How do adults learn?

11 March 2021

An older woman studying an online course.

For many people, learning new skills and expanding their knowledge past the age of formal education is something that can hold many benefits for  their own personal development. From broadening their career opportunities, keeping them valuable in the eyes of employers to becoming more effective in their current role or allowing them to move into a different job in a separate industry, the opportunities when it comes to picking up a new skill are endless.

As an adult that wants to widen your skill set or an employer that wants to provide members of staff with the opportunity to develop, you may be interested to learn more about adult learning. In this blog, we explain what it is before looking at the factors that motivate and hinder adults that want to learn as well as delving into how adults can learn new skills in an effective manner.

What is adult learning?

Simply put, adult learning is the process whereby anyone that is above the age of traditional means of statutory education learns new skills and knowledge. Whether through an adult educational course or something more stripped down and informal, adult learning defies the concept that people are no longer able to learn fresh information and become skilled in new areas once they reach certain points in their lives.

What motivates adults to learn?

There are many reasons why an adult may be motivated to learn new information. For example, an older adult may want to test themselves in a totally different subject area while a younger adult may have chosen to learn a new qualification as a way of kickstarting their professional career. Adult learning is often linked to careers as many adult learners look to pick up new skills  to benefit the role they’re in, broaden their employment options or switch careers to a completely different industry.

The decision to learn new skills and information as an adult may also be based on other benefits it could bring. For instance, it could help their effectiveness of an employee’s current role and reduce the possibility of them falling behind by keeping them updated on the latest skills and practices. It could also improve simple skills such as communication, confidence, organisation and problem solving.

What are the barriers to learning for adults?

For adults that are looking to learn new skills, barriers that hinder their learning generally fall into two categories: situational and dispositional.

Situational barriers –

Varying from person to person, situational barriers are factors that are closely related to the individual but out of their control. For instance, if they’re working full-time while learning a new skill or undertaking a qualification, a lot of their time will be spent with their current job. The same could be said for people with other commitments such as childcare. However, situational barriers could also be based on the individual’s health. For some adult learners, health problems may cause fatigue and chronic pain, or older adults may struggle to learn if their age is affecting their vision, hearing or other important areas.

Dispositional barriers –

Primarily based on the individual, dispositional barriers are obstacles that are caused by how the person behaves and thinks. This may be that they’re low in confidence, temperamental, prone to procrastination, lose motivation easily, unable to understand different ways of thinking or become easily frustrated and put off their learning exercises.

How do adults learn best?

While traditional methods of learning such as primary school and high school are mandatory and tap into effective approaches for the corresponding age group, adult learners may require a different approach that is effective for them. As people grow, they identify learning styles that work for them such as learning based on visual demonstration, hearing it explained verbally or doing things themselves to understand how every process works. However, other factors that generally help adults to learn include:

  • Determining effective time periods for learning
  • Experiencing positivity and encouragement
  • Feeling or understanding the importance or value in what they’re learning
  • Gaining unique, lasting experiences from learning
  • Having freedom to learn in a way that is preferable to them.

How to use meaningful learning to teach adults

With adults often responding better to methods of teaching that are valuable and meaningful, it’s likely they would prefer to gain knowledge in a way that is structured and similar to traditional forms of education.

A common way of doing this is through an apprenticeship scheme as it offers the individual the opportunity to earn a recognised qualification in their own time while balancing other commitments. In the apprenticeships we provide, apprentices are given the opportunity to learn first-hand experience within the financial services industry by undertaking work placements alongside learning the course material and taking exams.

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