Chapter 3, Adult Learning


This chapter will help you

► understand the principles of adult learning

► recognize what motivates adult learners

► identify key learning principles for all learners

► understand the application of training to adults


If you are reading this book as an assignment for a class, you are intimately aware of the traditional learning environment. While our grade schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and technical schools are filled with students, most learning takes place outside these environments. That vast population of adults who are busy at some form of work composes the largest classroom. This chapter is devoted to an analysis of this population.

Of all of the issues addressed by training and development specialists, none has received the amount of attention that has been devoted to the adult learner. There is even a term to describe the process: andragogy (Knowles, 1984). We do not believe that such a term is necessary to understand or work with people outside the traditional classroom. It is important that you are familiar with the word, in case you want to do further reading on the subject.

Most approaches to training and development compare andragogy to pedagogy by pointing out that we should not try to teach adults the same way that we teach high school and college students. While we agree in principle, we would rather focus on the learning process of the adult and how one can be an effective trainer, rather than discussing why the pedagogical approach doesn’t work with the adult. If a 23-year old, first-line supervisor is taking a training program, we would not suggest that person be given training differently because it is at a training site rather than part of course work for a college degree in communication. We would hope that the college classroom would reflect the principles that we will elaborate in this chapter. In fact, we could argue that education nationally could benefit from the newer approaches that are used in the training field.

Without getting on a soapbox, we would suggest that most college classroom teaching would benefit from the learning approach that we will present in this chapter. Students and/or adults learn more if they are given the opportunity to integrate new information into their frames of reference. Each of us needs the opportunity to see how new information and ideas can be used. We will elaborate on this process more in the coming pages.

Who Is the Adult Learner?

Just as Shakespeare said all the world’s a stage and we are merely players on it, so are we all potential adult learners. We learn every

day on the job, whether it is how to use a computer or fill out a new form. We learn outside the job when we are shown how to change a tire or fix a broken chair. We are even adult learners when we learn by experience or the hard way. We learn when we are hired, fired, and even retired.

For our purposes, we need to narrow the range of adult learners and focus on those who we as trainees guide. We are interested in those who take on-the- job training, corporate classes, or any of the myriad of seminars and workshops that are offered to the public. While this does not narrow the number of potential learners, it does exclude the one-on-one training we might give or receive in the home when we learn how to make a cake or cut a piece of lumber on a straight line. We will not focus on this type of training, which we have labeled coaching, but the principles of working with the adult learner would certainly apply to one-on-one coaching.

Our trainee is the person who starts a new job but needs a course on how to function effectively on the job. This training could take place in a training room with a number of other trainees who need the same skills, or it could occur as individualized instruction with a videotape and a workbook. For example, telephone operators are trained in a mock switchboard room with ten to fifteen other trainees and a trainer. We are familiar with another program in which a potential backhoe operator receives training via a computer terminal and a videotape (we will elaborate on computer use in chapter 8). Once the “classroom” instruction is complete, the operator practices the skills on an actual backhoe. This type of training has long been used in the military, particularly in pilot training. In all cases, our trainees learn skills that will help them on the job.

The adult learner is also the person who receives training to upgrade or learn new skills. The authors developed typing skills long ago in high school classes but later learned that we needed to know how to use a computer for word processing. We took seminars and individualized self-help programs in the fundamentals of word processing so that we could upgrade our skills. Organizations in the public and private sectors spend billions of dollars to upgrade the skills of their employees.

Students are in school for a degree and an education. The degree usually takes a prescribed number of years, but an education takes a lifetime. As adults we are lifelong learners: it is the trainer’s job to facilitate that lifelong learning process.

Key Principles of Adult Learning

We do not intend to provide a complete discussion of the learning process in this chapter. We have provided some excellent sources on learning theory in the bibliography. These sources focus on the adult in the learning process. (See, for example, the text by Knowles, 1984.) It is our intention to give you the key principles that will assist you in working effectively with adults. These principles go hand in hand with the skills necessary to be a trainer, as discussed in chapter 2.

As we said earlier in this chapter, other training books would describe adult learning as andragogy rather than pedagogy. We are convinced that all learning could benefit from the key principles that have been written about in all articles and books on adult learning. We will present these principles in order of importance.

