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How do People Learn?

Don Elkington

"How can you say that? How can you even think that?"

"You mean you study with the radio on? That would never work for me."

"Can you believe it? That guy didn`t get our point at all!"

How often have you heard people question the ways in which other people learn? As a trainer have you ever caught yourself saying anything like the comments above? As Klas Mellander (author of "The Power Of Learning: Fostering Employee Growth") has said: "The purpose of training is to make learning possible." So, as trainers, we need to make sure that we understand how our adult students learn. The problem is, it isn`t easy to quantify.

"Adults don`t fit into neat categories... I never seem to fit tightly into any single box when I submit to those style assessments... I don`t even look out of the same Johari window all the time." EOra A. Spaid in the book "The Consummate Trainer: A Practitioner`s Perspective"

Try asking a group of people how to spell a difficult word. Watch what they do...some close their eyes and whisper to themselves, some appear to be writing with an invisible pen, some hunt around for paper so they can write with a real pen or pencil. You see? Some people hear the spelling, some see it, and some feel it.

So if adults learn differently, what should we, as trainers, do to help? How can we possibly serve the learning needs of our students? There are two common sense answers to the question.

The first answer is asking them. A good trainer can use activities, instruments, or discussion to discover how students prefer to learn. The second answer is to make sure that you have a solid understanding of the commonalties of adult learners. There are certain basic things that you can take for granted when helping adults learn.

The Learning Process

Here`s the learning process in a nutshell. Attention makes us receptive to information, which we process together with prior knowledge, until we arrive at conclusions and understanding, which we then apply and test for confirmation.


The first thing a trainer should do is get the learner`s attention. I`m not talking about a joke or a shout, both proven attention-getters. I`m talking about helping the learner understand why today`s training is important to them. Why should the learner work hard to master this stuff? If you can answer that, you are well on your way.


Since most groups of adults have a variety of learning styles, the training information needs to be presented in a variety of ways. Use written words, visuals, audio, live action, practice, etc. There needs to be a mixture within every session. If that were not the case, if everyone learned the same way, we could just give everyone a book and be done with it.

Process With Prior Experience

All adults compare new information with their previous knowledge and experience. As a trainer you need to give learners the chance to reflect, question, and compare. Perhaps you could use small group discussions to give learners the chance to draw from their past and link it to today`s information. A smart trainer builds this step into the program, because the learners are going to do it anyway. How many times have you heard learners say things like: "This isn`t the way we did it before." "When I worked at Freddie`s Fish House we did it this way." "I just wasn`t raised to see things this way." It makes common sense that a trainer will allow the learners to discuss these thoughts in an open and supportive way.

Conclusions And Understanding

It is the learner`s job to draw conclusions for themselves about how the training will be used. All learners have their own unique perspective, experience, and learning style, and that will affect how they finally understand the training. The trainer`s job is help the learners move through the material in an orderly and effective way, giving them time to practice new skills, and draw their own conclusions.

Application And Testing

After training is over, the learners will go back to work and try to decide if the information they received in training is worthwhile or just a pile of compost. No trainer looking over their shoulder, no flip charts, no videos, no prizes, and no doughnuts. The learner will experiment, test, and ultimately accept or reject the training. There is nothing the trainer can do to stop them. So, the common sense trainer builds this into the program. Encourage learners to experiment. During the follow-up phase of the program, the trainer can check on the experimentation and eventual application of the training.


There is another issue that clouds the adult learning process...adults have feelings. Adults usually manage to look calm and rational, especially at work, but the prospect of training can stir deep feelings. For those of you who read The Hobbit earlier in life, you may remember this quote: "He had a feeling that the answer was quite different and that he ought to know it, but he could not think of it. He began to get frightened, and that is bad for thinking."

When dealing with learning, especially with adults, it is important to address the feelings the learners may have. So, what feelings may be present? The long list could include:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Embarrassment
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Happiness
  • Resentment

It makes sense, then, that a smart trainer will plan for the emotions that accompany learning. Plan for an environment that encourages, welcomes, and rewards the sharing of feelings.

Poetry As Summary

Looking at ourselves as trainers it is important to ask, "Why do I do what I do?" Here are some thoughts on teaching and learning from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The first time I read this poem I was disturbed that it didn`t rhyme. I now realize that this is a translation from the original Danish (I wonder if it rhymes in Danish?). Look at yourself, what is your motivation for being a trainer?

If we wish to succeed
in helping someone to reach a particular goal
we must first find out where he is now
and start from there.

If we cannot do this,
we merely delude ourselves
into believing that we can help others.

Before we can help someone,
we must know more than he does,
but most of all,
we must understand what he understands.
If we cannot do that, our knowing more will not help.

If we nonetheless wish to show how much we know,
it is only because we are vain and arrogant,
and our true goal is to be admired,
not to help others.

All genuine helpfulness
starts with humility before those we wish to help,
so we must understand
that helping
is not a wish to dominate
but a wish to serve.

If we cannot do this,
neither can we help anyone.


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