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Motivating adult learners: 6 methods for improving engagement

An educated workforce benefits employers in multiple ways. Research shows that educated workers are more productive and are less likely to be injured on the job. Clearly, employers have a strong stake in providing continuing education for their workers.


The advent of eLearning has made it easier, more cost-effective and more convenient for companies to provide ongoing education to workers. The ease of delivering educational materials via the Internet and mobile devices is blurring the lines between traditional job training and academic education. Discover why corporate learning is so important.

The challenge for employers often comes in keeping adult learners motivated. Traditional students understand that in a school or university setting, their job is to learn. But for adults confronting numerous family responsibilities along with full-time jobs, developing a sense of purpose in learning can prove more difficult. Motivating adult learners involves understanding their needs and using the right tools for better eLearning.

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1. Capitalizing on what adult learners already know

Most adult learners already have significant job experience. An effective eLearning program should anticipate and account for information that adult students likely already possess, and it should build on that knowledge. Adult learners should be provided with the opportunity to demonstrate their existing knowledge and possibly pass a test in lieu of completing particular training modules.

On the other hand, basic subject matter should be included in any eLearning program, because newer workers or those in the midst of a job change may need it. In some cases, seasoned workers may require refreshers on information they typically would be expected to know. An effective eLearning program begins with an assessment tool to determine exactly where each worker is in the learning cycle and at what point they should begin the course.

2. Understanding the life stage of an adult learner

Psychology can provide insight into motivating adult learners. The “stage theory” of psychosocial development from psychologist Erik Erikson includes two life stages typically relevant to adult learners.

In the young adulthood phase from approximately 19 to 40 years of age, learners may be motivated by a need to form relationships through succeeding. For those in middle adulthood, from approximately 40 to 65 years of age, a need to create and nurture develops. This group is strongly motivated by feelings of accomplishment and usefulness that flow from success. Life stage information can be used to tailor specific eLearning programs to specific audiences.

3. Demonstrating job relevancy

Adult learners tend to be busier and more harried than traditional students. An effective eLearning program demonstrates value to adult students from the beginning and helps convince them that their employer values their time.

Subject matter should be relevant to the adult learner’s needs and should have practical application to their job requirements. When adult learners see the relevance of educational materials to their jobs, they are more likely to be engaged and recognize benefits from the course.

4. Incorporating user-friendly interfaces and designs

Adult learners may suffer from deteriorating vision that makes readability and user-friendly design key in eLearning settings. Adults can more easily absorb information presented in an aesthetically pleasing, visually stimulating and interactive manner.

eLearning content for adults should involve going beyond PowerPoint. It should incorporate interesting graphic elements, images and videos that break up large, gray blocks of text. For maximum readability, large segments of text should be printed in a dark color of type on a light background rather than in reverse type. Learners should have the ability to adjust font size and screen brightness to meet their individual needs.

5. Using storytelling to increase engagement

Recent research into the inner workings of the brain reinforces what teachers and marketers have always known: People enjoy hearing about other people’s experiences.

For many years, scientists have recognized that the brain decodes written words in its language regions. But scientists now also understand that stories are different, prompting activation of other parts of the brain. In the presence of a narrative story, the listener feels the words rather than just hearing them.

The brain draws little distinction between reading about someone’s experience and actually encountering that experience, researchers say. Using stories to communicate information relevant to an adult learner’s job can create engagement that straightforward text cannot.

6. Providing immediate, meaningful feedback

Undergoing lengthy eLearning sessions with no feedback on performance and expectations can feel like a fruitless endeavor for an adult learner. A corporate eLearning system should provide a process for providing immediate, meaningful feedback.

For material in which the information provided builds on the assumption of having learned previous information, testing with immediate results is key. Learners need to be sure they’ve mastered one module before moving on to the next. When learners have not properly processed the information, the eLearning system should provide a means for additional review and re-testing.

Availability of a human adviser also is important to the learner’s success. Questions may arise that the system cannot answer, and a learner may want reassurance before continuing. Ensuring availability of employees’ supervisors or a representative from the human resources department instills confidence in the learning process.

Better eLearning includes finding innovative ways to keep adult learners motivated. Building on the knowledge that adult learners already possess and understanding their stage in life, demonstrating relevance to their job, providing an engaging eLearning environment and providing immediate feedback can inspire enthusiasm in adult learners.

Of course, we believe that iSpring’s products can help you create great eLearning content that goes beyond PowerPoint. What else are you doing to help motivate adult learners in your organizations?

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If you have any ideas about what kind of eLearning topics you’d like to see discussed, feel free to leave a comment; we’re always happy to write new content for you.

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