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3 Ways the Adult Learner is Different

August 29 2017 | By Carly J. Cais

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". 

Adults have unique characteristics that instructional designers should consider when creating learning programs for this group. Here are three ways the adult learner is different:

Time Commitment: Schedule Company Time to Avoid Logistical Constraints

Since most adults 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 BlueVolt instructional designer 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, 67% of respondents said they prefer to complete courses during company time. Learning on company time becomes one of the more realistic methods in which adult learners can squeeze industry education into their already busy lives. 

Training Strategy: Make Motivation Intrinsic

For adults, motivation to take courses, unless tied to some specific goal, can be a struggle. The highly-motivated learner, who is passionate about acquiring knowledge, will excited and ready to take courses, but how can businesses engage people who lack that intrinsic motivation to be excited about learning? Weinberg points out that in the context of employer-mandated training, adults are more motivated to participate as learning becomes tied to their livelihoods, "With adults, the stakes are higher. If your employer is teaching you something, you need to know it. If you don’t perform on the job, you’re going to struggle. Then motivation is more intrinsically there." For optimal training program success, not only should companies allow their employees to take courses while on company time, but they should also strive to motivate employees to take courses by tying these programs to specific benchmarks.

Course Content: Life Experience Matters for Learning Resonance

Unlike traditional learners who bring less life experience to the table, adults have a background of long and rich life experience that they bring to their learning endeavors. 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, according to Analysis of Student Attitudes Towards E-Learning. For the human brain, past experiences become the foundation of better connections that can be made between old and new knowledge, creating the framework for further learning. When Instructional Designers create courses for adults, the most optimal courses that leverage this differences in adults 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, professional trainers can create programs and content better-suited to their employees. Allowing training on company time, motivating employees with specific rewards to take courses, and creating content that draws on adult life experiences to further new knowledge will improve employee dedication to continuous learning.


Interested in understanding adult learners better and creating content that resonates with them? Download our ebook resource with information and tips for the training professional here.