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4 Elements to Effective Adult Learning

Adult Learning or Andragogy highlights that adult learners are fundamentally different in their methods of learning in comparison with children. As an L&D professional, you need to understand these differences and figure out the best methods that can be employed to meet the adult learning needs.

With adult learners, you will encounter different types of expectations, demands, and challenges. The key is to accommodate to these needs and work in a manner that is most effective and engaging for them. Understanding human psychology and brain science can help in this regard.

While there are multiple methodologies to make this happen, there is a model proposed by Lila Davachi, Associate Professor of Psychology at New York University that is known to be very effective. Known as AGES (Attention-Generation-Emotion-Spacing), this model highlights four key elements that are essential for effective adult learning. Let us go through the four elements in detail now.


1) Attention

"Learning that happens while multitasking cannot be generalized— and does not result in understanding or the ability to recall when needed." --The Maritz Institute

 The first and foremost step in any learning is to gain the attention of the learner. While a little distraction is good in some situations, during learning, it is important that the learner is single-mindedly focused. This is especially true when a person is trying to learn something new. Research has revealed that though it is physically possible to multitask, the efficiency and effectiveness or the time taken to complete a task gets impacted negatively during multitasking.

In fact, Edward Hallowell, MD, Director of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health has reiterated that true multitasking is only but a myth. Though we are inclined to believe that we are doing multiple things at the same time, it is nothing but a misconception. This is because the cerebral cortex in the brain can focus on only one thing at a time. What happens is that the mind shifts from one thing to the other very quickly and in the process, the effectiveness of both is lost.

The importance of managing the attention of learners effectively cannot thus, be undermined. Keeping this in mind, you need to design eLearning courses that capitalize on the way brain science works.

Read: The Science of Attention (And Why eLearning Professionals Should Care)

2) Generation

"Self‑directed learning is more in tune with our natural processes of psychological development."  --- Malcolm Knowles

 Once you have managed to gain the attention of a learner for a particular task, an idea is generated in the working memory. However, the important thing now is to decide how to maximize the likelihood of these memories forming. Research has proved that repetition has a limited impact on creating learning that lasts, unlike popular assumption. By repeating something for ten times, you are not necessarily creating the desired learning impact.

Adult learning is totally different from the way children learn. While children learn from their surroundings without being choosy, adults learn in a more selective manner. Adults tend to capitalize on what they already know and build upon it. They take responsibility of what they need to and want to learn which is why self- directed learning is a hit with adults. Self- directed learning allows the learners to control what they learn and to an extent, how they learn. It provides a foundation for transformative learning. With this learning method, they use critical thinking to challenge and question what they have learned earlier and thereby, form conclusions on what they learn.

Now, why and how is this more effective? The brain depends on experiences, both individual and social for its growth. Whenever the human brain is actively involved in the learning, it is more effective and efficient.

Read: Self-Directed Learning:  A Key Component of Adult Learning Theory

3) Emotion

"The role of emotions is critical in adult learning as they are closely linked with the construction of meaning and knowledge." --- Dirkx, 2001; Shuck et al., 2007

It is a well-known fact that emotion and memory are interlinked. Research has shown that emotionally active events form a place in our memory for a longer span of time than the events that are slightly on the neutral side.

Emotions create memories – both negative and positive. Each time you get an emotional cue, neurons get activated in the brain and remind you of things associated with that particular emotion.

It is quite obvious by now that there is more to an effective eLearning course than just looking modern, attractive and functioning well. Your eLearning courses should spark the right emotions in the learner to aid the learning process. If we can connect with learners from the outset – establishing the need for a particular eLearning course, taking them through the course and also, connecting post learning, and then the desired result can be achieved. Not only will you have more rates of completion but also would have enabled a good learning experience.

Read: Improve Learner Engagement by Using Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

4) Spacing

"Repeating the information over a longer interval — say a few days or a week later, rather than in rapid succession — sends a stronger signal to the brain that it needs to retain the information."     --- Tara Parker-Pope, NYTimes Article 

If you expect the learners to go through 40 slides of content in an eLearning course or sit through a classroom session for eight long hours with just lunch and refreshment breaks, you are definitely not giving them the scope to learn. The human brain has limited cognitive power, and overloading information isn’t every going to ensure learning. As eLearning designers, it is important that you realize this and design courses that keep this in mind.

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist, came up with a theory called the Forgetting Curve. It refers to the period just after learning has taken place when we start to forget what we have learned. According to the findings, we tend to forget almost 50-80 percent of all new information we have learned within a few days after the learning event has occurred. But we tend to recall more and forget less when the learning is spaced across time and repeated during the teaching session. According to these same findings, learning using the spaced repetition method, improves long-term retention by 200 percent.

Learning designers should hence, design learning programs that space the reiteration of content delivered to the learners. When you distribute the learning in spaced stages, it ensures long-term memory, thus making the learning effective and more impactful.

Read: Comparing Typical (Crammed) Learning vs. Spaced Learning

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Christina Angelaki, Ilias Mavroidis.Communication and Social Presence: The Impact on Adult Learners’ Emotions in Distance Learning

The Science Behind The Learning Process, CLOMEDIA  (accessed November 01, 2015).


Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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