How to Engage Reluctant Adult Learners

How to Engage Reluctant Adult Learners

Teachers get trained very well to identify disengaged learners in their classroom.  Sometimes it is easy to spot as the signs can be obvious, such as faces buried in phones, doodles written in the margins of papers, or just flat out sleeping. These same traits exist within classrooms or auditoriums of adult learners, and while reluctant adult learners and disengaged children learners often exhibit similar symptoms, the causes, and cures vary.   

As a facilitator of adult learning, it is essential to know what motivates adult learning as well as how to appropriately anticipate the dispositions of the adults in the audience- and to proactively seek ways to engage everyone present. A common yet under-discussed challenge for facilitating adult learning is how to engage reluctant and unmotivated adult learners. This blog will suggest three specific approaches that help engage reluctant adult learners. But, before we can discuss those approaches, there are several mindsets that presenters can embrace which will contribute to their success.   


Mindsets for Success 

There are two mindsets that we’ve found to be important for presenters of adult learners.  Without these mindsets we’ve seen faculty meetings and conference presentations devolve quickly, and sometimes beyond repair.   

The first mindset of successful presenters is to embrace that a room full of adult learners will be just as diverse as a room of young students. By the time we have reached adulthood, most of us know how we best learn, or what works and doesn’t work well for us. Reluctant learners are quick to tune out a presentation that has a one-size-fits-all approach.  What this means for the facilitator is to embrace a wide spectrum of presentation formats and to applaud learners who process information in the way that works best for them.  Another way facilitators can embrace a mindset that supports a diverse group of learners is to specifically utilize presentation strategies that automatically meet the needs of multiple learning styles.   

The second mindset that successful facilitators have is that they go into every presentation knowing that reluctant learners will be in the audience.  Although it is wonderful when all the adults are highly engaged, motivated, and ready to learn, that is the rare case.  More often there will be a diverse crowd; some people who just want to argue every point you make; those who plan to write out their grocery list during your presentation.  When you enter presentation with mindset that there are already going to be disengaged learners, you will anticipate strategies or changes—as you go—that will help engage those who thought they would use your presentation to get other things done.   

Adopting these mindsets will help you to become a more powerful presenter because you create a space in which you and the participants can work more productively together.  The nature of your relationship changes from an expert mandating something, to a collaborator who stands to learn as much as to teach.    


Implementing Strategies for Success 

Once you’ve developed the mindsets that foster a productive and collaborative relationship between you and the adult learners in the audience, there are three quick strategies you can implement that will have a huge impact on participants’ levels of engagement:  

  • Start with a compelling why 
  • Make learning come alive; 
  • Embrace self-directed problem solving. 

Why are we learning this? 

Although some people are interested to learn any and everything, most people tune in only when the learning is important and impactful. Many adults are reluctant to dig into learning if they do not understand WHY this topic, content or skill is important. Reluctant learners will be especially disengaged if there is not a compelling reason to learn thing NOW. As the facilitator, part of your job is to present a compelling rational for and definition why this learning is immediately relevant for the learner. If these are tough questions to answer, you may want to consider an alternative topic that meets the criteria of 1) this is really important and 2) you will perform better at your work- starting tomorrow- if you learn this today. To take this idea further, the expert facilitator can link additional ways this training will be individually beneficial, as well as beneficial for the organization. The more ways that a reluctant learner perceives how this new learning will benefit him or her, the more potential there is for his/her engagement.  

Learning Through Doing 

Although there are many ways people learn, one way that adult brains synthesize learning is through doing- through trying things out and putting things into practice. Generally, adults better remember something they have done or experienced much more than how well they will remember seeing or hearing that same thing without the experiential element. As a facilitator, purposefully create activities that are experiential in nature. Examples of this include role-plays, problem-solving, conducting tests or taking live surveys. For reluctant and unengaged learners, these interactive, social experiences can be a great entry into becoming more actively engaged. 

Self-Directed Problem Solving 

Adult learners are different from younger learners in that they have limited time to solve real-life problems facing them right now. That is not to say that adults don’t enjoy learning for the sake of learning, but that adults will be more engaged and motivated to learn when there is a direct link connecting the learning to solving a current challenge. Because adult learning is self-directed, adults benefit most from those learning experiences characterized by facilitation, collaboration, self-direction, and self-assessment, as opposed to lecture or intervention. So, rather than assuming you know the best solutions, task the adult learners to apply what they already know, plus what they have just learned to begin solving a current real-life problem. 



Laura Scarpulla

Dr. Laura Scarpulla currently serves as a leadership coach and engagement manager at Ed Direction, working directly with education leaders and teachers to improve student outcomes. Laura oversees site-based school improvement efforts for Ed Direction’s work with partner schools. Laura’s professional experience includes classroom teaching, instructional coaching, district-level leadership, and university-level partnerships. In addition to these varied positions, she has worked in education in 3 different states: this gives her a broad experience base which she leverages as an educational consultant. With over 17 years working in public education, Laura combines real-life experience with strategic planning and problem-solving to implement comprehensive school transformation successfully. When not at work, you will find Laura hiking in Utah’s beautiful mountains with her two young sons and husband or throwing the ball for her Goldendoodle, Roo. Laura has also been known to break into song or dance occasionally, so please don’t be surprised if she breaks out a lyric that just happens to fit into the conversation you are having with her perfectly.

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