Do Adults Learn Differently Than Students?

Do Adults Learn Differently Than Students?
Summary: 'Yes' and 'No'. Adult learners will surprise you with their speed of learning loss. Consider the WIIFM, relevance of the learning, and time to connect to past experiences. Include positive feedback. Training time is precious so you have to plan deliberately for it, and then you will get more out of it.

Focusing On Whether Adults Learn Differently Than Young Learners Do (Or Not)

There are many similarities to adults and students when it comes to learning. If you were an auditory learner in school, you probably still prefer that learning method [1]. If you were a verbal learner you still prefer that. Adults are able to learn from additional styles as they know what they need to pick out from training, and they know the impact it will have on their job if they do not. The motivation to learn is more relevant to adults than it is to students, but trainers need to be aware of learner preferences.

Speed Of Learning Loss

One of the biggest differences between students and adults is that adults expect the training to be immediately relevant to them. If it is not they are going to forget it. The average adult forgets 25% of what they learned within one hour and forgets 85% within one week [2]. It is imperative that a corporate trainer or eLearning designer set the training up so it can be utilized immediately, and create resources that a learner can reference to review the material they forgot. eLearning is a good choice because your learner can go back and take it multiple times in order to master the task at hand.


Adult learners what to know what is in it for me (WIIFM). If an adult learner does not see the benefit to the training, they will tune out almost immediately, and their recall of that information will be almost non-existent [3]. As trainers, make sure your learners understand how the material that is to be presented in the training will benefit them. This benefit statement should be within the first five minutes of class so you do not lose the attention of the learner. Students understand that almost everything that is being taught will show up again somewhere else, so they are more patient with information that they have to learn and do not need the immediacy of relevance as an adult learner.

Discussion Of Relevance

Adult and young learners both need to discuss with others the relevance of difficult concepts in order to process them effectively. Building time for this into training is critical for retention and adoption of new content. Adults who do not summarize new learning, lose it within one hour [2]. When companies think about the cost of training, keeping this understanding of adult learners is key to maximizing how training funds are used and how time in a classroom is utilized. Student classrooms are designed this way because it is an effective way to help retain information. Adult trainings need to incorporate the sharing of information between learners frequently.

Connect With Experience

This is an area that is very different for adults and students. Adults have life experiences to draw from to make connections, to share with others and to help make a new knowledge stick. Finding a way to incorporate that into the training helps everyone to benefit from that knowledge. The use of real experiences or problems and how they were solved helps everyone in the training move forward and learn. When utilizing other people's knowledge, you create a strong advocate for the new material. As a trainer, use caution that your training does not get derailed when tapping into that base. Think about and plan how you will use this knowledge base effectively.

Positive Feedback

Adults and students crave immediate and positive feedback [4]. All the games and apps on our mobile phone have figured that out. We all want to get the ding or the gold star or the so many completions in a row. Find a way to support and encourage your learners regularly throughout the training. This can be through questions, sharing of a solution, a game. Everyone enjoys success and praise; find a way to regularly include it.

Change Of Pace

The classroom for adults can bring back all kinds of memories, either good or bad. Focusing on making learning a positive experience can change some of those memories. Adults are in some ways big kids; they like positive feedback and have a dominant learning style. Adults are very different from students as they have past experiences that they want to connect to current learning and need the training to be immediately relevant or they will not remember it. Class time is precious and rare; therefore, treat it like the jewel it is, and everyone can get a lot out of it and improve their day-to-day job.


[1] Characteristics of Adult Learners, Tips, Tools and Techniques for Professional Learning. Learning Forward Texas 2015

[2] Judy-Arin Krupp The Journal of Education, Vol. 169, No. 1, THE MATURING TEACHER: ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES (1987), pp. 20-46

[3] Make adult learning come to life!, Barbazette, Jean, Creative Training Techniques November 2003[iii]

[4] Gallway, Laura. Six Ways we are just like our students. ATPE News 2005