Adult Learning

by | Aug 13, 2021 | 0 comments

Adult Learner/Student | Image Source: Deposit Photos

How Do Adults Learn?


You enter a room to deliver a workshop. A few seconds after, while you are facilitating the class, you observe people yawning, sleeping or zoning out. And when you assess them, they did poorly!

Friends, does this sound familiar? We have all shamed ourselves in connecting with our audience at one point as a corporate trainer/facilitator/instructor because we did not know how to connect with them in the first place.

1 thing we need to remember: Adults learn differently than children. I did not grasp this idea for a while. Then, when I did, I connected better with my audience. Right now, let me share with you some insights I amassed from PhD student and lecturer Jennifer Kavanagh.

To facilitate training successfully, trainers must be aware of these adult learner characteristics: experience, self-consciousness, goal-orientation, different reaction times and collaboration.


Jennifer shares that adults come with experience. They can range from personal, family, work and life to name a few. Adults tend to compare their new experiences with old ones. As a result, they build on knowledge and skills they have developed before. Jennifer narrates how she was mandated to learn French lessons till 15 years old, growing up in Canada.

She cited how we can learn or understand a language without necessarily being fluent in it. To pick up a language, we learn by memory and repetition. When she turned 20 years old, she aimed to learn German language. While learning it, she toiled to recall each word. To break the back of the beast, she discovered a technique. To learn German easily, she converts English words to French terms then translates them back to German.

For her, it may not be the most efficient way to learn a language but Jennifer deemed this efficient and easy for her to do.

Using this as context for adult learning, it is the same for adults. They may need to liken NEW knowledge and skills to CURRENT/EXISTING ones. As facilitators or trainers, we must recognize this. Otherwise, we will lose our attendees than the speed of light, as Jennifer warns. Jennifer then invites viewers to take a look at this man:

Adult Learner/Student
Image Source: Deposit Photos

She rhetorically asks: “What are his experiences? What is his knowledge? How would he behave? How would you teach him?”
Then she reiterates that adult learning is both exciting and interesting. We never know what to expect! Hence, trainers and facilitators can mull over this young man’s experiences. Every experience he has determines his way of thinking and learning in the classroom.
As adults bring their experiences, they must translate those into learning when they practice skills and knowledge in the classroom.
Consequently, adults may feel flustered sometimes.


As we grow into adults, we feel more self-conscious. Jennifer adds how they feel embarrassed to make mistakes publicly. It is implied that adults want to save face as much as possible. To enlighten the viewers about this, she elaborates that we have built a comfort zone around ourselves. It is where we feel safe, self-assured and stress-free!

Comfort Zone
Source: Kavanagh, Jennifer. “Adult Learning: Techniques for Facilitators.” Characteristics of Adult Learners. 25 July 2021.

However, in this zone, there are no risks involved. No risk = no growth. That simple.

Here is where our challenge lies: To grow as adults, we need to stretch beyond our comfort zone and into the learning zone. While we cannot sustain being in the learning zone 100% of the time, learning new things becomes more streamlined when we engage our learning zone.

Learning Zone
Source: Kavanagh, Jennifer. “Adult Learning: Techniques for Facilitators.” Characteristics of Adult Learners. 25 July 2021.

Given the aforementioned situation, it is a facilitator’s duty to captivate the audience from their comfort zone and into the learning zone. There is a zone that facilitators must be forewarned about.

Beware: the panic zone!

Panic Zone
Source: Kavanagh, Jennifer. “Adult Learning: Techniques for Facilitators.” Characteristics of Adult Learners. 25 July 2021.

In this zone, learners experience intense stress, sweating and shaking – preoccupied with panic and anxiety. This zone prevents focusing on learning. Since facilitators unknowingly or deliberately push learners in activities they fear, majority of the learners end up being here!

But do not fear, there is a solution! When this happens, facilitators must recognize this mindfully. Then, s/he must pull them back to the learning zone. If they are still overwhelmed, bring them back first to their comfort zones and entice them back into the learning zone. For instance, when trainers impart knowledge or demonstrate a skill, they must give learners a chance to practice them. There will be times when they will feel afraid so give them a break for a while. Afterwards, once they feel more energized, you can challenge them to re-try it.

Once you ignite their juices and rev up their engines for learning, it will excite them if you are cognizant of their learning goals.



Predisposed to achieve goals, adults learn something for as long as it accelerates goal achievement. It can be greater productivity, enhanced performance, promotion/advancement, certificate attainment or just plain self-improvement.

Looking for that magic pill constantly astonishes yet befuddles most adults – well, like me. They search for that missing information to solve their problems OR provide them with the steps to achieve their goals.

Therefore, structuring lessons help adult learners colossally. The secret is to limit the theoretical information we, facilitators, give them. Instead, we must focus on steps or actions for them to reach their goals. Additionally, providing them with real-world scenarios will aid them in testing out new ideas and skills in a safe environment before they experiment with them in a bigger context.

Simply put, help adult learners connect classroom learning to real life.

Taking a closer look at adults, they all have unique goals they yearn to achieve. What is interesting is that an adult’s age dictates the kind of goals they want to pursue. For now, let us zoom in on adult learner’s age.


