Adult Learning

How Adults Learn

Motivational Speaker, Sales Training - Creative Sales Training by Henry Thomas

Learning can be defined as the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skills. In contrast, memory can define the capacity of storing, retrieving, and acting on that knowledge. Learning, therefore, allows us to gain new knowledge and abilities and helps us move from novices to experts. Though humans like the familiar and are often uncomfortable with change, the brain searches for and respond to novelty, "Ah-ha" you may think, "that is why I hated freshman English." No novelty.

Rote learning frustrates us because the brain resists meaningless stimuli. When we invoke the brain's natural capacity to integrate information, however, we can assimilate boundless amounts.

In today's competitive marketplace, finding better ways to learn will propel organizations forward. Strong minds fuel strong organizations. We must capitalize on our natural styles and then build systems to satisfy the needs that will take us toward our targeted goals.

The Three Laws of Adult Learning

The Law of Readiness

Simply stated, the law of readiness means we only learn when we are ready to learn. Are the participants ready to learn the material? This question really has two parts: First, are they motivated to learn? If not, what can I do to move them? If they are ready, how can I best encourage that desire? Second, do they have a sufficient background to understand the material?

The Law of Effect

Nothing succeeds like success. The more success we achieve in learning, the more excited we get about learning. We need to gain pleasure from our learning, and the successful performance of a formerly difficult task is one of life's greatest pleasures. When we studied freshman English and excelled we enjoyed the class and looked forward to continuing our education. When we struggled it became boring and we lost interest.

The Law of Exercise

In essence, practice makes perfect. This means that hands-on drill is necessary. It also means that the more personally we are involved in learning - that is, the harder we work at it - the more it engages us the more we learn.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are the trainees ready to learn the material? This question really has two parts:
    • Are they motivated to learn it? If not, what can we do or say to move them? If they are, how can we best encourage that desire and align our material with it?
    • Do they have sufficient background to understand and proficiency to perform the new skills? If not, how can we best bring them to the readiness level? If they have sufficient proficiency, how can I present the material so the attendees will be both challenged and able to use the new skills?
  2. Have I provided sufficient opportunities for the attendees to succeed? Have we created enough feedback mechanisms for them to be able to see their success? Have we created opportunities for constructive failure? Can those failures be transformed effectively into successes?
  3. Have we built in sufficient practice phases? Is each group given hands-on practice? Is there a practice drill to ensure skill improvement? Have we created enough practice and built enough conceptual bridges to engage and hold their interest?

The Ten Principles of Learning

  1. Adults learn only what they are ready to learn.
  2. Adults learn best what they actually perform.
  3. Adults learn from their mistakes.
  4. Adults learn easiest what is familiar to them.
  5. People favor different senses for learning.
  6. Adults learn methodically.
  7. Adults cannot learn what they cannot understand.
  8. Adults learn through practice.
  9. Adults learn better when they can see progress.
  10. Adults respond best when what they are to learn is presented uniquely for them. Each person has different learning patterns.

Motivational Speaker, Sales Training - Creative Sales Training by Henry Thomas

The Value of Trial and Error

Adults learn best by making mistakes. Nothing succeeds like success. While success motivates us to learn, it is our errors that we remember and learn to correct. An effective training program must allow for errors and invite challenges.


Training does not take place in a vacuum. No one comes to a session with an empty mind want to be filled. We learn by connecting what we already know with new subject matter and by sharing ideas.


Learning takes place only with understanding. Learning by rote, with no understanding, produces not only inferior learning, but results in a quick loss of memory and skills. On the other hand, if participants understand why they need to learn and the advantages they offer, they will not only remember, but they will use the material.

The Chinese philosopher and teacher, Confucius, summed up adult learning when he stated.

Tell me and I will forget.
Show me and I will remember.
Involve me and I will understand.

Adult leaning must spark new ideas, and this is best accomplished by group discussions. An adult participant offers a wealth of information and readily becomes involved in the session, not only by asking questions but also by being called upon to answer questions. The value of controlled group discussions cannot be over emphasized!

We all know the saying, "practice makes perfect." Therefore, adult learning should always allow time for some form of practice.


People need to know how they are doing. While it is impossible to learn in a vacuum, testing newly acquired knowledge can create problems. If test anxiety is a problem, it is critical that participants understand that the purpose of the test is not for them to be judged, but for them to evaluate what they have learned and compare it to what they expected to learn. Tests are merely a form of feedback to let the participants know how they are doing.


Individual differences are always a factor in learning. Each person is a unique individual, and each learns differently. Participants come to a training session with different backgrounds, abilities, knowledge, personalities, and expectations. For training sessions to succeed, an instructor needs to recognize and respond positively to each person's different perceptions, habits, and manners.

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