How to Maximize Adult Learning Potential

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A huge pat on the back to all who survived the first month of the back-to-school routine – by far the most involved time of the year for me. Between getting acquainted with teachers and school schedules, adjusting bedtimes, and all the extra driving we have to do as parents – it can affect not only the family dynamic but also the rest of our activities, including work life. But as if all this was not enough, for some adults in my circles (the bravest bunch), “back to school” also means becoming a student all over again or putting up training and educational programs for other adults.

I am hoping to alleviate some of their challenges with this reminder on what sets apart adult learners and how they can achieve best learning results. So here are the 3 adult learning principles that are worth keeping in mind:

  1. Even though preschoolers are the ones notorious for asking a lot of “why” questions, in reality, adults have the equally strong desire to know the reason behind things. It’s very important to us to know why we need to learn something. Usually, it’s because we need to create some kind of change in our life. What works best is when through our personal life experiences we come to face the need for gaining certain knowledge or new skills. So having a strong “why” statement helps to set the tone, to create the vision and to keep us going even when the times get tough.
  2. As adults, we are used to having a lot of control over our lives and this translates to the realm of learning. Malcolm Knowles, known for his work as an Adult Educator, described adult learning as a process of self-directed inquiry. That’s why we are most suited to learning in an environment where we have control over the whole process, including the method, the pace, and direction.
  3. Adult learners have significantly richer life experiences – both wider and deeper – than their younger counterparts. There is clearly a downside to having preconceived viewpoints and existing opinions. It may create a bias towards the learning process, and introduce the challenge of certain bad habits that need breaking. So it’s good for the instructor to recognize those challenges and for the learner to acknowledge them early on in the process. At the same time having diverse life experiences to build on and to relate to, can make the journey even more meaningful.

They say that there are two types of teachers – those who call on you if they feel you are prepared and those who call on you if they feel you are unprepared. They also say that the first type is out there to prove you right and the second type is out there to prove you wrong. Well, in my experience of providing training there are those adult learners who are eager to participate in every discussion and have ready answers to all questions. And then, there are those who aren’t thrilled at all to be called for any sharing or skill demonstrations. The first group makes it easier to see whether or not the knowledge transfer has been successful, while the second group is more of a closed book. So, as a facilitator or trainer, it’s very important to be aware of different personalities, work to bring out the best in each and, most importantly, ensure a balanced work environment. This is the environment in which no one is allowed to domineer the room, and the quiet types are directly encouraged to gradually increase their participation.

Identifying and understanding everyone’s unique learning style and building upon it, is the step in the right direction on the “back to school” journey that allows people to overcome challenges and reach their full potential.

How would you describe your learning style? What has helped you to succeed in your learning or teaching experiences as an adult with a busy life?


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  1. Through the many years of my teaching experience at a University I can attest that adult learners are normally very committed to their studies. They are the most responsible group and I never see them do a half hearted job when it comes to the learning process.

    1. It’s true! I am Continuing my education right now. And when I compare the adult learner Lida to the young student Lida from some 15 years ago I can see a big difference. There is no time wasting, no procrastination, only strong commitment to every single project I have signed up for. The reason is – because I hand picked every one of them and I know why I need them and what outcome I’m looking for.

  2. To me, it’s very important to have my learning objectives support my main goals in life – whether it will help me grow my current business or take on a new skill that will open further opportunities for advancement. But speaking of adult learning you should also mention the different types of adult learners that exist.

  3. For me I feel a strong need to understand exactly how I will benefit from any specific learning. As part of my continuous development process it’s also very important for any specific learning to be in line with my current and/or long-term goals and objectives. This focus on the end result allows me to stay fully engaged and make the most out of any learning opportunities that are available to me.

    1. Thank you for sharing Jason.I think as adult learners we like to use our resources, especially the most valued resource – the time – wisely and spend it on learning activities that will support our existing goals. The only thing I find I have to be constantly aware of if the shiny objects along the way :).

      1. I agree Natella. One of my favorite learning activities is reading and commenting on your blog each week……..Time wisely spent in line with my current and long terms goals and objectives.

  4. You are right, Natella! My current approach to education as an adult learner would be different from what I had 10 years ago when I was a young student.