Understanding adult learning and training

Katharina Stickling

Learning is part of our everyday lives, including at work. Embracing the changing demands of our career, business and the marketplace and building something sustainable requires flexibility and lifelong learning. But how do we learn as adults? How do we learn to adapt to changes, acquire new skills, and use information to achieve our goals? What are the elements that influence how successful we are at it? And how do we best train others?

Contrary to a long held belief, successful learning initiatives  are not those that are tailored to people’s learning styles (e.g. auditory, visual, reading/writing, and kinesthetic learners), but those which are based on a far broader, more complex range of factors. As a team we have witnessed first hand that learners vary greatly in terms of their cognitive abilities, self-awareness, the social support they have access to and the unique capabilities and experiences they each bring to the table. Scientific learning research backs us in our observations. [1]

This variation in learning capability can be a challenging reality for those responsible for providing training and development for individuals and teams. 

Below is a checklist of the numerous factors that can influence learning in adults. The original framework which we used as a foundation for this blog was researched and developed by the Digital Promise Organisation under the advisory of a number of  highly qualified educators and scientists. We then applied some further insights and useful questions you can ask yourself to ensure that you accommodate and support the various abilities among your team.

Cognitive learning ability 

Attention, focus and inhibition – the ability to stay focused without distraction and to control your responses. Avoid cognitive overload by breaking down any behaviour or task into its smallest increment. The goal should be to allocate uninterrupted time and quiet space for the mind to focus:

  • How much can be stripped away without losing the essence of the learning? 
  • Where and how might learners get distracted?

Reasoning – the ability to notice similarities and relationships between different contexts and to use this information which is essential to problem solving. The ability to reason is said to decline in early adulthood with individuals relying much more on their background knowledge. This can impact how a learner approaches a new task:

  • Do learners have the problem solving skills to analyse and work with the new knowledge?
  • Are people required to notice connections and to ignore irrelevant information in their role? 
  • How can you encourage fluid reasoning where people take information and apply it in new situations?

Metacognition – the ability to ‘think about thinking’, to regulate and monitor your own thinking and understanding: 

  • How self-aware are learners about ways to improve their learning? E.g. Are they rereading text for understanding? Are they minimising distractions for better focus? 

Speed of processing – the rate at which information is perceived, processed and an answer is formulated. This rate is said to decline throughout adulthood:

  • How can you accommodate learners with slower speed of processing?

Auditory and visual processing – the understanding of what we hear and see including sounds and symbols:

  • How can you ensure everyone can follow information presented if it is limited to symbols or sounds that might be culturally specific?

Cognitive flexibility – the ability to alternate attention, multitask or switch focus between tasks or concepts as needed:

  • How successful are learners in switching focus to follow along with new presented learning? 

Memory – the ability to hold and recall information. Not everyone will recall the same information as easily as everyone else. There are large differences in the types of memory (daily information, factual information, physical actions or procedures, emotional memory) and how learners will be able to recall and apply these:

  • How can you include repetition of information and behaviour to uphold and support memory? 

Emotional considerations and the social environment

Mental wellbeing and adverse experiences – emotions and experiences can support or hinder learning: 

  • Have learners internalised beliefs about their learning abilities due to past experiences, e.g. at school?

Self-awareness – how well learners understand their own thoughts and behaviours can impact learning:

  • Do learners find themselves to be anxious or stressed more than their peers? 
  • Are they able to self-regulate their emotions?
  • How can you promote self-exploration and self-expression for learners?

Learner mindset – includes self-concept and self-efficacy, and will impact the openness to learning:

  • Do learners understand the benefit of the new learning?
  • Do they feel capable of achieving the expected result?
  • Are they able to persist through and benefit from the learning?

Motivation – the energy and direction toward behaviour change directly impacts learning:

  • Does the learning impact or relate to the learner personally? If so, how?
  • What goals can be set along these factors?
  • What investment is expected from the learner? 
  • Consider if goals need to be adjusted in time. 

Sense of belonging – can increase self-efficacy and learning success:

  • Are learners accepting and supporting each other in their diversity?

Social awareness and relationship skills – are important in teams and especially group learning:

  • Do learners have the ability to see and understand different perspectives?
  • How can people learn from each other?
  • How and when can they cooperate to improve learning? 


Language, digital literacy, disciplinary literacy (the understanding of information specific to academic or real-world disciplines such as finance or health), numeracy – all impact whether the learning is understood: 

  • Do learners have the vocabulary they need to communicate and understand the content presented?
  • Is the content presented in the learner’s primary language?
  • Do they have a good sense of how well they understand something that they’re reading or learning? 

Background and other environmental factors

Physical wellbeing – impacts cognitive ability and focus, and is tightly linked with mental wellbeing:

  • Are breaks offered to move around or get rest?
  • Do learners have access to proper nutrition?
  • Are people physically active and exercising?

Sleep – impacts cognitive ability and focus:

  • Do learners get 7-9 quality hours of sleep on a regular basis? 

Psychological and physical safety – bullying or aggression can impact learning ability:

  • Are learners allowed to make mistakes and speak up freely? 
  • Is a growth mindset fostered?
  • Could the learner feel unsafe for other personal reasons?

Social support – impacts the learner’s commitment and motivation to learning:

  • Do learners have the resources, time and space they need?
  • Do they receive feedback and appraisal for the implementation of new learning? 
  • Are they emotionally supported – in general and as they learn and apply the learning?

The factors listed above can help you ensure you take a learner-centred approach in the development and training of your employees. If you are curious to know more or would like help formulating a plan for the development of your team, please reach out and we can support you on your mission. 


  Tare, M., Cacicio, S., & Shell, A.R. (2020) The science of adult learning: Understanding the whole learner. https://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Adult-Learner-White-Paper-1.pdf

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass.

van Kesteren, M.,  Rijpkema, M., Ruiter, D.J., Morris, R.G.M., Fernández, G. (2014). Building on prior knowledge: How does the student brain learn?. Cognitive Neuroscience, 6, (10), 50-61. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_00630

May, C. (2018).The Problem with “Learning Styles”. Scientific American.

Benjes-Small, C., & Archer, A. (2017). Tales of the Undead… Learning Theories: Learning Styles. https://acrlog.org/2017/08/29/tales-of-the-undead-learning-theories-learning-styles/

We help leaders in businesses who have people in their team that they want to grow because the potential is there, or need to grow because without it the individual and the organisation could get a bit stuck.  

Harrowfield is a strategic learning agency. Working to a specific client brief, we draw on the disciplines of organisational and behavioural psychology – and common sense –  to determine and execute strategic and tactical programmes for personal development and team development. 

Can you see a learning opportunity or a behavioural frustration? We help business leaders to bring out the potential that they see in their people by shaping habits of thinking, communication and action in the workplace. Talk to us today.

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