How do adults learn? – Understanding the basics
Do you know the saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”? – Perhaps it is not as easy to learn new things when you get older. Today we know, however, that adults can acquire new knowledge until old age. Lifelong learning and further education are even crucial to master challenges in all areas of life and to develop personally.
But how do adults learn? What characterises their learning process? Which conditions should be considered to create a successful learning situation? And which methods help adults to learn effectively and sustainably? These are the questions we are dealing with in our new series “How do adults learn?” This first article focuses on the factors that characterise the learning process of adults and then gives an insight into the processes that take place in the brain during learning.
Which conditions play a role in adult learning?
All learners bring along individual conditions that influence the personal learning process. Basically, one can say that the learning requirements of adults differ from those of children. According to the learning theory of Malcom Knowles, these five factors play a crucial role in adult learning:
1. Adults have previous knowledge and experience
Unlike children, adults have already learned a lot during their lives. They have a large base of knowledge and experience, which they can combine with new things. While children are curious to try out many things, adults want to connect new information meaningfully with what they already know. They learn less from scratch, but rather build upon existing knowledge. That is why new content should always relate to previous knowledge and experience to make the learning process of adults effective.
2. Practical relevance motivates adults
Adults learn whenever they need new knowledge for their everyday life. This can be, for example, to advance in their profession or to cope with a new task. Sometimes they simply want to close a certain knowledge gap. Usually, however, they want to gain a meaning or a specific benefit for their everyday life and learn how to apply new knowledge.
3. Adults prefer to learn self-determined
Another characteristic of the learning process of adults is that they want to organise it independently. Adults choose for themselves what, how, where and when they learn. Apart from this, they can evaluate their level of knowledge, their learning goals, and their learning success themselves.
4. Adults are intrinsically motivated
Most adults appreciate education and learn of their own initiative, instead of because they have to. They usually have a specific reason, such as personal development, and a strong interest in the subject on which they want to improve their knowledge.
5. Adults like to learn problem-oriented
Adults prefer to acquire knowledge independently by solving a specific problem. For this reason, content-related exercises, for instance, that clarify correlations and encourage to look for suitable solutions are a good learning method for adults.
What happens in the human brain during learning?
Adults learn successfully if the above factors are considered for the learning situation. But how does learning take place on a physiological level in our brain?
The absorption of new information
Our brain consists of three different areas that can store information for different lengths of time: ultra short-term memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. All stimuli that we receive via our sensory organs first enter the ultra short-term memory, also called sensory memory. As the name suggests, information can only be stored here for a few seconds. This part of our brain works like a filter through which only information that is considered important gets through and is passed on to the short-term memory. In order to make this filter work as effectively as possible, it is important to concentrate on one thing when learning, for example reading a text, and to switch off other sources of stimulation such as music. This way, our sensory memory is not distracted from the learning material and can better pass it on to our short-term memory. The graphic shows how information is forwarded:
The transfer of new information from short-term to long-term memory
The short-term memory is the part of our brain that stores information that we need for a short time in our everyday life. This part of the brain is also called working memory. Its capacity is about 15 to 20 minutes. For the learning process this means: if you learn longer than 20 minutes, the working memory must be emptied to absorb further new information. The previously learned information is then lost.
To avoid this and instead transfer the learned information from short- to long-term memory, our working memory must not be overloaded by too much information. Therefore, you should learn in short units taking sufficient breaks. In addition to that, the repetition of the learning material as well as the application of different learning methods play a decisive role in ensuring that the desired information reaches the long-term memory. In this way, the neuronal connections in the brain are strengthened and the stronger the neuronal network, the better we can remember.
Whether something is stored in long-term memory is additionally determined by the hippocampus. Similar to the short-term memory, this part of our brain can be thought of as a filter. It is located between short-term and long-term memory and evaluates new information. For example, it transfers information that it considers important and positive to the long-term memory, while retaining all other. In this process emotions play an important role, but more on this in the next article of this series.
Conclusion and outlook
Adults learn differently than children. They bring along certain basics and experiences and usually have a special relation to the learning material. During learning specific processes take place in our brain. In this article it has already become clear that we can use our knowledge of what happens in our brain to learn more effectively. But which learning methods should we use to expand our neuronal network so that new information can be stored sustainably in long-term memory? What information does the hippocampus consider important enough to pass on to long-term memory? And how do we at ICON apply these findings for our e-learnings? We have already planned further blog articles in which we want to deal with these questions.
Of course, we are interested in your experiences and opinions on this topic. Please feel free to leave us a comment. We look forward to receiving your messages and getting in contact with you.