Education & Events

Adult Learning

Excerpts from the U.S. Department of Labor and“Principles of Adult Learning” by Stephen Lieb

Traditional training can be less effective for adult learners…

  • Most training is still done in lecture format.
  • Lectures are not appropriate for adult learners today.
  • Adults are more likely to forget lecture material, than material gained through experience.

Training headed in new directions…

  • Personal experience, group support, and mentoring are preferred over lectures.
  • Group experiences are useful. These shared experiences allow learners to assist each other in understanding material.
  • Learners want to know how what they learn will be applied to the workplace or their role as an elected official.
  • The average adult attention span is 15-20 minutes. You must do something everything 15-20 minutes to maintain the adult learners’ attention.

Planning a curriculum
When planning training classes, it is beneficial to use a checklist that highlights the major points to be considered in the lesson. This checklist will allow you to organize your questions and goals in developing a curriculum for your training classes.

  • Clear goals
    • What is the point of the training?
    • What are the expected outcomes of the training?
  • Content
    • What content will support the stated goals?
    • Things to consider: appropriate use of terminology, explanation of terminology, real life examples, hands-on/written exercises.
  • Appropriate delivery mechanism
    • How should you present material?
    • Things to consider: PowerPoint presentations, hands-on exercises, group activities, scenarios, panel discussions, question & answer sessions, role-playing, stories that evoke emotions, integrating multimedia.
  • Assessment
    • How will you know if trainees have learned the content?
    • How will you know if the learning goal was achieved?
  • Remediation
    • What kind of an intervention should you plan or implement to provide additional support for the trainee?
    • If lack of understanding persists after having received initial instruction on a task, you should provide additional information, experience, discussion, etc.

Understanding adult learning principles is the key to developing successful training procedures that engage trainees and facilitate learning. It is helpful to make a list of the characteristics of adult learning preferences in order to tailor your training methods to the needs of the trainees. By understanding these principles, you will find that the training will be more beneficial to the trainees and the organization.

According to Malcolm Knowles, the pioneer of adult education, the following are characteristics of an adult learner:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. Their teachers must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them. Specifically, they must get participants’ perspectives about what topics to cover and let them work on projects that reflect their interests.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this experience base. To help them do so, they should draw out participants’ experience and knowledge that is relevant to the topic. They must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize the value of experience in learning.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. Upon enrolling in a course, they usually know what goal they want to attain. They appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show participants how this class will help them attain their goals.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Instructors must identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job.
  • As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in class.

Four critical elements of learning:

  • Motivation – If the participant does not recognize the need for the information (or has been offended or intimidated), all of the instructor’s effort to assist the participant to learn will be in vain. The instructor must establish rapport with participants and prepare them for learning; this provides motivation. Instructors can motivate students via several means:
    • Set a feeling or tone for the lesson.
    • Set an appropriate level of concern.
    • Set an appropriate level of difficulty.
  • Reinforcement – Reinforcement is a very necessary part of the teaching/learning process; through it, instructors encourage correct modes of behavior and performance.
  • Retention – Participants must retain information from classes in order to benefit from the learning.
  • Transference – A transfer of learning is the result of training. It is the ability to use the information taught in the course, but in a new setting.

Concepts you can practice:

  • Dialogue – interaction between learners and instructors.
  • Supportive atmosphere – a comfortable environment facilitates learning along with a nurturing instructor; acknowledged support outside of the learning environment (management, available resources) is also helpful.
  • Encouragement of cooperative communication – clear opportunities for discussion between learners and instructors, and learners with each other.

Adults respond best to learning that is:

  • Active
  • Experience-based
  • Recognizing the learner as an expert
  • Independent
  • Real-life centered
  • Task-centered
  • Problem-centered
  • Solution-driven
  • Skill-seeking
  • Self-directing

To view the League’s on-demand webinar offerings click here.

To view the League calendar of upcoming training events, including live webinars, click here.


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