Key Principles of Adult Learning

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Administering training to adults can be tricky and must be approached with a reasonable amount of planning and understanding of the audience.

Unlike in a traditional K-12 environment, the adult learner has a different background, motivation factors, and expectation when it comes to spending their time absorbing new information.

Adult learners are self-directed, meaning they like to have control over their learning, particularly in an elearning environment. In addition, they are often motivated and ready to learn, as long as the case is effectively made as to “why” they need to learn the new content.

Application is important for adult learners too – we want to see a “return” as quickly as possible after learning something new.  By drawing upon our past experiences, we are often able to apply newly learned knowledge.

How do Adults Learn?

When creating any kind of elearning or training program for an adult audience, it is key to remember that adults need to know why they are learning something.  The reason needs to be explained clearly and logically at the beginning of any training program.

For example, I can recall one consulting project where we created a training program for a new help desk process and software. These employees were used to following an old process (and using an old program) for many years. They were comfortable with their old ways, so the change was certainly not a welcomed one.

Knowing this, we had to spend a reasonable amount of time explaining the reasons for the changes, and why these changes were important.  We couldn’t just jump into the content without first addressing the “why”.

Adults also learn by active practice (related to our need to apply newly learned information as soon as possible). As such, if at all possible it is a very good idea to include simulations, games, and demonstrations where possible.

What’s nice about simulations is that you create an environment where it is “okay to fail”, which is critical for adults as we often learn best from our mistakes.  If your training allows for this, you can reasonably expect greater learning retention.

Understanding the way we learn as adults is never black-and-white.  Certain topics may call for a slightly different approach with content delivery. That said, explaining why the content is being taught, and creating some level of interaction, are proven strategies for helping adults retain (and apply) their learning.

 

References:

Nicole Legault

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by the world's leading organizations, such as the University of Michigan, Digital Marketer, WPEngine, and Infusionsoft. Justin has made a career as an elearning consultant where he has implemented large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Twitter | LinkedIn

2 Comments
  1. Kaliym

    Hi Justin,

    Loved the post. You knocked it out of the park when you pointed out that

    “Unlike in a traditional K-12 environment, the adult learner has a different background, motivation factors, and expectation when it comes to spending their time absorbing new information.

    Adult learners are self-directed, meaning they like to have control over their learning, particularly in an elearning environment. In addition, they are often motivated and ready to learn, as long as the case is effectively made as to “why” they need to learn the new content.”

    My experience has been that too often many of us who create these programs forget that adults learn differently and try to apply k-12 approaches which don’t work.

    Keep up the good work.

    KI

    • Hi Kaliym-

      Thanks for the comment. You are indeed correct – I have found that the “why” is often the most important part, but ironically the item that is not addressed sufficiently in training. Depending on the training (i.e. process change from a previous norm), one powerpoint slide on the “why” won’t cut it… you need an entire Lesson dedicated to it.

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