Motivating Adults to Learn

5 min reading time

Motivating Adults to Learn

Businesses delivering training, no matter who they are, seem to have one common problem – motivating adults to learn isn’t easy. Whether it’s employee, customer or partner training, it’s crucial that your organization has a plan to combat low learner motivation so that your audience engages with the training and your program is a success. 

So, let’s develop that plan. Based on what we’ve seen works for our customers, here are our best-practice tips to having motivated, engaged learners. Or, if you’re interested in hearing from an expert, you can register for our upcoming Learning Impact session with Dr. Allison Friederichs, where she’ll be sharing her brain-based tactics for leveraging how adults learn!

What motivates adults to learn? 

As adults, there are several factors that motivate us to learn. These are both internal and external and they “stimulate and energy in people to be continually interested and committed to a job, role or subject, or to make an effort to attain a goal.”

With motivation, we can be aware or unaware of our reasons for wanting or not wanting to do something. It comes from:

  1. intensity of desire or need,
  2. incentive or reward value of the goal,
  3. expectations of the individual and of his or her peers.

These factors are the reasons one has for behaving a certain way. 

There are two main types of motivation – intrinsic and and extrinsic. When internal factors are at play, like a desire to achieve a sense of accomplishment, we call that intrinsic motivation. Outside factors that encourage us to learn, like meeting a deadline our boss set us, is called extrinsic motivation.

What’s different about motivating adults to learn?

When compared to children, training adults is fundamentally different. Malcolm Shepherd Knowles pioneered Adult Learning Theory or Andragogy, which pointed out important ways in which adults learn differently:

1. Self-concept

Adults are more mature than children, and have a stronger understanding of why they are learning. Knowles claimed that this meant adults should have a hand in directing their own learning.

2. Past experience

Adults have a wealth of past experience to draw from. Many of your learners will have had jobs at other companies where things were done differently. They will have attended different educational institutions and reached different levels of academia. This gives them a framework within which to contextualize the information you give them.

3. Readiness to learn

Adults are likely to see the purpose of the training you are providing to them and to value it. They are less likely to become distracted or bored than young children whose minds are still developing.

4. Practical reasons to learn

Most adult learning is designed to be very practical – and especially so in a corporate environment. There’s far less emphasis on theory, and more emphasis on gaining knowledge and skills that can be put to use straight away.

5. Intrinsic motivation

Adults are more likely to have their own internal motivations for learning than children, who often need to be provided with constant external motivators, from praise to ticks on their copybooks to gold stars. 

Strategies for motivating adults to learn

In order to motivate adults to learn, you should aim to appeal to your learners’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. 

1. Give learners the ability to shape the training

When your trainees are adults, they enjoy being treated as such. So, invite them to contribute their own ideas as to what the training should cover. 

It could be there’s a new trend in the industry that wasn’t around when you last delivered this training, or a question clients have been asking a lot that the company hasn’t developed a comprehensive answer for yet. Your trainees can help you identify gaps or opportunities to improve how they learn. 

If you have a learning management system, a quick and easy way to collect this data is by surveying your learners. You can gather information on what they are interested in learning, enabling you to create courses around these topics. 

You can go a step further and ask their opinion on how they want to learn. Would they prefer a text-based online course? Or would a video or webinar do the content more justice? Do they want to be restricted to learning at their computer? Or would like to learn when they want on mobile? 

If it’s possible to facilitate a number of different options, make them all available and let learners make their own choices. 

Adults enjoy autonomy, and top trainers encourage this, as it’s an important workplace skill.

2. Link learning directly to workplace outcomes

Remember sitting in  school moaning that you’d never use this subject in real life so you didn’t see the point of studying it? Well, that shouldn’t be the case for your learners. Whether you’re delivering training in person or through your LMS, it’s crucial that you start by making a clear link between this training and your learners’ jobs.

In fact, this should be the very first topic you cover in the training session: why it’s taking place, what they will learn, how it will impact their jobs and how they are expected to implement it. Read more on that here

3. Point to the benefits

One of the goals of training is to boost your learner’s success. For employees, it’s to help them perform better at their job and gain new skills. For customers, it’s so they use your product better and, in turn, get more value out of it.

Motivated learners who engage with learning should be aware of these benefits for them.

4. Make learning social

Adults are motivated by others. They want to impress their peers and keep up with the people around them. Social learning for your learners can be encouraged in a number of ways. Our favorite is using a forum within your LMS. The perfect place for your like minded learners to gather, they can contribute, interact and observe conversations of others.

5. Gamification

The most ubiquitous form of motivation in eLearning is gamification. It adds a sense of fun for adults and an element of healthy competition. 

Consider the success of DuoLingo, a language learning app which encourages users to log in every day to maintain their ‘streaks’, or general knowledge apps that allow you to build points and pit yourself against your peers to climb leaderboards. “The hardest thing about learning anything by yourself is staying motivated, which is why we decided to turn it into a game,” says Luis von Ahn, Duolingo’s CEO

Within an LMS, there are gamification mechanics to make the whole learning process more motivating. When a learner completes a course they get points, if they do a certain number of courses, they get a badge. They can even be ranked on a leaderboard to create a sense of healthy completion. 

What are your top tips for motivating adults to learn? Have you implemented any of the ideas we mentioned above? Let us know in the comments.

Want to learn more about motivating adults to learn?

We’re delighted to welcome Dr. Allison Friederichs as guest speaker for our upcoming Learning Impact session, “Brain-based Tactics for Leveraging How Adults Learn”. Dr. Friederichs will share her science-backed techniques so you can leverage knowledge about how the adult brain learns to ensure that learning is actually taking place – regardless of the learner or context. You can find more information and register for this webinar here.

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