How Adults Learn?

There are significant trends in adult learning which are currently happening and are likely to continue to happen over the foreseeable future. These include the following

How Adults Learn Some Basic Points?

  • Adult learners are now faced with an unprecedented rate of change. Previous generations could expect that the education they received in school and college would last a lifetime. This is no longer the case. The time span between the acquisition of knowledge and when it becomes obsolete is getting smaller and smaller. The amount of knowledge in the world is doubling every few years, accelerated further by the ubiquitous Internet. This means that organizations have been forced to develop new ways of learning. Learning is now the most important weapon in a company’s competitive arsenal.
  • Many adults will routinely change jobs over the course of their working lifetime. Some of these jobs will possibly be in unrelated fields demanding retraining or upskilling. The days of a permanent pensionable job lasting a lifetime are gone. It is now imperative that adults continue learning and upskilling over their lifetimes.
  • Informal learning is a significant proportion of adult learning often accounting for as much as 90 per cent of our total learning experiences. This means that formal learning is no longer a significant proportion of our total learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways with e-learning and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube becoming an important aspect of our total learning experience. This is supplemented by on-the-job and collaborative learning with personal networks playing an increasing role.
  • Learning is now a lifelong process. There is a crossover between personal learning and work related learning and in many cases they are the same. Learning to learn skills are now more important than ever before. Our ability to learn and to go on learning is now more important than our store of existing knowledge which can rapidly go out of date. There will be more emphasis on creativity, problem solving,
    communication and interpersonal relationship skills in addition to basic literacy, numeracy and computer skills for jobs now and in the future
  • Learning through technology such as e-learning, m-learning and social media is altering the way our brains are configured. Information and communications technology is rewiring the way our brains work and shaping our thinking. Learners are increasingly proactive and seeking out knowledge for themselves. Social media and smartphone have made this easier in an Internet connected world. UCLA scientists have found that middle-aged and older adults, with little Internet experience, were able to trigger key centers in the brain controlling decision-making and complex reasoning after just one week of surfing the Web. Their research suggests that Internet training can stimulate neurons and potentially improve brain function and thinking skills in older adults
  • Know-how and know-what is being replaced with know-where. In other words it is now more important to be able to find knowledge when you need it rather than memorizing information the traditional way. Smartphones give us the wherewithal to access information on the Internet as an when we need it. Much of the information we need to know can now be offloaded to computers and smartphones. These now act as adjuncts to our brain.
  • There is a continued increase in webinar based delivery of learning. This is facilitated by an improvement in software and bandwidth and learners becoming more familiar with the technology. In addition, Google and other search engines have become pervasive forces on the Internet.
  • There is an emphasis on relevancy – employees only getting the training they need, with additional knowledge being delivered as required, thus creating a lean learning model. This has become known as just-in-time learning facilitated by smartphones and other electronic devices.
  • Some businesses still support formal, external qualification but there is a trend emerging that increasingly employers are seeking to have their own internal training and learning endorsed and accredited. This adds credibility and prestige to the training that they do and acts as a motivational factor for employees to do such training.

The Economist survey in 2013 found that organizational structures are becoming flatter and less hierarchical. This suggests that employees are becoming more empowered as self-directed learners. With modern technology and Internet learning they now have the facilities to do so.
‘Adults differ distinctly in terms of such factors as motivation, interest, values, attitudes, physical and mental abilities, and learning histories.’

ADULTS ARE SELF-DIRECTED LEARNERS

They like to take control and responsibility for their own learning. They like to solve problems and figure things out for themselves including how they go about learning. Self-directed learners cultivate an insatiable curiosity and passion for finding out what is unknown.

They formulate their own questions and then seek out answers. Ideally they should be involved in diagnosing their own learning needs, formulating their learning goals and in the planning and evaluation of their learning. If you have ever Googled something, consulted Wikipedia

or carried out research related to a hobby or something else you were interested in, then you are a self-directed learner.

Self-directed learners like to identify the human and material resources they need for learning and to choose and implement appropriate learning strategies.

Adults resist information which they feel is being imposed on them or doesn’t match up with their own life experiences or learning needs.

Trainers, coaches, mentors and facilitators can show you the way and help the process but you must learn yourself. In formal learning situations adults prefer to be facilitated, coached, mentored and encouraged rather than directed.


Adults who register for the same programme come with their unique perceptions, abilities, values, beliefs, experiences and expectations. They see themselves as partners in the learning process rather than passive recipients of knowledge.

They like to be treated as equals and appreciate opportunities to engage and share their learning, views and experience with others. They like to resolve conflicts with team members themselves and find solutions through collaboration. They don’t like listening passively to lectures but prefer to be actively engaged in learning.

Learning is not a spectator sport. The more actively engaged the learner is, the more memorable and effective the learning.

Adults learn by doing, by trial and error, by observing and reflecting on what goes on in the world around them, through interpersonal relationships with others and by actively trying to make sense of all these experiences. Where exercises, examples and experiences are used to bolster facts and theory, adults learn more and retain more.

Adults may be self-directed learners but in some contexts they may prefer or need direction or help from others. For example, in technical subjects such as accounting, information technology or science based subjects they need support where they do not have the requisite background or knowledge to be self-directed learner

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