Wouldn’t it be nice if teaching adults a new skill was as straightforward as teaching children? Children’s sponge-like capacity to gather knowledge is a delight to them and their teachers.  Adults’ capacity to gather knowledge is rarely sponge-like, but it can still be a delight — if their teacher knows how to motivate them properly. While most adults would be content to avoid the rigor of learning new skills and tasks, our jobs, ever-changing technologies, family life and more all require continued learning; it’s simply part of being human.

If you need to learn to lead and train others, acquiring the skills necessary to help grown men and women gain new skills will be essential to your success. Thankfully, training and developing adult learners is as simple as knowing what makes them tick and utilizing that knowledge effectively. Here is a quick look at how you can master the skills required to get old dogs to learn new tricks.

The Importance of Why

Whether or not the adults you are training are eager to learn from you, they will all greatly benefit from being told why they need to learn or do something. While it may feel like rebelliousness, this desire to know why doesn’t come from suspicion that what you’re teaching is invalid. For adult learners, new information must have context for it to be remembered. The why provides a context that ties new skills, new data and new knowledge to the old skills, data and knowledge they already possess. Without a connection to things that are already known and understood, new information will leak out your adult learners’ brains like a sieve. When you train and develop staff, give them reasons to learn the new information including:


  • Why they need to know the new information.
  • Why the new information will make their job more efficient, more effective, etc.
  • Why the new information is being given at the current time.
  • Why the old information or way is becoming obsolete.

Freedom for Individual Learning

It’s important for anyone training or teaching adults to remember not everyone learns in the same way or at the same speed. Over the years, many adults have discovered the best ways — and worst ways —they learn. Trust them in this regard, because they understand themselves better than you might. If you leave enough room for each learner to approach the new material in the way that works best for them, they’ll learn more quickly — and the learning environment will be more pleasant, too.

Experiential Learning

Any task or training module that uses your adult learners’ bodies along with their brains is an asset to grasping new material. Whether its role playing, conducting experiments, performing skits, building models or drawing pictures, engaging someone physically when they’re learning new things will help memories form more effectively.

A Comfortable Environment

From good lighting to comfortable chairs, the quality of the environment in which you do your training and teaching can have a large effect on learning. Make sure the temperature isn’t too cool or too warm. For long learning sessions, give your learners frequent breaks to keep them engaged, offer steady and genuine encouragement regarding their efforts and be sure to meet physical needs by offering water, coffee, smoke breaks, bathroom breaks, and if your budget allows it, meals. Nothing makes a worker, or learner, as happy as a free meal will.

Readiness to Learn

Unless your trainees feel ready to learn, the chances are slim you will have success in teaching them, but what constitutes being ready? For adults, there has to be a pressing need or problem solved by the learning session. In other words, if on-the-job training is seen as a waste of time that has little bearing on the learners’ employment or opportunities for advancement, then learning will be minimal. If, on the other hand, your adult trainees view what you’re teaching them as imperative for success, the odds are greater that learning will take place.


Teaching adults can be a tricky undertaking, but its capacity for reward is high. Keep in mind the unique characteristics, not just of adult learners in general, but of the very specific adult learners you engage. From meeting their desire to know why they are being asked to master a new skill to providing a comfortable environment conducive to learning, teaching old dogs new tricks isn’t just possible, it’s easy.