Adult Learning

In general, adults take responsibility for their own learning. There are several characteristics of adult learners:

  • Adults usually want to utilize knowledge and skills they have learned soon after they have learned them.
  • Trainees are interested in learning new concepts and principles; they enjoy situations that require problem-solving, not necessarily learning facts.
  • Adults learn better if they are active participants rather than passive learners.
  • Adult learners want to relate the new material to past experiences of their own.
  • Students will learn best if they are able to proceed at a reasonable pace.
  • Motivation is increased when the content is relevant to the immediate interests and concerns of the trainees.
  • Adults like immediate feedback.

Both trainees and the instructor should be active in the learning process. A training environment that keeps these characteristics in mind while addressing the variety of learning styles can be very effective.

Learning styles

Learning styles categorize how adults take in and process information. The main learning styles are:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Kinesthetic

Visual learners learn by seeing. Effective training tools include videos, PowerPoint® presentations, diagrams, computer-based training programs, handouts, or any material that includes illustrations. Visual learners may like to take notes during lectures.

Auditory learners learn by hearing. Effective training tools include lectures, discussions, question and answer periods, or anything that gets the class talking. Auditory learners may like to make tape recordings of class sessions.

Kinesthetic learners learn by doing. Effective training tools include participating in demonstrations, role-playing exercises, or any exercises that involve trying out new skills. Kinesthetic learners may want to volunteer to participate in class activities.

Use variety

Effective training programs address all of the learning styles and avoid long lectures or endless presentations. Training should be designed to present material on a topic and then break up the class with brief discussions, exercises, demonstrations, quizzes, games or other activities to reinforce the content and draw out questions before moving on to the next topic.

Learning environment

Adult trainees are interrupting their busy schedules for training because they feel the training is important. To respect this, the training environment should be set up to minimize distractions. Trainees should be asked to shut off their phones and pagers. Because adult learners’ time is at a premium, classes should start and end on time.

However, because adults learn by sharing their experiences, the trainer should maintain an informal classroom atmosphere that encourages questions and interaction. Providing beverages and snacks makes the trainees more comfortable about getting up to move around when they feel the need to stretch.

Online training should be conducted so that the trainee does not have to answer the phone or emails, or be interrupted by co-workers, during the training period. Technical difficulties present another distraction. Trainers should give the trainees detailed instructions on how to use the software before leaving them to the training program. Technical support should be immediately available.

Useful content

Adults learn best when the training content is immediately useful on the job. Adults are focused on their present tasks, so they may not see the relevance of training content that might be useful for a future project. The trainer should use examples, demonstrations, and practice exercises that are targeted to the job.

The trainer can facilitate learning by asking for questions and relating the responses to the trainees’ work duties. The trainer can suggest how the materials can help the trainees set priorities on the job. Handouts should be concise and useful references.

Sharing experience

Adults bring loads of experience to the classroom, and everyone will benefit if the trainer encourages the trainees to share their experiences. The trainer should encourage discussions and networking both during class and at breaks. The entire class, including the trainer, should be ready to learn from the trainees, and the trainer should recognize trainees who have relevant expertise.

Computer-based training presents challenges to trainee interaction. If several trainees are taking the same online training programs, the trainer can set up a chat room or have email discussion assignments to promote interaction.

Stay on target

Adult learners lose interest or become impatient if they feel that the training content is not as advertised. Even though adults learn by sharing experiences, they expect the trainer to be knowledgeable in the subject matter. The presentation must be smooth, practiced, and well organized.

By outlining the course objectives at the start of class and referring to them as the information is covered, the trainer displays confidence and the trainees know what to expect. Discussions are a wonderful learning tool, but sidetracked topics are a waste of time. When discussions wander, the trainer can reign in the class with a reminder that it is important to stick to the itinerary.

Provide feedback

Since adults like to know where they stand, the trainer should continuously inform the trainees of their progress. This should be done in a way that will not give anyone a feeling of failure in front of their peers. Feedback becomes much more important if the class is for some type of qualification or certification and the trainees need to meet certain criteria to pass the course.

After each exercise or quiz, the trainer should discuss correct replies and allow time for trainees to go back and make corrections to their work. Adults like to be rewarded. Small prizes for class participation are appreciated. When the class is over, the trainees should feel that their expectations have been met and that they have accomplished the course objectives.

Class evaluations

Adults like to give their opinions, but they don’t have a lot of time to complete extensive training evaluations. Evaluations using checklists or short answers can meet this challenge. If trainees are involved in ongoing training programs, they want to know that their opinions matter. The trainer should acknowledge changes to the program that were prompted by trainee evaluations.


Training Built for the Way Adults Learn

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