How Adults Learn

What is learning?

Learning is a natural phenomenon.

Learning involves transferring knowledge, allowing learners

 to apply the knowledge and acquire certain skills

Areas of learning

We can now put some description to these areas of learning:

Knowledge: is sometimes called ‘cognitive’ learning. It covers any learning to do with facts, procedures or concepts.

Skills: are referred to as ‘motor’ or ‘psycho-motor’ learning. It means learning about physically doing something.

Attitudes: are sometimes known as ‘affective’ learning and are to do with the way we feel about tasks.

The importance of categorizing learning into these three areas is that each category can be learnt most effectively in different ways.

Knowledge: can be gained from manuals, open learning or computer-based training. There is no need to practice anything in order to know about it.

Skills: on the other hand, usually require a three-stage approach:

•             tell the learner how to perform the task

•             show them how

•             let them do it, but offer coaching support

It is best if this takes place in a practical setting – if not ‘on-the job’, then in a really accurately simulated environment.

Attitudes: are probably the most difficult to change and are best tackled by a combination of discussion and experiential learning. Good open learning allows this to happen as the learner uses the activities in the text to contribute to his or her own perception and attitudes and then finds them confirmed or changed by what happens next.

 Learners remember:

 •     the first thing learned

•     the last thing learned

•     anything that seemed vivid or exciting anything that was repeated in interesting ways and so held their attention


These points have important implications for the structure and design of any learning activity. There is the need for:

•     easy, step-by-step chunks

•     lots of practice

•     obviously attainable goals


Time Between Learning and Doing


A training experience may have led to some very positive changes to knowledge or behaviour. If these are not used or practiced on return to work, they will quickly be forgotten.


Tiredness and Loss of Concentration


The optimum attention span is just 10 minutes. After 20 minutes people tend to flag. What are the implications for your training provision? You can’t train people for 20 minutes at a time and then let them return to their duties, so what are you going to do?


You need to introduce:


•     variety

•     activity

•     a change of pace

•     frequent breaks


into your training, to ensure that learners remain fresh and alert.


Old and New Conflict


As ETD Practitioners, you need to make sure that new skills and behaviours are practiced often enough to be well grounded, before learners find themselves under stress. This explains why training in a crisis is not always effective.







Learners tend to forget or inhibit memories that are painful. Since change is often painful learning can also be blocked in this way. The implication of this for the training function is important.


The key to success is to remove people’s fear of change, and the only way to do that, is to get them committed to the need for change and involved in the development of the nature of the change.