Five Things to Keep in Mind for Adult Learners

By March 30, 2020October 5th, 2020Nonprofit Management

We all are facing “newness” in many realms of life these days. New routines, new patterns, and likely new information as we adopt new approaches to work and home life. Let’s state the obvious: adults learn differently than children do. Ask any adult learning a new language how difficult it can be to acquire not just the words and sentence structure, but also using it conversationally. Lately, it may feel like we are learning a new language at work as we embrace remote circumstances, too: new technological systems to use, new approaches to connect with internal and external constituents, and new methods to accomplish work we used to do in person.

Adults learn best when we keep these five things in mind:

  1. We need to understand why something is important to know or do. Sharing strategic thinking and context enable us to embrace new information more readily.
  2. We have to allow other adults the freedom to learn in their own ways. If you can demonstrate new information in three ways, you will likely connect with most adults in a manner they can understand:
    1. SHOW ME: share documents, draw things out, or use templates – “Do you see how this works?”
    2. TELL ME: use words, ask questions, and allow for verbal processing – “How does this sound?”
    3. LET ME DO IT: allow people to try things on their own first – “Do you want to try this out?”
  3. We should reinforce learning via experience by using small groups or role playing. Practice really does make perfect when adults are given the time.
  4. We need to be mindful of cognitive overload. Break down new information into smaller chunks so adults can easily absorb content step by step, piece by piece.
  5. We need to be encouraging and positive when asking adults to learn something new, which can be uncomfortable for many. Be sure to frame the experience in a way that creates buy-in.

We have to help each other be adaptable as things are rapidly changing. We can look upon this time as an opportunity to learn new skills, techniques, and technology to keep our work/life in balance. And remember to breathe!

Maria DiLorenzo is Senior Manager, Learning and Organizational Development at Graham-Pelton and can be reached at 1-800-608-7955 or

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