Critical Elements in Adult Learning: What Will Ensure Adult Learning?

If you are someone who has the honor of sharing your knowledge with large groups of professionals, then you want your audience to get the very most value from what you have to share. Can this be accomplished by just speaking clearly and wearing a red tie? Possibly not.

In order for adults to have an optimal learning experience, these four elements must be present:

  1. Motivation
  2. Reinforcement
  3. Retention
  4. Transference

You can motivate adult learners in:

  • Social relationships: the learner knows you and looks up to you and wants to learn from you.
  • External expectations: the learner believes you will be able to fulfill his/her expectations because someone with formal authority has given the recommendation.
  • Social welfare: they are getting information from you that will enable them to improve their ability to serve mankind.
  • Personal advancement: you can help them or give them information of how to achieve higher status in a job, securing professional advancement.
  • Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom.
  • Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning to satisfy an inquiring mind.

Adults are generally willing to engage in learning experiences before, after, or even during the actual life change event. Once convinced that the change is a certainty, adults will engage in any learning that promises to help them cope with the transition.

Adults who are motivated to seek out a learning experience do so primarily because they have a use for the knowledge or skill being sought. Learning is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Increasing or maintaining one’s sense of self-esteem and pleasure are strong secondary motivators for engaging in learning experiences.

1. Motivation involves:

  • Setting a feeling or tone for the lesson. Instructors should try to establish a friendly, open atmosphere that shows the participants they will help them learn.
  • Setting an appropriate level of concern. The level of tension must be adjusted to meet the level of importance of the objective. If the material has a high level of importance, a higher level of tension/stress should be established in the class, however, people learn best under low to moderate stress; if the stress is too high, it becomes a barrier to learning.
  • Setting an appropriate level of difficulty. The degree of difficulty should be set high enough to challenge participants but not so high that they become frustrated by information overload. The instruction should predict and reward participation, culminating in success.

2. Reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement is normally used by instructors who are teaching participants new skills. As the name implies, positive reinforcement is “good” and reinforces “good” (or positive) behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement is normally used by instructors teaching a new skill or new information when trying to change modes of behavior. The result of negative reinforcement is extinction–that is, the instructor uses negative reinforcement until the “bad” behavior disappears, or it becomes extinct.
  • Reinforcement should not be taken for granted!

3. Retention:

  • The instructors’ jobs are not finished until they have assisted the learner in retaining the information. In order for participants to retain the information taught, they must see a meaning or purpose for that information. They must also understand and be able to interpret and apply the information.
  • The amount of retention will be directly affected by the degree of original learning.
  • Retention by the participants is directly affected by their amount of practice during the learning.

4. Transference, the biggest step. is most likely to occur when:

  • Participants can associate the new information with something that they already know.
  • The participant’s degree of original learning was high.
  • The new information learned contains elements that are extremely beneficial (critical) on the job


  • The adult learner is primarily in charge of his or her own learning. Remember that instructors do not have the power to implant ideas or to transfer skills directly to the learner. They can only suggest and guide.
  • An instructor’s primary responsibility is to do a good job of managing the process through which adults learn.
  • The learners must be encouraged to use their own judgment and decision-making capabilities.

Source by Susan Gove

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