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3 Ways the Adult Learner is Different

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3 Ways the Adult Learner is Different man showing older adult online course on computer

In the elearning and L&D industry, learners can be separated into two categories: the “traditional learner” (or who we would think of as a full-time, K-12 or college-age, student), and the “adult learner”.

Adult learners have unique characteristics (besides not being able to dedicate themselves full-time to learning) that instructional designers should consider when creating learning programs for this group.

How to engage adult learners

Training Strategy: Schedule Company Time to Get Around Logistical Constraints

Since adult learners are not devoted to being a full-time student, this means that they have other things on their plates, demanding their attention: jobs, kids, a household, and other priorities. “In the adult context,” notes instructional Alison Weinberg, “you have a job, and learning is important, but it can get overlooked or forgotten without a strong push driving learning behavior.”According to BlueVolt’s Voice of the eLearner study of 1,200+ adult learners working at distributors (excerpted here), 67% of respondents said they prefer to complete courses during company time. Learning on the job then, while on company time, becomes one of the more realistic methods in which adult learners can squeeze training programs into their already busy lives. 

Training Strategy: Make Motivation Intrinsic

For adults, motivation to take training, unless tied to some specific goal, can suffer. The highly-motivated among us who are passionate about acquiring knowledge will be motivated to take courses (intrinsic motivation), but how to engage people who lack that intrinsic motivation to be excited about learning? Weinberg points out that, in the context of employer-mandated training (extrinsic pressure), adults are more motivated to participate because learning is tied to their livelihoods: “With adult learners, the stakes are higher. If your employer is teaching you something, you need to know. If you don’t perform on the job you’re going to struggle. The motivation then is more intrinsically there.” This is why for optimal training program success, not only should companies allow their employees to take training while on company time, but they should also strive to motivate employees to take courses by tying training programs to specific benchmarks.

Course Content: Life Experience Matters for Learning Resonance

Unlike traditional learners who bring to the table less life experience, adult learners bring a background of long and rich life experience to their learning endeavors. But why should experience matter when it comes to acquiring new knowledge? The richer and more varied the life experience, the more it acts as a resource for further learning. (See the study Analysis of Student Attitudes Towards E-Learning by Rhema and Milisweska for more.) For the human brain, past experiences become the foundation of better connections that can be made between old and new knowledge, creating the framework and starting point for further learning. When Instructional Designers create courses for adult learners, then, the most optimal courses that leverage this difference in adult learners are courses that allow the learner to draw on existing life experience and knowledge to absorb new learnings.

By paying attention to the unique qualities of adult learners, professional trainers can create programs and content better-suited to their employees. Allowing training on company time, motivating employees with specific rewards to take training, and creating content that draws on adult life experiences to further new knowledge will raise the chances employees will want to become continuous learners.

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