Engaging the Adult Learner

By Terri Dougherty, Editor at J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

For many adults, sitting in a training classroom is something to be avoided at all costs. However, training is a necessary part of today's workplace. Companies must provide training to their employees. To help the reluctant learner, trainers can use a variety of techniques that will get the students interested and eager to participate in the training.

Learning can be defined as the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skills. Presenting the information in a way that allows the learner to acquire the knowledge is the challenge for the trainer. Part of this challenge is that students learn in different ways. They learn by seeing, hearing, talking, writing, and doing. Many adult students have a primary learning style, and they will learn most effectively when that particular learning style is used during training. Therefore, the trainer should use a combination of auditory, visual, tactile, and participatory styles in order to reach all of the trainees in the class. By incorporating a mix of styles, the trainer is certain of reaching all of the students.


Trainers must actively involve the participants in the learning process. Instructors should encourage the students to be active participants, not passive learners. While lectures can be effective, they should be kept to a minimum, if possible. One way to get learners involved is to use problem-solving situations. Additionally, the trainer can use case studies, role-plays, and games to get people participating.

Question and answer sessions and small group discussions keep adults participating. Small group discussions give individuals the opportunity to express their opinions in less intimidating surroundings. Question and answer periods can be effective, but some adults are reluctant just to "speak out," during training. One way to help adult learners ask questions is to have them submit written questions for the trainer to read to the class. Use of these techniques keeps learners involved and active.

Adults have accumulated a variety of life experiences. Training can be more effective for them when it relates in some way to those experiences. It is up to the trainer to ask questions and gain some knowledge of the audience. Then, the trainer can use examples that will help the trainees apply what they have learned. Trainers should focus on the strengths that learners bring to the session, not just on gaps in their knowledge. Adults may bring talents such as problem-solving or organizational skills that could be beneficial in the training class.

At this point in their lives, adult learners have established values, beliefs, and opinions. Based on those values, beliefs, and opinions, the trainees will bring different viewpoints to discussions. The trainer should respect those differences but emphasize that not everyone shares the same beliefs. Students should be allowed to challenge different ideas, but rarely will there be total agreement.

Establish the Environment

Self-esteem and egos are at risk in a classroom situation. Training courses can be uncomfortable for many adults because they aren't sure what to expect. If it's been awhile since they've been in a classroom, adults may be reluctant to contribute for fear of having the wrong answer or that their comments will show ignorance. It is important for trainers to support the students as individuals. Learners will not participate if they are afraid of being ridiculed. The classroom should be a "safe" learning environment. This means that trainees feel comfortable enough to participate willingly. It is up to the instructor to be supportive and treat all questions and comments with respect.v

The pace of the training should be reasonable so that everyone will be able to absorb the information. The trainer should stop often to make sure everyone is keeping up and to encourage trainees' questions and concerns. It is important to check for understanding when covering a difficult topic.

Adult learners may not be comfortable sitting still for long periods. Many adults haven't been in a classroom for a long time. Others may have jobs that allow them more movement. During a lecture, the students might need a short break every hour. The trainer should encourage them to get up, move around the room, and stretch.

These additional quick tips will be helpful when training the adult student:

  • Motion – Get people up and moving around the room. You can't sleep if you are moving. Have people move to form small groups for discussions and exercises.
  • Interactivity – Get the group involved. Offer small prizes or candy to people who ask pertinent questions or give good answers to questions.
  • Humor – This always gets people involved. Use jokes or cartoons that are relevant to the training topic. Be able to laugh at yourself as the trainer.
  • Relevance – Use stories or examples of real work situations to emphasize your point. Show them why they should care.
  • Preparation – Be comfortable with the training topic you are presenting. Be prepared; use an outline. Have all of your materials together. People are interested in learning from those who have the expertise.


Getting the adult learners engaged in training can be a challenge for the trainer. However, there are several techniques the trainer can use to meet that challenge, and most are common sense approaches. If the trainer is aware of adult learner needs, implements the various learning styles, and sets a safe learning environment, then the trainees will be in a position to absorb the information presented. When adult learners leave the classroom with newly acquired knowledge, the training has been successful.

How We Can Help

J. J. Keller® Training makes it easy to train your employees on their schedules. Developed using the latest adult learning techniques, our flexible online courses and video training programs cover a wide range of essential training topics and are accessible 24/7 on any device. Visit JJKellerTraining.com and browse our full course library today!

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