People Learn Best by Doing

It was Confucius who said, “I hear and I forget: I see and I remember; I do and I understand.” Our parents told us how to ride bicycle, but we didn’t learn until we got on and got a shove. When. we learned to drive a car, reading about driving and listening to a driver’s education instructor helped some, but we needed to get behind the wheel in order really to understand how to drive. We may have memorized the position of the keys on the computer keyboard, but we needed to sit in front of an actual computer before we could master the skills necessary to do word processing.

Notice the key word in the first principle: best. We are not discounting the importance of reading, hearing, seeing, and a combination of these. We are saying that we can be more effective as trainers if we follow-up by doing. A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare reported the following:

Learners retain:

10 percent of what they read

20 percent of what they hear

30 percent of what they see

50 percent of what they see and hear

70 percent of what they say

90 percent of what they say and do

There is also a corollary which says that to truly retain something we have learned, we should try to teach it to others. To teach helps you learn the material or skill better. We don’t retain everything we do, but 90 percent is not bad. While the figures look suspicious in their neat ascension to 90 percent, the relationships are the important consideration. Our trainees will retain more if they can hear it as well as just read it. They will retain more if we ask them to tell us what they heard or read than if we don’t.

We could put this principle another way by saying that trainees learn best by participation. Not every training program we conduct will allow trainees the opportunity actually to do what we may be presenting. For example, we may give a three-hour program on listening effectively to twenty managers. Even listening research tells us that our trainees would retain only 25 percent of what we told them after ten days. Three hours would not allow for all trainees to do all the things we might feel are necessary in order for them to develop their listening skills. We could get all of them to participate in one or two listening activities that would help them retain more than the lecture alone. Trainees need to participate in the learning process if they are going to get anything out of our programs.

We will talk more in the chapter on designing training programs about what can be accomplished in specified periods of time. Our bottom-line principle is that you should have trainees doing whenever possible, rather than just listening or watching. They will retain more and will consider the training more valuable.

Trainees Have Prior Experience

Trainers sometimes forget that trainees had a life before they participated in our training programs. In the next chapter we will stress the importance of doing a needs assessment before providing any training. We need to know what experiences the trainees have had on the job so we can incorporate those experiences into the training program. A trainee does not attend a training session with a clean slate, waiting for us to provide the knowledge and skills to accomplish a particular task, our goal is to develop participative managerial skills for our trainees, we should know something about the managerial styles to which they have been exposed. Autocratic managers will react differently to our training than laissez-faire managers; in fact, both types may be very hostile to our training ideas.·

The more we incorporate the life experiences of trainees into the training program, the more we can expect them to retain and use the information provided. If you recall our definition of communication, we are placing the training program within the trainees’ field of experience. We will be more effective as trainers, and trainees will gain more from our program. As a trainer, you should have some knowledge of the trainees’ backgrounds. If you are going to work with fire department personnel, you might want to spend some time at the fire station to see what they do.

If we combine the first two principles, we will have our trainees participating and sharing their life experiences, which will facilitate their learning and the learning of the other participants. Suppose we had Sam and Jane, two managers from a high-tech firm, in a training session on employee participation. If Sam had already attempted more employee participation, an example from him would be more effective for Jane than an example from us. As a trainer, you must both recognize and use the experience of your learners.

Effective training, like effective communication, must rely on the prior experiences of those involved in the process. Use this valuable resource rather than deny it. Failure to take advantage of the resource may be met with polite acceptance or overt hostility by the trainees. Comments like “That’s interesting; we have heard it before” or “So what else is new” made to the unsuspecting trainer may lead to a false sense of security that the training program is OK, when the participants actually are saying the opposite.

Adults Have Clear Motives for Learning

“What’s in it for me,” or “There might be something of value that I can use,” reflect the bottom-line motives of adults and all people, for that matter. If we perceive it to be in our self-interest, then we will listen and pay attention. If it is not, we won’t.

As adults, we do not need instant gratification. Many of us are motivated by training that may provide a future reward rather than an immediate satisfaction. Because we have a history of past experience, we are more aware of long-term as well as short-term goals. Training can speak to those long-term and short-term goals. A colleague of ours worked with a professional football team and found out that the defense was motivated by the here-and-now while the offense could think long term. As a result, she geared the training differently for the offense and defense. We can recognize that training designed to improve our communication with super­visors may take weeks of practice before we are successful.

