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Adult Learning Principles

Creating effective training for adult learners requires acknowledging their unique characteristics and tailoring the training accordingly. Adults approach and use training differently than children. Their motivation, what they bring to the training, their expectations of it, and how they learn are all different. Often adults seek training to improve their job performance by learning the latest developments in their field, building on their skills, and enhancing their effectiveness. They may also attend training for personal growth—to expand their horizons by acquiring new information, developing new skills, or fulfilling inner desires.

Characteristics of Adult Learning

There are some common characteristics of adult learning that are important to be aware of when developing training.

  • Adults have the need to know why they are learning something.
  • Adults learn through doing.
  • Adults are problem-solvers.
  • Adults learn best when the subject is of immediate use.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. Studies have shown that adults remember things better if they have heard them 3 times.
  • Transfer of learning for adults is not automatic and must be facilitated. Follow-up support (for example, by supervisors on the job) helps adult learners incorporate what they have learned into their daily practice.

Learning Styles

We all have a preferred way of learning. It is how we learn best. There are three main styles—seeing, hearing, and doing. Because there is no way of knowing in advance the preferred learning styles of an audience, training should incorporate all three modes. A useful exercise with adult learners is to have them identify how they learn best. It allows the trainer to modify the presentation if necessary to best meet the audience's needs and allows the audience to maximize their educational experience by focusing on what benefits them the most.

  • Visual
    Visual learners have a preference for seeing (use visual aids such as powerpoint slides, videos, diagrams, handouts, etc.). They understand information better if they can read it.
  • Auditory
    Auditory learners learn best by hearing information (use lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.).
    They can usually remember information more accurately when it has been explained to them verbally.
  • Kinesthetic or Tactile
    Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (use role play, exercises, hands on activities, writing, etc.). They can absorb information best if they are physically engaged in the learning process.

Mix it up. Not all groups have the same learning style. Incorporate activities for all learners. It adds diversity and interest to the presentation.

Training Is Best When the Information …

  • Is Useful and Relevant
    Adults will be more interested and invested in the training if they consider it realistic and relevant to them. Being able to apply it in the 'real world' is important to adult learners.
  • Builds On and Utilizes the Learners' Own Skills and Experiences
    Adults have a wealth of experience that they bring to training. Successful training stimulate learners to use their knowledge in new ways and in new situations. This builds on the learner's competence.
  • Helps the Learner Achieve His/Her Objectives
    Learners are interested in training which help them realize their goals. Creating learning objectives for the training informs the adult learners about what they can expect to learn.

Create a Conducive Learning Environment

  • Supportive Environment
    Adult learning has ego involved so it is important to create a supportive environment for the participants. Building a sense of community through warm-up or ice breaker exercises and structuring the training to encourage support from peers will reduce the fear of judgment during learning.
  • Provide Feedback
    Adults need to receive feedback on how they are doing and the results of their efforts. Having activities that allow the participant to use what they have learned and receive structured, helpful feedback will make the training more meaningful.
  • Small-Group Activities
    Adults benefit from small-group activities during the learning to allow them to move beyond understanding to application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Small-group activities provide an opportunity to share, reflect, and generalize their learning experiences.
  • Opportunities to Apply What is Learned
    It is helpful to have opportunities to apply what they are learning to their own experiences. It allows them to 'test drive' what they are learning to see how it applies in their real work.
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