Category: Adult Learners

Adult LearnersClassroom

Adult Learners – Engaging Them in the Learning Process

Student engagement is the underlying principle of the Planet Speaking℠ Train the Trainer philosophy. There are several facets to getting and keeping adult learners engaged in the classroom.  In this article we will identify some of the fundamental needs of the adult learner. Understanding these basic needs will improve the instructor’s ability to engage their students and increase classroom satisfaction.

The Adult Learner thinks: Why Should I Listen to You?

When dealing with children who ask, “why?”, we sometimes take what we think is the easy road by saying, “Because I said so”. This tactic may silence a child’s questioning but certainly doesn’t encourage their participation. Try this with an adult learner and see how far you get. Even with the authority to pull it off, the learner will be reluctant to take part in the training.

Believing their instructor is an expert on the subject will give the adult learner good reason to listen. If I think, this person really knows what they’re talking about, or, I can learn something from this person, I’m much more likely to want to engage in the learning. A brief resume in the introduction can help establish this expertise and build credibility.

Information to include in the introduction can be:

  • Time spent in the relevant field
  • Number of classes taught
  • Success rate of prior students
  • Familiarity of similar topics
  • Degrees, certifications, awards

Providing some qualifications in a tactful way, without bragging, is a great way to give adult learners the confidence they can learn from you. It’s important to share qualifications with some humility. If an instructor were to stand in front of the group and declare themselves the world’s greatest, there may be a student anxious to prove them wrong.

The Adult Learner Wonders: What’s in This for Me?

Adult learners need a reason to engage with the learning process. There needs to be some value in the training that at least equals the valuable time of the adult learner. When the student sees value in the training, they are much more willing to engage. If there’s no perceived value, there’s no reason to be there. Sometimes we’re fortunate and adult learners come to the classroom already motivated by some perceived value. Others, may require some convincing. Understanding and reinforcing the value to the adult learner is one of the key roles of the instructor.

I once attended training, as a student, where the instructor began the afternoon session by saying, “It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll ever need to use the tools we will cover next.” You could almost feel the collective groan from the room full of professionals. A better introduction would have been something like, “The need for the following tools doesn’t come up often, but when it does, you’ll want to be prepared.” The best introduction would have been, “These tools are used so rarely that we won’t be covering them!”

Introduce topics or sessions by stating the value to the adult learner. Let the learners know that they should listen by telling them:

  • How it will make their job easier
  • How it has helped others
  • What opportunities are opened by this skill / knowledge
  • How it can make them money
  • How it can improve others’ perception of them
  • How much time it will save them

The Adult Learner Wants to be Recognized

Once we have the adult learner engaged with the learning, we then need to keep them engaged. When someone opens up and outwardly participates, it’s important that their efforts are recognized. Both the student and the instructor benefit from this participation / reward interaction. There are several ways to appropriately reward Adult learners for their participation, none of which should make them feel like they’re in elementary school. DO NOT THROW CANDY AT ADULT LEARNERS!

Here are some basic ways to appropriately recognize the participation of the adult learner:

A student asks a well thought out question. A simple, “That’s a great question” is all the reward they need. It acknowledges their effort and encourages them to keep participating.

A student asks a question that is out of scope or will be covered later. Physically writing it down somewhere shows that you care and appreciate their participation. Give them some timeframe as to when their question can be answered. This is the “Parking lot” response. Let’s park that question over here and get to it later.

A student correctly answers a question the instructor posed to the group. Have a list of positive responses to rotate so it doesn’t get repetitive. It can be as easy as: Absolutely, you’ve got it, that’s it, or Correct, Karen, thank you.

A student incorrectly answers a question the instructor posed to the group. Uh-oh. We need to be tactful here. We can’t just say, nope, and move on. The student still needs to be recognized for their participation. A response such as, not exactly, and offering another shot can be good. The expert instructor will use an effective questioning technique to lead the student to the correct answer. Effective questioning will be covered in more detail in another article.

Rewards for student participation are simple in nature but take practice to execute. The student should feel their participation is appreciated. Adult learners should never be made to feel they’re being treated like a child or they are being pandered to.


Getting and keeping the adult learner engaged in the learning is a constant mission of the effective training instructor. It can take some practice to recognize when a student in disengaged and it can take some work to reengage them.

What are some of your experiences with student engagement as either a learner or instructor? What techniques work for you? What techniques don’t work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

(Note: This article focuses on adult learners, however, these principles apply to younger students as well.)