Adults know when a trainer is offering “the pie in the sky, when we die” motivator, which is not very effective. The problem for the trainer is that each person can and may have a different motivator. In any training session there may be as many different motivators as there are trainees. The effective trainer determines what the motivators are and incorporates them into the training program as much as possible. You seek to find what. motivates the majority of trainees and incorporate that into the training. What are some of the more common motivators that influence behavior and acceptance of training? They include:

Monetary and nonmonetary rewards






Meet organizational requirements

Meet organizational goals

Make work easier

A person who attends the training session because a certificate that is suitable for framing is offered may be looking for prestige. Training designed to upgrade outdated skills may motivate the person who is looking for greater security. Training designed to promote personal power may not motivate the individual who seeks greater harmony. Training that offers a fancy certificate does little for the participant seeking monetary rewards.

To avoid misinterpretation, we need to be prepared to show the participant in the last example how that certificate might lead to greater monetary rewards. We would have to indicate that the certificate demonstrates credibility, which leads to other rewards. In other words, we would relate motivators to each other to make the training more effective.

In addition to needs assessment, we can take another step to ensure that we are appealing to the primary motivators of the trainees. We ask each of our trainees to describe one thing that he or she would like to get out of the specific session. We list these on a chalkboard or flip chart and make sure that we cover them at some point during the training program. Making such a list forces us to be flexible in the topics that we cover. It could prove embarrassing if we were unable to cover each of the items listed.

Failing to motivate the trainees could cost the trainer an effective session. If trainees are not motivated enough to pay attention, they won’t be interested enough to participate.

Adults Have Preoccupations

Have you ever heard someone say “I am sorry, I didn’t hear you. I have a thousand things on my mind right now”? We are all pre­ occupied with relationships, financial worries, deadlines, and job pressures that keep us from devoting 100 percent of our attention to something, regardless of how hard we try. Attending a training program is no different from the other competing forces; it taxes the attention spans of participants. In fact, attending a training program may heighten the preoccupations because trainees are not able to do the things they would do if they were not at the training program. We have taken them away from their work or, even worse, we may have asked them to give up leisure time to attend a training session.

We have at least two alternatives for dealing with the pre­occupations. We can approach directly what may be bothering the participants if they all seem to be preoccupied with the same issues. In one workshop, the participants, city police officers, were upset with the previous trainer because he called them names and generally viewed them as second-class citizens. While that trainer may have had a valid purpose, any trainer who followed such a session had a preoccupied group. The officers’ hostility had to be dealt with before any additional training could be covered. It was, and the session continued with only the first half hour lost to the preoccupation. Actually, it made the second trainer’s task easier because of the willingness to consider the needs of the officers.

Second, we can lessen the impact of preoccupations by making sure that we are constantly involving the trainees and addressing their needs. Like reading a good book, they will be so involved that they will not think of those preoccupations. Variety in both content and delivery can lessen the impact of distractions.

As a corollary to this principle, homework should be kept to a minimum. Since trainees have so many demands on their time, they cannot be expected to spend a lot of time working outside the training sessions. Of course, if we have designed an effective program, our participants will want to integrate the new information or skills into their daily lives, so it will not be perceived as homework, but as practice. If our trainees are motivated, we can ask more of them than we can of those who are at a training session because they were told to be there.

Any homework should focus on the practice of some skill rather than on reading a certain amount of material. This varies with the type of trainees and the goals for the training program. You might want top executive trainees to read a current book on management practices, but you would not require potential backhoe operators to read the operations manual for the equipment. Both types should be made aware of whatever reading materials are available for reference.

These are the four key principles that need to be considered by the trainer, regardless of the training environment. Adult learners are pragmatic individuals, preoccupied with many demands on their time, motivated by self-interest, and attentive to those things that they can learn by doing. When we offer training, we need to keep these issues uppermost in our minds. We are now even suggesting that supplemental materials be available in the back of the training room should the trainees want them. If we have successfully motivated them in the training session, they will want to read more.

Secondary Learning Issues

As if these four principles were not enough, there are a number of other issues that we need to be aware of as we work with adults. These issues apply differently to adult learners: what might be a barrier to one could be a challenge to another. We will look at five such issues.

Coping with Change

One objective of every class we teach is important to training: the ability to cope with change. Many trainees will look upon change as a threat to existing values and habits. New ideas in a training program can be seen as a threat to job security, as the first step in being replaced, or as a change that will make performance of a job more difficult. We must integrate change into the training pro­gram so that it is a challenge rather than a threat. If we tie change to the four learning principles discussed earlier, we can be successful. For example, we could demonstrate to middle-management trainees how employee participation could reduce conflict and increase productivity without reducing management’s ability to manage. Failing to make this connection will result in a resistance to all training and our trainees will go away unhappy and maybe even angry.

