Why Adult Learning Needs To Be Treated Differently (And How To Do It)

Learning shouldn’t stop when we become adults. In fact, it many ways it should just be the start. Once we enter into the workforce, our career development relies on our ability to continue learning, and indeed, research shows that almost 100 per cent of employees believe having access to professional development is important.

The nature of learning changes as we get older, however. It no longer needs to be about dedicated classrooms and full-time study. Most on-the-job training is more hands-on and practical rather than theoretical, and even theoretical training is delivered in a different way to the classroom.

Learning Needs

Here are some key principles of effective adult learning that both employee and employer/trainer should be aware of.

It should be self-directed.

Adults are quite capable of recognizing in themselves the opportunity to develop their careers and where they will benefit from training. It’s important that adult training programmes allow the individual control over their learning experience, even if the course material itself is mandatory for their job.

Learning by doing.

Rather than dedicated classwork, a lot of effective adult training occurs by undertaking work tasks. For example, an employee might learn a language effectively by actively translating websites, rather than reading from a textbook. Or, for another example, an employee that wants to learn hospitality skills would be better served shadowing another employee for a couple of shifts, rather than sitting in a classroom environment.

Provide a multi-sensory learning experience.

Adult learning is more effective when it combines several different media types together – reading, combined with video and audio notes, for example. Furthermore, adult learning is more effective when it is interactive, and the employee gets the chance to be “hands on” and experience things themselves. As an easy example of this – and adult first aid course would involve practice on dummies and not just presentations or information from a textbook.

The motivations are different and therefore the outcomes need to planned differently.

For conventional school and university environments, the goal is always to “pass” the class with the best score possible. This opens up opportunities (such as helping you get into university, or making you more employable out of university). Adult education is different, however. Adults are looking for practical skills and knowledge that will help them do their jobs better and develop their careers. So, rather than design the learning programme around examinations and scores, it’s better to have a simple certification available at the end.

The education should take into account the lived experience of the adult.

Most of the time the adult will be coming from a not-zero perspective, and have some life experience or expertise that can feed into the new thing being learned. Rather than start from scratch, adult learning programmes should seek to understand the experience of the adult and then enhance that through the course.

Also Read: Finding Success with Online Marketing

Adult learners are enthusiastic learners.

Generally speaking an adult learner wants to be in the position they are, where even the best school student is there because they are obliged to. This changes the dynamic in the educational environment and allows the educator to be more collaborative and tailored in approach. The goal for adult education should be to tap into what the adult is interested in.

Combined, these six principles form the core of what is called “adult learning theory.” In terms of actionable insights, the main takeaway should be that a good adult learning environment should focus on doing, rather than showing, as activity-based learning will have a greater resonance rather than book-based learning.

Other Principles

Additionally, adult learning courses should make the outcomes and reasons for those outcomes clear from the outset. Adults respond better to learning when the relevance of it is made clear, and that the adult subsequently finds those outcomes to be significant. When the learner feels that what they are learning will help to solve real problems, they are likely to be much more focused on the task of learning.

So, as an example, an adult will be much more inclined to learn a new language if they knew that their business would be interacting with people from that language background far more frequently into the future, and that by being able to communicate with the new customers and co-workers, their own career development would be accelerated. On the other hand, simply offering them the opportunity to learn a new language without any clear reason why would be something that the trainee could easily pass over.


Building good training programmes for your staff can result in a happier, more productive and more innovative working environment, however it’s important that you don’t approach the training as a typical classroom experience. Adult education needs a different approach, and those that can succeed will put their businesses at a significant advantage.

Leave a Reply