Teaching the Adult Learner

by ExecuTrain on June 14, 2010

by Karrah Roehm, Director of Training and Operations

Yesterday, I spent the day at home with my 5 yr old. When he asked me what the blue thing were on his wrists (his veins), I tried to explain as best I could. I gave him an analogy that it was like our water hose out back, but instead of water it carried blood and oxygen to the different parts of our bodies. He looked at me for a second and said “Ohhh, so like we water the bushes and flowers, our veins give blood to our body parts!” Yes!!! Now other than thinking that I had given birth to the smartest child alive, I also realized something… he never doubted me, I could have told him anything and he would have taken it at face value and believed it, then gone and told all of his friends believing that it was the truth (luckily, it was). This got me thinking, as an instructor of adult learners, how easy would classes be if adults approached learning like children? Obviously they do not, so when we are trying to teach other adults, what do we need to bring to the class that ensures that they walk out of class better equipped for their jobs/duties than when they walked in? Not only that, but how do we also get them to take the skills they learn in class and apply them in their daily lives?

I am a true believer in lifelong learning. I have a passion for training and development, so I believe helping others excel at their jobs begins with proper training. We’ve all been in classes before that we couldn’t wait to get out of. Whether it’s a lack of participation, the material was over our heads, or we simply didn’t want to be there that day, it’s happened to all of us.

In order to increase the likelihood that adults will take more from our training sessions we need to keep the following characteristics in mind.


  • Need to validate the information based on their beliefs and experiences
  • Expect course material to be useful immediately
  • Are problem-centered
  • Function best in a collaborative environment
  • Have experiences to draw upon
  • Have the ability to serve as subject matter experts (resources) to the class

All of these could be an entire write-up on their own, but I want to focus on the fact that the majority of adults function best in a collaborative environment. Here are some tips for facilitating a successful class that is collaborative and interactive.

  • Set expectations from the beginning that during their time there, they are encouraged to ask questions, compare experiences and share solutions with each other.
  • Know that an environment that is truly collaborative is one where all ideas and opinions are welcome without criticism or judgment.
  • Never put a student on the spot… NEVER
  • Ask for volunteers to respond and ensure that there are no wrong responses. If the response you get is not the one you were seeking, ask the group for additional answers.
  • Constantly be on the lookout for cues from the group that suggest problems. If you see people fidgeting, looking bored, or show by their expressions that they disagree or do not understand, ask questions to resolve the situation.

These are only a few tips for getting students involved in the learning process. Anytime we try to develop new habits or think of things in new ways, it’s not easy. But it’s time to evaluate our current training habits and if needed establish new ones. Believe me, the risks are few and the rewards are great!

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