The Secret of Adult Learning

Published on April 29th, 2022

adult learning building

There is a massive secret in business training, and it’s one that is increasingly obvious once you know it. Trainers don’t want you to know it, but you probably instinctively feel it. It is time to lift the curtain and say out loud that adult learning rarely works. And while we’re at it, there’s a second secret – when you complete the evaluation at the end of a training session, even if you score everything 10/10, you may not have learned anything useful at all.  

The forgetting curve

Even if the content is top quality, the trainer is brilliant and the activities are completely relevant and engaging – by the time you are having your morning coffee the next day, you will probably have forgotten nearly all of it and there is an increasing chance that you will never apply any of the learning to your work. 

The psychologist, Ebbinghaus, discovered in 1898 that our memories just aren’t as good as we think they are, and we are likely to forget most of what we learn within 24 hours. By the end of the seventh day, you will remember that you attended a training session on a topic, but almost nothing of what you thought you had learned. 

Treating learners as adults 

The problem is that training traditionally has used pedagogy as its founding principle for building content: pedagogy is the methodology of teaching children. Although first coined in the 1890’s, the concept of andragogy was only made popular in the later twentieth century by the psychologist, Malcolm Knowles. He rightly, and some might say overly obviously, pointed out that adults are not children! 

School teachers frequently say that the thing they love about children is their acceptance and their openness to new things. Children are empty of knowledge and skills and are waiting to be filled. They have little experience of life and so cannot immediately apply learning to their context – and yes, I am still waiting to find out when I will need to use algebraic equations in real life! Importantly, the teacher knows the subject better than the children and can guide the children towards the right answer. The children do not have the knowledge to disagree or to offer counterarguments. More importantly, evolution has designed them to be learning machines – their prime purpose is to learn about the world. 

Experienced learners

Adults have formed opinions, have life experiences, and have their favorite ways of doing things. They often know alternative ways of getting to the same answer, can be resistant to change and new things and have a whole set of things that get in the way of learning. Adults are used to getting things right and thinking independently. And more importantly, adults have got a whole load of other stuff going on in their lives, so learning just isn’t on even the first page of priorities.  

The key problem is that most trainers are subject matter experts, not learning experts. They would make great teachers – able to illuminate often difficult topics with their rich experience. They use engaging anecdotes and fascinating stories, using humor and charisma to grab and hold attention. They consider the group in front of them as a class, who can soak up teacher’s wisdom.  

I’ve been observing training for more than 25 years, and it is this approach that I see nearly every day. Teachers are easy to recognize – they talk more than they listen; they tell more than they ask; they show rather than explore. Typically, a training day consists of: 

  • Explanation of the problem (which the learners already realize – that’s why they’re there) 
  • Unpacking a theory/model/concept (which the learners will never use or remember) 
  • An activity or role play which demonstrates the model (often in a context that is only loosely related that that of the learners) 
  • A discussion of how to apply that to their work (which is often rushed at the end of the day) 

Adult learning principles 

How do adults learn new things? Firstly, we must recognize that for adults learning is very different from how we learned at school. Knowles identified five principles

  • Adults can decide for themselves what they need to learn 
  • Their life experience informs their learning 
  • Adults are more open to learning when something in their life is new or has changed 
  • Adults focus learning on solving immediate problems and want to apply learning immediately 
  • Adults are self-motivated; they are not motivated by external factors 

For years, I couldn’t work out pivot tables in Microsoft Excel. They were of vague interest, because I like to know how to do things, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t figure them out. When I took up a new job, I had to create a regular report using pivot tables. I did a quick search online, found a video, and applied what I saw on screen directly to the spreadsheet in front of me. The next week, I reminded myself with the same video, but skipped through most of it – and the week after, I asked a colleague to see if there was an easier way to do what I wanted to (there was, and she showed me). I now love pivot tables! 

This short anecdote gives a great example of how we should be designing training for adults. In fact, let’s ditch the word ‘training’ and replace it with ‘learning.’ There is a clear definition of a problem; a short, easily accessible content nugget that demonstrates what to do; an immediate application; and an opportunity for a reminder to tweak. More importantly, there is no trainer involved and no one explaining complicated processes and checking whether I do it exactly as the rigid model defines ‘correct.’ 

A learning revolution 

For a learning company (not a ‘training’ company), this completely changes the way we present content and support learners. Primarily, this means taking an approach that draws its inspiration from coaching. It accepts that the ‘coach’ and ‘learner’ are peers and have a much more balanced relationship than teacher-student. A coach helps the learner by removing the clutter and barriers to finding a solution that works for them; not one that is a one-size-fits-all, but a uniquely individual solution. The coach’s wisdom filters out a lot of the distractions and provides a framework to validate the learners’ own ideas.  

We must re-visit the balance of who does the work in a learning environment. At the end of the session, it should be the learners who have lost their voices, not the coach. The coach facilitates thought and should not be presenting. 

Digital adult learning must be shorter and practical – an aid to provoke thinking and reflection, rather than an instruction manual. An off-the-shelf package has a much-reduced probability of giving solutions to everyday problems – and we are all guilty of multitasking while looking through brilliantly designed eLearning courses.  

Content that takes a small problem, examines a robust way of dealing with it, and then suggests a thinking process to identify an answer is much more successful because it treats the learner as having at least as much wisdom as the instructional designer. It recognizes the intelligence and independence of the learner and puts them in control. That content must have pointers to other reference material, aide-memoirs and other sources to reinforce or expand on learning points – designed for those who want or need to go deeper or want to re-visit in the future. 

Comfort zone to Growth zone 

With post-pandemic business re-examining everything and trying to unlearn some of the bad habits we slipped into before we were forced into change, there is a unique opportunity to revolutionize adult learning. There are three values or principles that we must introduce to learning to incite this revolution: 

  • Reflective 

Learning must stimulate thought. It needs to be able to bring the learner to a place where they can re-evaluate their working practices and see the benefit of developing something new. Reflective practice – looking back at a past experience and re-imagining it with hindsight – provides the motivation for applying new skills and behaviors. 

  • Challenging 

Traditional training by necessity has to focus on making the training day enjoyable: feedback forms at the end of the session decide the trainers’ fate! That means that they are unlikely to want to make learners uncomfortable or present difficult truths. Learning that is grounded in the psychology of adult learning can push the bounds of comfort zones to provoke beneficial learning. The learning zone lies beyond comfort and fear and leads to true learning. 

Because it is grounded in the learners’ reality, andragogical learning content has the right to challenge and provoke.  More importantly, the coach is not sitting in judgement, dictating right and wrong – they are there to ask questions – the challenge, judgement and difficult answers come from the learners themselves. And that brings real impact – and real learning. 

  • Sustainable 

Training is a fire-and-forget approach. A one-off event that hopefully solves a problem. If we are honest, we know that a half-day of training will not change our behaviors or attitudes, and certainly won’t help us to learn a new skill. We need to reframe learning as a process that takes time and multiple, shorter, inputs. That gives us the opportunity to learn, apply and tweak – we learn something new, try it out and then refine it to keep improving.  

The Covid pandemic has changed the whole world and has forced us to recognize that we need to maintain our relevance and continually develop new skills. To future-proof organizations and ourselves, we need to make sure that our investment in learning is effective and impactful. When you need to learn, make sure that you learn effectively and that the instructional design treats you as an adult. 


Matthew MacLachlan is a well published, leading expert in the field of cultural intelligence, global leadership and organisational development.

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