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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

5 Tips for Reaching and Teaching Adults

Updated: May 22, 2023

students in class with lap tops

If you want to learn something, what do you do?

Do you…

Look it up online? Watch a YouTube video? Go to the library and check out a book? Sign up for a class?

In most cases, adult learning is on-your-own, self-directed learning. Much of it occurs through experience, often referred to as “The School of Hard Knocks.”

What if you are in the position of teaching adults? How do they learn best? What motivates them to learn something new? What will motivate them to even pay attention to your message or sign up for your class or program?

5 tips for reaching and teaching adults

Reaching and teaching adults requires understanding several common characteristics of adult learners. When communicators account for these characteristics using these 5 tips they will achieve greater success and empower adults to learn and achieve positive change.

Tip #1 Consider adults experts on themselves

The nutrition communicator may be the expert on the subject matter being taught, but the adult audience member is the expert on themselves. Get to know the adult participant and discover their past experiences, current situation in life, and future goals and dreams.

Use this knowledge to meet the audience’s needs, help solve problems, and achieve common goals.

Tip #2 Encourage questioning and provide answers

Adults are skeptical learners and seek validation for new information. Encourage adult audience participants to ask questions and provide them with credible sources and evidence-based answers. Verify facts, provide relevant context, and explain complexities in understandable terms.

Assist adults in finding answers to their questions. Become partners in learning.

Tip #3 Tailor messages to values, priorities and needs

Adults determine what is important to them. If learning doesn’t meet current needs or help achieve personal goals, adults are unlikely to devote precious time, resources, or attention. Remember the acronym WIIFM and answer the question “what’s in it for me?”

Tailor messages to address the audience’s concerns, beliefs and values, priorities, and needs.

Tip #4 Help adults solve problems

Adults seek information that is immediately useful for solving problems they are experiencing. Find out what problems they want addressed and then offer solutions that are realistic, practical, and evidence-based.

Empower adults with the knowledge, resources, skills, and self-efficacy they need to tackle their problems.

Tip #5 Honor the adult learner’s autonomy

Adults are self-directed learners and must be given responsibility for both learning and for taking action on what they learn. When communicators honor an adult learner’s autonomy they respect their choices for what solutions to try, methods to use, and outcomes to strive for.

Respect for the adult learner’s decisions is key to reaching and teaching this audience.

Download a copy of this tip sheet.

When a communicator or educator works alongside adult learners, serving as a resource, an encourager, and a collaborator in learning, they will achieve much more than if they assume the role of the all-knowing lecturer or advisor. Achieve success together.

“Successful people are not without problems. They’re simply people who’ve learned to solve their problems.” ~ Earl Nightingale

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