What You Need To Know About Adult Learning

This article by Pandora Bryce was originally published in the
June 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.


Safety training’s biggest problem can be summed up in two words: knowledge transfer. An abundance of teaching points are crammed into every lesson, but all too often, relatively little learning actually happens—and there’s even less retention in the weeks following the training.

There are numerous reasons why safety training fails to stick. Lack of trainer skill is a major problem. Not everyone is willing to put in the time it takes to be effective at presenting in front of a group of people, and even experienced trainers can struggle to reach their audience. Another common issue is the availability and appropriateness of training resources. Outdated videos and graphics can distract from the training content, and countless training groups have succumbed to death by PowerPoint.

But these challenges are dwarfed by the fact that relatively few people in charge of safety training have a solid understanding of how knowledge should be transferred from teacher to student, or the fundamental differences between young students and adult learners. A well-designed course can overcome most limitations, but even Hollywood-grade training videos and PowerPoints will fail to work if the teaching methods are ineffective.


Safety training’s biggest problem can be summed up in two words: knowledge transfer.


If EHS professionals want to improve the efficacy of their training sessions, they would do well to pay attention to best practices from the adult learning industry. There are several lessons that translate from educational textbooks to industrial adult learning environments like safety training. And it starts with what a safety classroom should—and shouldn’t—look like.



Training Environment

Safety training tends to replicate the situations in which the trainers themselves were educated. This typically means that training sessions look a lot like school classrooms. One of the problems here is that most safety trainers in workplace environments likely were not taught with adult learning pedagogy. Even if trainers did not enjoy their time in school, many of their assumptions about how to teach will come from their own educational experience.

One of the challenges that stem from re-creating old classroom structures is that some adult learners will perform especially poorly if their training feels like school. Often, adult learners are anxious in new learning environments, and school-like environments can bring back memories of everything they dislike about formal education. In cases like this, roadblocks to learning are inadvertently erected before the training even begins.

This issue can be exacerbated when a trainer delivers a safety lesson as if it were a eulogy. All too often, teachers think that all types of learning, and safety in particular, have to be serious. As a result, they miss out on the value of a loose and fun class, where jokes, camaraderie and game elements can go a long way in engaging adult learners. This in turn helps them to remember the content. It’s ironic, because the whole point of safety training is to prevent injuries and fatalities—but by delivering it in a way that’s as serious as the subject matter, trainers will likely fail to transfer the knowledge that workers need to avoid getting hurt.


One of the challenges that stem from re-creating old classroom structures is that some adult learners will perform especially poorly if their training feels like school.


With that said, effective learning design goes well beyond presentation skills and the classroom environment. Tapping into motivational sources, engaging in social learning and providing a range of learning activities are all key elements in transforming humdrum safety training into dynamic learning sessions.




Motivation is a crucial aspect of learning. Safety training is about changing behavior, and people are incentivized to learn and change when they can connect their own emotions and beliefs to the learning material. Adult learners are more engaged when they are encouraged to bring their own values and experience into the learning environment.

Adult learners are better able to process information if lessons are based on their own experience, and new information will only make it into long-term memory if it’s connected to their outlook and emotions. This means that safety training should use realistic examples, and allow some time for learners to process new concepts and consider how they relate to their life experience.

For training to be successful, it also needs to pass the what’s-in-it-for-me test by demonstrating as clearly and early as possible that the lesson is relevant and participant-centered. Notably, safety trainers should describe the benefits to the participants from their point of view—saying that the training session will reduce the company’s recordable rate won’t cut it.


Adult learners are more engaged when they are encouraged to bring their own values and experience into the learning environment.


Surprisingly, many employees are relatively unmotivated by reducing their own risk of injury. The majority of workers already believe they’re safe enough, have confidence in their own skills and generally don’t believe that additional safety training will improve their ability to look out for themselves.

However, there’s one almost universally effective motivator for safety training. Regardless of industry, job function or years of experience, nearly every single employee is interested in keeping their family safe. Connecting the training goals with their innate desire to protect their loved ones will dramatically increase the rate of learning.


Social Learning

Forget what you thought about students needing to keep their eyes on their own work. Motivated adult learners will pay more attention to safety training. But in order for them to actually understand what’s being taught, they also need to engage in social learning. Adults are much more used to learning things in a social context as opposed to a traditional classroom. Working in pairs, group discussions, a mutual sharing of experiences and leveraging collective strengths are all ways that workers can learn from their peers’ perspectives.

This can be as simple as re-imaging the classroom layout. Seating people in groups around a table rather than in rows will make it clear to everyone that this isn’t going to be a typical lecture format. Table group discussions work well in most North American workplaces, and by setting up a more collaborative classroom from the outset, adult learners will be less likely to check out as soon as they sit down. Groups of four to six are ideal, although the seating arrangements can be switched up as the learning activities rotate from group tasks to paired discussions and large group debriefs. Which brings me to my final and perhaps most overlooked piece of advice: the benefit of using a variety of learning modes.


Adults are much more used to learning things in a social context as opposed to a traditional classroom.


Varied Learning Activities—and An Emphasis On Demonstration

Safety trainers should teach using a variety of methods and provide as many ways as possible for participants to demonstrate learning. Groups of adult learners usually have a diverse range of learning preferences and abilities. This is especially true for safety training. As a result, trainers will struggle to reach most adult learners unless they use a range of activities in the class to keep the learning fresh, from short presentations and paired discussion to skills practice.

Further to that point, perhaps the most overlooked element of adult learning in safety training is the need for workers to demonstrate new knowledge and skills. Traditional training operates on the assumption that if adults are exposed to a bunch of information, they will absorb it. This is rarely the case, as nearly everyone is already bombarded with more information than they can take in. Adults need to do something active and useful with new information.

One of the main issues with the information-firehose approach is that adults already have plenty of knowledge, some of which may not align with the new information. Active learning is the most effective way to get past adults’ inner gatekeeper so that they value and adopt the new safety knowledge and skills.

All of this points to the need for workers to demonstrate safety learning in a number of different ways. Having options that go beyond tests or verbal quizzes will boost knowledge retention and increase motivation. Techniques that work well in safety training include having learners explain the key teaching points aloud, make a diagram that illustrates a concept, demonstrate a skill, solve a problem, give a situational example of how knowledge can be used, teach someone else, complete a quiz correctly and write a short quiz for someone else to complete.

All of this is easier said than done, especially for EHS managers and other professionals with dozens of responsibilities that all feel more urgent than updating safety training. Fortunately, incremental changes to safety training can still show surprisingly remarkable benefits. Even small modifications can create a better learning environment, and an additional learning activity or an added element of social learning can improve learning results without requiring a total overhaul.

If adopting these learning principles in training sessions feels beyond reach, then consider using them as a shopping list the next time you purchase new safety training. Many safety vendors tout the efficacy of their off-the-shelf training programs. Keep these adult education best practices in mind as you evaluate safety training, as they will let you peek under the hood and see whether the training actually has what it takes to help your workers learn.

Pandora Bryce is the Vice President of Product Development at SafeStart, where she leads a team of instructional designers and safety experts in creating new safety programs. She holds a PhD in Education and has delivered conference presentations, training programs, masterclasses, and university guest lectures on four continents.

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