Different reaction times

Personally, it amuses me how our age dictates our learning expectations in the classroom. As facilitators, we must bear in mind that our learner’s ages can range from 25 to 65 years old. It is our responsibility to connect to all these ages, better yet, generations!

To be more specific on how age connects to learning, you can meet someone who is learning something for the first time, like fresh graduates. You may also encounter a student who has mastered a skill or familiarized knowledge many years ago but their supervisors forced them to attend training for compliance purposes.

This situation challenges trainers to create an environment that addresses the needs of all learners present in the classroom whether virtual or live. Why is this so? Each student absorbs and even retains content at different rates and they respond differently in the classroom, especially on how they learn best.

At this point, I would like to reiterate what Jennifer said: for instructors, trainers and facilitators to account or consider all these and deliver training to varied audiences. To appeal to all the adult learners, training, workshops or seminars must create an avenue where the experienced/competent students can show the ropes or exemplify a skill or body of knowledge to rookie students.

Furthermore, it can also mean using a smorgasbord of training instructional strategies. To illustrate, a trainer can start with a lecture, break it, add group discussion activities, conduct quizzes and partner challenges to name a few. These are some means to tackle multifaceted student needs.

Though adults may have different ages, generations and even reaction times, they have one commonality that binds them together – the need for collaboration.



Jennifer emphasizes that adults learn by sharing ideas and discussing them with others through trial-and-error and doing & testing. Learning less by reading and listening, trainers must engage and involve adults in the learning process. Therefore, we can provide them opportunities where they can learn together and from each other.

Recalling a recently concluded webinar that PSTD conducted, it highlighted social learning’s importance. What I picked up from speakers Vett Watson and Catherine Granados-Candelaria collectively was that social learning can increase learning and development effectiveness. Learning from others is a treasure that trainers can instill in the attendees. It is key to successful adult learning. Jennifer quips that social connection is the reason why the internet and social media [like Facebook] are popular nowadays.

Here is a general rule for trainers: change the classroom pace at a minimum of 20 minutes. To illustrate, one can start with a 20-minute lecture then conduct a group discussion. Afterwards, return to either a short discussion, independent exercise or group exercise. As a result, we only have 20 minutes to sustain the audience’s attention; otherwise, we’ll talk to a blank wall.



I would like to share additional insights based on Jennifer’s research. There are assumptions that I’d like to debunk. These are reasons why there are average classes and poor student performance.

“If I will tell them, they will learn it.”
This is not how adults learn. They need to discuss, compare things with past experience, test it and use it many times before it will stick.
“I am the expert, they are the students.”
The facilitators are not the stars. It is the students who are.
“High pressure, high results.”
This will only lead to more stress in the adult learners, not results.
In fact, this will push them towards the panic zone, leading to more anger, frustration and even anxiety.
“It worked when I was in high school.”
Times have changed and we have all grown up. If we treat adults like they are in grade 5, they will respond like 5th graders.

Our students will thank us a lot when we apply adult learning principles in our training. Let me recap the tips that Jennifer shared when teaching adults before I conclude:

Number 1: Respect their experience.
Number 2: Connect learning to their goals in the job.
Number 3: More time for reflection for the topics learnt.
Number 4: Variety of exercises [for adults to work independently or collaboratively]



Imbibing adult learner traits – such as experience, self-consciousness, goal-orientation, different reaction times and collaboration – upgrades a facilitator’s connection with adult learners and increases training success.

From the learners’ end, they will appreciate all the learnings and insights coming from their facilitator or trainer.

The next time you are asked to train, we can all have an enjoyable ride as we instill in ourselves these adult learner characteristics.

Kavanagh, Jennifer. “Adult Learning: Techniques for Facilitators.” Characteristics of Adult Learners. 25 July 2021.

About the Writer



As a learning & development [L&D] professional, Migi is a proud corporate trainer upgrading people’s performance and productivity. He instills in his attendees prized knowledge, skills and abilities or attitudes. Drawing from his wealth of experiences in talent development, he mainly facilitates webinars, workshops, trainings and even voiceovers while occasionally designing programs for his attendees’ professional advancement.

Programs he runs primarily but not limited to include public speaking, business writing, presentation skills, English proficiency, customer service, time and stress management.

Outside of work, delivering speeches in toastmasters and being a part-time facilitator in John Robert Powers polishes his areas of mastery – public speaking or communication. As a toastmaster, he has garnered awards for impromptu & extemporaneous speaking and recently reached 2nd place nationwide for speech evaluation during the virtual district convention [DisCon] last May 1, 2021. Besides, as president along with his highly competent officers, he led his club to merit the President’s Distinguished Club award – highest award a club can attain.

Deeply passionate about personal development, he devotes time for reading, studying and learning. Additionally, he keeps himself fit through martial arts and weights.

Overall, he is a man on a mission centered on his lifetime mantra: “AIM HIGH like a Green Archer, FLY HIGH like a Blue Eagle.”

As a corporate trainer to his dear trainees, he hopes they’ll remember him through this motto: “Learning and development isn’t only a job but also a lifestyle.” – Migi Ericta


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *