Man reading book - business school student learning from home

Adult Learning Techniques

Using a range of adult learning techniques, older learners can improve their knowledge and skills on their own terms.

Adult Learning Techniques - Woman on laptop learning from home
Woman on laptop learning from home

Because adults are complex individuals, there is no one learning technique to suit everyone. Each individual needs to approach further learning in their own way.

Adults have various motivations for improving their education. For some it is a hobby or curiosity. For others they wish to pursue a new career or challenge themselves to follow a new path in life.

Whatever the reasons you wish to study as an adult learner, you will need to find a method of self education that suits your character and lifestyle.

Characteristics of Adult Learners

It is common for adult learners to adopt not just one, but more than one role, this influencing the amount of energy and time they can devote to learning.

business woman in the city-learning Entrepreneurship skills
business woman in the city-learning Entrepreneurship skills

The challenge met by the trainer is what is known as the heterogeneity of adult learning groups. Some of the more general characteristics of adult learners are:

  • They decide to become part of a learning process as specific needs arise, and for specific reasons.

    Some of the incentives for learning at adult age are for personal development, social role fulfillment, professional development, acquisition, and prestige.
  • They have a range of experience that is both broad and diverse, shaped perceptions and knowledge plurality in which they are seen to invest on an emotional level.

    These experiences derive from a wide range of adult life situations and are therefore different; they also derive from a variety of businesses, political roles, family relationships, and sense of social responsibility.
  • They tend to have their own style of preferred learning. Depending on their personality, experiences, and abilities, they prefer to learn in certain ways.

    Some adults like to become involved in organized activities; others prefer to study alone.
  • Adults tend to have the ability to participate actively in learning. It is impediment that they are treated as responsible adults.

    They like to be asked their opinion, and they prefer communication and open dialogue.

    They prefer educational content that is adapted to their learning objectives rather than standard educational techniques.
  • They often face obstacles when learning. These may be related to the poor organization of activities, or they may arise from social obligations of the adult learners.

    Alternatively they may also involve internal barriers that stem from the individual personality of the learners.

    There are two categories of internal barriers, these being obstacles that are related to prior knowledge, and barriers or values that arise from psychological factors.
  • They develop resignation and defense mechanisms. These situations may occur when there are internal barriers present that impede the learner to share his insights or values, habits, or previous knowledge.

Adult Learning Theory

There is more than one adult learning theory, not just ONE. These different and prevalent theories explain how adults learn from different perspectives.

Man learning from home reading book
Man learning from home reading book

In this article we will address the following specifically;

  • Andragogy
  • Experiential learning
  • Transformational learning

It is important to note that there are many more theories! However, all of the theories that exist have the same goal; to help you create learning experiences for the adult corporate learners that are effective.

Theory 1: Andragogy – Tapping Into Prior Experience

This theory works by tapping into the main characteristics of the adult learner and how he or she brings in his or her experience in order to guide them through the journey of learning.

This theory, developed in the 1970’s by Malcolm Shepherd Knowles is still relevant today.

Theory 2: Transformational Learning

The theory of transformational learning explains how adult learners learn through aha moments.

The root of this theory specifies that learning will take place when new meaning can be imparted to earlier experiences or when an old meaning can be seen in a new light and is therefore reinterpreted (Mezirow, 1990)

Theory 3: Experiential Learning

The theory of experiential learning states that adult learning is all about making sense of experiences.

Adults will learn better when they are engaged in activity.

They learn better when they are directly involved and experiencing learning, as opposed to memorizing definitions from books and memorizing numbers.


Adults Learning Techniques and Tips

Adults Learning Techniques and Tips - communicating a new idea
communicating a new idea – learning communication skills

1. Informal Learning as a part of the formal learning process

Adults have life experiences, and they want to be treated as experienced individuals as well as many wanting to share their experiences.

Important learning activities for adults include on the job experience and informal conversation.

The learning curve will be improved with the introduction of informal learning activities such as tips on food safety that they can “take home”

2. Directed Self-Study

When this approach is used, an instructor will direct an employee to a specific resource such as a website that is an approved resource.

3. Use of Varying Styles

Adults learn through the use of three styles in combination and in varying degrees: seeing (visual), hearing (auditory) and kinesthetic (doing).

Deliver the message you want to put across by using all of these 3 learning styles.

This can be done by telling stories, using pictures, and providing exercises that are hands-on and that will enhance the message that is being offered.

4. Knowledge Must Come Through Action

Learning with action is fun and effective and a great way to train, as stated by Socrates many centuries ago.

5. Why Before How

It is essential to explain the benefits of the learning process up front to adult learning, as they tend to take on the approach of “What’s in it for me?”

As also mentioned in point number 2, training programs should guide the leaner to resources that are approved, in order to synthesize and analyze and to make the correct choice- using the Internet wisely.

6. Maximum Bladder Tolerance (MBT)

Depending on the hour of the day, MBT is normally no longer than 50 minutes, but could be as short as 10 to 15 minutes.

Have you sat in a lecture, finding that you brain is somewhere else altogether?

How does a teacher or trainer avoid this brain fog? Think about the people that you have in your audience and do something a little different every 10 to 15 minutes.

Vary the way you deliver your lecture, using all of the three learning styles talked about.

The movement from data to information and from knowledge through to wisdom requires time to think, to question, to percolate, and finally, to apply.

For this reason it is important to provide your audience with breaks as well as with interactive activities.

7. The 5 Step Approach

This is a model for structural and formal learning that is standard

  • Rationale: Explains to your students why they should learn the material and how it will be applied to their work
  • Objectives: State what students will be able to do once they complete the learning tasks
  • Activities: Use things that will ensure they attain their objectives that are interesting.
  • Evaluation: Check to see whether your adult learners have learned; quiz them, ask them question, and give them criterion reference tests.
  • Feedback: Request input from your learning to correct, re-enforce, and confirm your instruction

8. Learner Centered

Adults want to be treated as people who ate both capable and independent.

For this reason you must give them the freedom to make mistakes, but at the same time, build in feedback and evaluation so that the meeting of objectives is assured.

A quiz is a good and adequate way to make sure that your learners are meeting their objectives as well as assuring that efforts are successful.

Good documentation is provided by good validation of the desired learning. This documentation and learning validation can provide many unforeseen benefits.

9. Key Adult Learning Principles

Within the above can be found 4 primary principles that adults will expect to be included in training.

  • Adults expect to utilize their experience in learning
  • They expect readiness (what’s in it for me)
  • On-the-job application, and
  • The freedom to make mistakes (autonomy)

For this reason, these four principles should be the basis for your adult-training program.


Adult learning requires adopting a range of techniques that suit the individual learner.

Adults may decide to become students for personal growth or to improve their career. This makes each persons learning journey unique to them.