3 strategies to engage shy adult learners

Children aren’t the only ones who sometimes lack the confidence to engage in class. Many adult students are also hesitant to participate in front of peers. Sometimes, the dread of answering incorrectly can cause some learners to avoid engaging at all.

As a literacy practitioner, you want to see all of your adult learners succeed in their studies, and that involves engagement in class. Here are three strategies to use when trying to engage shy adult learners in your literacy programs.

Consider seating arrangements

Unlike younger students, adults have extensive life experience that they bring to the learning table. Assess your audience to get an idea of their knowledge and educational background. Seat people with similar experience near each other so that they can develop a deeper understanding of the topic. This may allow them to thrive off of each other and become more confident when speaking about the topic. If spacing allows, horseshoe formations work well since participants can face each other and create a true sense of togetherness.

Make it relevant

Adult learners attend your programs because they want to be there – not because they have to be. They’re doing so at a time in their lives where they already have many other responsibilities, like childcare, jobs and household tasks. To encourage class engagement, you need to show how your programs are useful, important, interesting and worth their time.

Adult learners want to learn skills that will directly relate to their lives, so coursework needs to be relevant. When you’re covering certain material, educate learners on the purpose of each lesson. Use practical outcomes related to student goals. For example, if teaching a course on digital literacy, showcase how these skills can help with employment-related goals. Consider adding a side note to each course module that explains the real-world benefits.

Ask them what they want

Simply asking shy students how and what they would like to learn can present an easy solution. Learners will be grateful to have a say in their learning, which can lead to more motivation to participate. Plus, teachers will no longer have to guess about what strategies may or may not work.

When you have this discussion with adult learners, provide them with time to think it over before getting back to you. This gives them an opportunity to consider what may work best for them. You may be surprised at how passionate they can be when given a chance to spearhead their learning experience.


To get the most out of your literacy program, adult learners need to engage in class. Doing so helps improve their memory, as well as critical and higher-level thinking skills. Class participation can encourage students to work harder, provide an opportunity to question subject matter and show evidence for their claims. Active participation can also improve relationships between learners and between learners and educators.

For additional resources or free literacy programs that can help increase learner engagement, check out our programs and initiatives.