How To Teach Adults To Overcome Their Learning Obstacles

Adult Learners And Learning Obstacles
Summary: Where do you think the problem lies when your corporate training strategies are not working? Is it your learning methods or your folks? This article discusses how the problem isn’t with the L&D strategies, but with devising them without understanding your adult learners and their learning obstacles.

Understanding Adult Learners And Learning Obstacles

Did you ever ask yourself, "Why do some—or maybe most—of my employees struggle to learn something new, even when it is required for their career? If you are an eLearning manager at a firm, you may be asking this question to yourself every time you wind up in corporate training. This is a pertinent question, and many of your counterparts in different organizations ponder how to deal with it as well. It’s no small task, is it? If you refuse to address it, it becomes critical to the development of your organization. In this article, I would like to focus on the learning obstacles that are psychological in nature and how grown-ups deal with them throughout their career or their life. And, of course, this article offers practical solutions to the learning obstacles of adults/your employees.


In the beginning pages of his masterpiece, Norman Lewis, the author of the bestselling The Word Power Made Easy, makes a profound statement to his adult learners. I would like to mention it here for you: "Learning, real learning, goes on only through active participation." And you cannot fake active participation, can you? The apt statement above works as a fundamental principle of learning—I assume so!—and acts as a caution to warn learners, even passive ones. Based on this rule of thumb, let's figure out, through this article, some of the obstacles that learners face and then, we can find out what these learning obstacles are and discover their psychological ground underneath in order to overcome them. The following thoughts in this article will help, I believe, Instructional Designers, as well as employers, create the best corporate training experience for their folks.

The 3 Employees

The question you see at the beginning is the epitome of your adult learners combined with individual learning difficulties. The first and most difficult thing you have to understand for adults (your employees) is how they respond to change—be it a task or a new skill to learn. Through my observations, I discovered that there are 3 types of employees in any organizational setting. And, guess what? You and I fall into one of these 3!

  1. Whatever they do, they do it with all their interest and might. This kind of employee simply embraces change and gives their best. They are a versatile employee. However, it’s difficult to find such employees.
  2. This employee has a specialized interest in one subject field. You cannot make them "learn, unlearn, and relearn" (as Alvin Toffler says) anything other than their subject of interest. Some of us represent them.
  3.  A large chunk of the workforce falls into this type. They live in a cycle of "task-given-and-task-completed." The point I want to make here is that this employee has a mechanical routine about their work. They go on switching a task here and a task there without making any impact on their organization—or at least on themselves!

Identifying your employees in the above types isn't about playing the blame game but about helping yourself as a manager and giving some real directions to those vulnerable adults. Consequently, your Instructional Designer and eLearning manager can deliver effective corporate training. Otherwise, it’s like you can bring horses (your employees) to troughs (corporate LMS), but you can’t force them to drink water (training). And at the end of the day, the training outcome will obviously be shoddy!

The Reader, The Listener

If the above section talks about your "workitude," this section tells us your preference on how you acquire subject knowledge and skills. After years of observing how people gain knowledge, I’ve come to these conclusive points (mentioned below). And may I tell you something, the preference for acquiring knowledge doesn’t change even with old age. Adults continue with the same preference for learning from childhood to adulthood. If you are a teacher or an eLearning Manager, then you might validate these insights.

  • The reader
    They are the kind of adult who likes to sit in a corner and read—or teach themselves—more than listening to lectures. Modules, such as eLearning, are best suited for such employees.
  • The listener
    The other half of adults grasp things easily and quickly when someone narrates the concepts/corporate training through a story. Modules such as classrooms/ILTs are best suited for these types of adult employees.

So, the bottom line here is this: one fit/learning mode/method doesn’t suit all. This is the point Instructional Designers and eLearning managers need to keep in mind if they want to achieve optimal learning outcomes. In other words, employee training should be tailored to their needs, not to popular trends going around on the internet.

The Norman Point

Every grown-up was once a child unless they claim to be Adam and Eve! The etymologist Norman Lewis says children learn fast, for they are curious about everything. As they grow up, they lose interest in learning new things/skills for a million unknown reasons. The question here is: Can we reverse the learning process and create the same child-like enthusiasm for learning? We can if we follow what Norman has followed by and large. Let’s see what made adults read his book:

  • Interactive content—the learner has to participate by any means
  • Simplified content
  • Topic-wise assessments and reviews
  • Tidbits of interesting and relevant info between the topics

These are engaging hacks and are the building blocks that help adults learn though interaction (even through digital formats). So, the ball is in the court of the eLearning manager and their Instructional Designer to shape training content.

The Technological Hurdles

Whether you have observed it or not, adult learners lag behind when it comes to adopting technology (e.g., using smartphones, the internet, broadband, desktops, and other digital tools and services) compared to younger learners. Keep that in mind when you employ a corporate LMS and its corresponding mobile application because that will put adult learners on the spot.

Let’s examine 3 reasons that pose challenges for them:

  1. Adult learners shy away from catching up with technological advancements, and they hesitate to ask someone younger than them to assist them with comfortable learning.
  2. Their learning appetite is saturated so much that they simply try to overlook technology.
  3. Their busy lifestyles leave no room for further Learning and Development.

And there will be additional reasons like health, finances, professions, and so on. These reasons psychologically impact adult learners and impede their growth as well as that of the organization. How can eLearning managers overcome this hurdle? Motivation? Not everyone will be motivated by phrases such as "stay hungry, stay foolish," but practical assistance sorts things out. Though this learning obstacle is common, the solution approach doesn’t work the same way for each organization. Hence, tailor-making "real assistance for adult learners" is advised.


Is your employee training falling apart with poor ROI? Wake up, dear eLearning manager and Instructional Designer. Methods will not fail you by and large, but men will. The former will only be ill-suited. If you do not try to understand the psychology behind how adults learn or figure out what learning difficulties they face, your training will continue to be ineffective and your investment in L&D will go down the drain. The best way to devise and overcome adult learning difficulties is to understand your adult learners psychologically—at the root level—and address their difficulties with custom training methods.