Just as some trainees fear change, others look forward to the challenge as a way to relieve the boredom of a given task. Our job is much easier when we work with this group of learners, and working with this eager group can be a very positive experience.

Avoiding Jargon

As we discussed earlier, adult learners have a broad range of experiences and as a result do not like to be talked down to. Colleagues may be impressed because we can use terms like “ethos,” “pathos,” and “logos,” but trainees will demand that we “cut the bull.” Using jargon is an excellent example of talking down to a group of trainees. If our suggestions in chapter 2 are followed on how to be a credible trainer, jargon won’t be necessary to establish high credibility, but it can sure lessen one’s credibility and kill learning.

Every learning situation requires that the trainer walk a fine line between providing needed information and skipping the basics. We could say “push the envelope” (jargon), or we could say “keep finding new ways that are more productive.” We are letting the sophisticated trainee know we are aware of current thinking and not using the jargon terms. Chapter 4 on conducting a needs assessment will offer some concrete suggestions. The better we know our trainee audience, the clearer the fine line will be.

Handling Immediate Feedback

When a trainee suggests that a particular example provided by the trainer is wrong, we are given immediate feedback to our training. Adult learners are more than willing to let us know what they think about our ideas, concepts, and training activities. If they like what we are doing or saying, we will know it; likewise, we clearly know when we are off the mark. College students may sit in class and write letters, daydream, or look interested when they are not. Trainees are more likely to start talking to each other, ask you questions, or just tell you that they don’t agree with what you are saying.

Unlike other learning issues, immediate feedback has a great impact on the trainer. What do you say when a participant says you don’t know what you are talking about? While we might want to tell that participant a thing or two, we would have to react in a way to facilitate the training program. We could ask that person to elaborate so that we could determine where we might differ. If we are well prepared and have conducted a thorough needs assessment, this won’t happen often.

Accommodating Different Learning Styles

Adults, like all learners, learn at different rates and indifferent ways. Some people have the ability to learn material in a short period of time, while it may take others three and four times as long. Within limits, we can design a training program to fit the learning rates for the majority of trainees. If we are fortunate, we can offer a training module that allows participants to proceed at their own rates. Individualized instruction solves the problem of learner rate, but increases the cost in time and money to the organization providing the training.

Cognitive Mapping

Cognitive mapping is a psychological educational term that describes how a person learns best. As we said earlier in the chapter, we retain only so much information by reading, seeing, and hearing. Individuals differ in which senses help them learn best. Some people learn best by reading at their own pace; others learn best by listening to a speaker or a tape. While we cannot offer five or six variations of a training program geared to five or six different groups of learners, we can offer that variety within one training program. We should incorporate all of the senses in the learning process. That is why we offer entire chapters of this text on the computer as well as audiovisual material.

Providing Real-World Focus

Finally, adult learners prefer training that is problem-centered and real-world focused rather than theoretical and abstract. If we are working with employees of the ABC Corporation, we should not use case studies from XYZ Corporation if we can get participants’ examples from ABC. We can incorporate theoretical material into training in a practical way. We have other ways of describing the Theory X versus Theory Y approaches: we could even ask the participants to describe the ABC Corporation in terms of Theory X and Theory Y without applying these labels until we summarize the concepts.

Whether your trainees are over 30 or under 20, comfortable seating and regular breaks are necessary. Such considerations should be second nature to the training environment. We do not dismiss these issues of adult learning, but feel the need to focus on just the key principles.

We have deliberately addressed those principles of adult learning that may be missed by the trainer who comes from an educational background as a student or teacher. Essentially, we are presenting sound educational principles that are applicable whether you are teaching or training adults or the young.


A good trainer is user oriented just as a good communicator is receiver oriented. At all times in the training session, we are concerned with what our adult learner is getting from the program. Are we facilitating the learning process or just presenting material? For adult learners, we will focus on doing rather than just listening or watching. We will use their experiences and motivators to help them get the most from the training. We will place the training program in a proper perspective, recognizing that training is only a part of their lives. We will be practical and concrete in approach, and adapt not only to the trainees’ needs, but also to their learning rates and styles.

Since training is a process like communication, we can constantly adapt and modify our training to meet the changing demands of the trainees. We can repeat points and provide different examples when needed. This can only happen, however, if we are trainee or user oriented.


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Communication Training and Development by William Arnold and Lynne McClure is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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