Brain Science and the Adult Learner by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

In the words of the Talking Heads, you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?”

And by here, I mean to the place where we’re talking about brain development as it applies to our adult education students. Shouldn’t that brain stuff be all resolved and unchangeable at this point?

The truth is, scientists used to believe the brain did reach its maximum development at around age 25, and from then on, we were going to suffer significant fall-off in our ability to grow and change. The new science, though, the important stuff that applies to why I’m talking about it, shows this is not so.

Our brains are constantly changing, adapting, discontinuing certain synapses due to lack of use and building others that are constantly experiencing high traffic. If you have forgotten your middle school brain science, the synapses are like tree branches that carry the electrical currents that make up our thoughts, feelings, reactions, and autonomic nervous messages.

So a juncture of a synapse looks like this:

When we regularly call that juncture to duty (by playing video games or trying to learn new words or remember something), that juncture gets strengthened, so the messages travel faster with less lag time. They do this by building up more myelin sheath around that synapse so the pulses zip along without any slow down or obstacles.

The trick is to figure out how to use this information about brain function to improve our teaching to adults.

To do that, we also have to acknowledge a big factor in how prepared our students’ synapses are for learning. The majority of students (researchers estimate at least 60%) in adult education courses have experienced some kind of trauma, whether it was a negative learning experience that kept them from completing traditional high school classes, or trauma prior to that which actually made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed in the traditional classroom.

What we know about how our brains work under stress is that they transfer all of our considerable capacity for adaptation to the process of survival. Blood is sent to the large muscle groups, electrical impulses go to the parts of the brain that aid in crisis management—quick decision-making, reaction to outside threats, etc… This condition of the brain, this particular cocktail of trauma that we cook up in our own heads, is a learning-negative environment. The resources it takes to respond to and manage threat or trauma deplete our ability to retain new information. I once had an old car that couldn’t go faster than 35 mph if the air conditioner was on—our brains are like this! Survival is the strongest impulse our brains have—it is a system override of all other functions.

So now, think of your students. How many are trying to learn the English language, trying to complete simple tasks without language to make it easier? How many have come from homes where alcohol, drugs, or violence were present on a regular basis? How many are currently incarcerated or have been so in the past? How many have been victims of violence or racism? This is the backdrop for your teaching, this tapestry of trauma. Based on what we know about the brain’s sketchy response to boiling in stress, what can we do in our classrooms to overcome it?

The general consensus is that trauma can be overcome and brain response can be reconditioned.

Here are some take-aways:

Learning should feel good! There can be no focus on deficit. We don’t want our students to be subjecting their systems to cortisol while trying to learn. The environment must be nurturing without being condescending; each student must be seen and heard and empowered. Many of our adult students have been discouraged in their academic pursuits, possibly even re-traumatized. We MUST ensure we are not adding to that problem. Think about trust, engagement, hands-on activities—the elements that inspire learners to let down their guard and allow new information in.

Adults are used to being in the driver’s seat of their lives. This needs to be true in the educational setting as well. Be flexible. Design projects that allow them to exert as much autonomy over the subject matter and rate of learning as possible. If you’re teaching science, find out what type of science interests them and would be useful in their daily lives. If you’re teaching math, be sure you make it relevant to their life experience. If you’re teaching English, use that opportunity to give them a voice so they can give a shape and texture to the experiences that have brought them to this point in time. Some may never discuss what their trauma is, but this does not change the fact that we need them to know that if they DO choose to share or make themselves vulnerable in some other way, they will be psychologically and physically safe.

Adults need hands-on, concrete experiences to apply new knowledge, the sooner the better. This is also true of children, but children will accept new information without knowing why it’s important. Adults need some pay off pretty quickly so they can integrate this info into their perspective of the world. For instance, math should be relevant to helping them budget or file their taxes or know whether or not their mortgage interest rate is going to break their bank. Stories they read should speak to the reality they’re living in, so when you discuss theme, point of view, tone, etc… they can feel like this helps them understand voices that matter to them.

Self-direction is guaranteed with adults, although examine this thoroughly, because sometimes their trauma-informed self-direction may be part of the problem. Your role, and you will define it based on the current crop you’re working with, should be that of mentor/educator, not authoritarian. They need to feel like you are invested in understanding their challenges but not judging them or writing them off because of them. It might be helpful to model the vulnerability you seek from them. In my classrooms, I’ve found that if I tell on myself about some of my challenges—paying attention instead of fiddling with the computer or my phone, feeling like things are moving too slow or that the teacher has no interest in me or my opinion and is just trying to get through the material which makes me disengage, or one semester attending my Old Testament class exactly one time and then showing up to the final ready to take the test—they see I understand self-destructive behavior and don’t judge it.

Remember that description of a well-used synapse that sheaths itself in myelin and increases the speed and efficacy of its transmission when we use it more? The opposite happens to our neural synapses in cases of high stress. Messages are intermittent, and new knowledge often doesn’t get sent into the long-term memory folder because stress shuts down neural plasticity. Read that again—stress shuts down neural plasticity. Living in stressful circumstances actually negatively impacts the brain’s ability to learn. This, more than anything else, should inform the environment you want to create in your classroom.

For more resources about the brain science in adult learners, check out these resources:

Bynum, L., Griffin, T., Ridings, D.L., Whykoop, K.S., Anda, D.A., Edwards, V.J., Strine, T. W., Lieu, Y., McKnight-Eily, L.R., & Croft, J. B., (2009). Adverse childhood experiences reported by adults – five states. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) Centers for Disease Control

Chung, J.Sean, “Educational Neuroscience for Adult Education Students in the U.S. and Maine” (2019). MA TESOL Collection. 741.

Elliott, A., and Williams, P., eds. ISOLATING THE BARRIERS AND STRATEGIES FOR PREVENTION: A KIT ABOUT VIOLENCE AND WOMEN’S EDUCATION FOR ADULT EDUCATORS AND ADULT LEARNERS. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women, 1995. (ED 396 178)

Horsman, J. ‘BUT I’M NOT A THERAPIST’: FURTHERING DISCUSSION ABOUT LITERACY WORK WITH SURVIVORS OF TRAUMA. Toronto, Ontario: Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women, 1997. (ED 461 078)


Horsman, J. TOO SCARED TO LEARN: WOMEN, VIOLENCE, AND EDUCATION. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000b.

Perry, B. D. (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 21-27). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Ross, C. (2006). Brain self-repair in psychotherapy: Implications for education. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 29-33). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Wright, Cara Megan, “When Trauma Disrupts Learning: A Neuroeducation-Informed Professional Learning Experience” (2017). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 33.