How to engage adult learners

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Some people say that it’s harder to teach adults than children, and I must admit that each has its own challenges. Still, I’ve always found it more enjoyable, and perhaps easier to plan trainings for adults.

For one, I have been in the position of an adult learner multiple times. The ability to empathize with adult audiences has led me to the some conclusions, that I try to apply as principles in my e-learning projects.

1. Tell them what’s in it for them

I’m sure you hear this a lot, but I think it’s important to never stop reminding it to ourselves: adult learners are busy. Your course is one of hundreds of things competing for their attention. You need to tell them what knowledge and skills they will acquire from the training, in a clear and concise manner. When listing the outcomes, avoid phrases like “You will be able to better balance your work and personal life.” and try something like “You will be able to apply the following time management strategies:…” instead.

2. Raise awareness

Don’t start with introducing the material right away. For better retention, you need to get your learners in the right mindset first. Come up with an exercise, a short story or a question that will channel their thoughts in a particular direction. Use the answers or takeaways to make the transition to the main content smoother.

3. Tell them why before what

To keep your adult learners’ attention, you need to constantly tell them why they need to know what you want them to know. Be very explicit about the reasons why this particular information is important, what is its place in the bigger picture and its impact in real life. Make sure that the key messages can be identified at a first glance and that the links between them are crystal clear.

4. Give them context

Adult learners need to be able to relate to the information that they are receiving in order to be sure they can really benefit from it. Provide them with examples and case studies to help translate abstract concepts into a basis for the solutions of real-life problems.  

5. Test for both knowledge and skills

Testing for factual knowledge only, is ineffective as well as demotivating for learners of all ages. This can be especially frustrating for adult learners since they hate to feel like they’re taking an exam. Instead, they need to have a sense of control over their own learning and be able to see a direct connection between the course they are taking and their personal improvement.

Therefore, you have to turn tests and quizzes into opportunities for learners to check their ability to understand, interpret and apply the newly acquired knowledge.

6. Provide opportunities for reflection

One thing about adult learners is that they are able to reflect on their learning. Give them enough opportunities to do this as it will help them better integrate the new knowledge with their previous experience. You can help them by providing a simple structure, like prompts and questions that will encourage them to take a look back and organize their thoughts.

Creating learning experiences for adults can be tricky, but also very gratifying. For me, the key to figuring out this process has always been to ask myself what kind of experience would I, as an adult learner, find meaningful and enjoyable. Once you get into the habit of asking yourself this question, you will see that it’s not so challenging to create e-learnings for adult audiences.