Overview of Adult Learning

Office of Faculty Development

Much research has been conducted since the late 1920s on the differences between how children learn (pedagogy) and how that differs from the way in which adults learn (andragogy). While adults and children share some similarities in their learning preferences, needs, and responses to various elements of the learning process, they differ in others.

Differences in Learning Needs

Traditionally, it has been assumed that children are like blank slates waiting to be filled with knowledge or information. All learning decisions are generally made for children by their teacher. They accept what is provided with little challenge. On the other hand, adults have been shown to have distinctly different needs and perceptions about how training should be conducted. Some of the key differences between adult and child learners follow.

  • Adults want to know the benefit of what they learn. They often ask, and need to be told, what the Added Value And Results For Me (AVAR-FM) is before they will buy into the concepts or ideas being presented. They need to see how the training ties into real world issues. On the other hand, children often tend to accept the explanation "someday you'll need this" as a reason to listen.
  • Adults expect to participate in learning. They often have previous knowledge and experience which they can tie in to program content and relate it to what they already know. This expedites and enhances learning. Since children have limited life experience, they depend more heavily on their teacher’s guidance and knowledge.
  • Adults are motivated by intrinsic needs or desires. Generally, adult learners attend training programs because they want or need the content information to do their job or improve personally. Children attend because they are directed by others.
  • Adult learning is usually competency-based. Their training programs are generally designed to allow them to perform better on the job upon course completion. Child learning tends to be short-term and often focused on passing a test.
  • Adult training environments are varied. Depending on the program, content, activities planned and instructor, the room configuration often varies to allow small group interaction. Environments for children tend to be rows of desks facing a teacher who lectures with little variety.

Adult Learning Principles

As you can see from the information above, there are numerous differences between adult and child learners. From these differences you can derive basic principles concerning adult training to develop and deliver more effective programs for your employees. Some proven strategies include:

  • Relate Training to the Job. Show how learners will be able to take what they gain from training and immediately apply it in the workplace or other areas of their life. Identify this relationship in opening remarks and program objectives.
  • Recognize Learner Knowledge and Experience. Build program content around the level of knowledge or experience that your trainees already possess. There is no reason to reinvent or review what they already know. You will only waste valuable time and bore participants.
  • Involve Participants. Use your trainees as a resource by soliciting volunteers to help facilitate activities, share knowledge, or demonstrate concepts or techniques. Activities that stimulate interest and involvement while teaching valuable learning points that are obtained through the “ah ha” effect of figuring things out on their own allow greater participant attention and retention.
  • Remain Flexible and Adaptable. If you determine during training that there are other needs related to your topic, or that your planned material or activities will not work, be willing to change or modify your content and delivery style to maximize learning.
  • Create a Motivating and Functional Learning Environment. Plan and organize your learning environment to support and facilitate training. Make sure you have arranged tables and materials effectively before participants arrive. If appropriate, have break out areas where small groups of learners can gather for discussion and activities that further enhance the learning experience.
  • Treat Trainees as Adults. Acknowledge levels of expertise, tap into knowledge, and do not talk down to participants. Deliver content in a way that helps everyone in the audience accept and understand what is being provided without making it seem that you are the expert and in charge. Allow learners to take ownership of their learning.
  • Make the Training Experience FUN! Don't prohibit people from enjoying their learning experience. Be creative. Use props, prizes, decorations, techniques, activities, or anything else to stimulate learning and retention. Tie into concepts of brain-based and active learning.

There are many other ways to enhance your learning for adults. To find them, browse the Internet or book seller sites for the following topics:

  • Accelerated learning
  • Brain-based learning
  • Creative learning
  • Creative presentation resources
  • Creative training ideas
  • Creative training techniques

Author's Bio

Robert (Bob) W. Lucas is President of Creative Presentation Resources, Inc, a creative training and presentation products company in Casselberry, Florida.