Older Learners: Learning in Workshops and Other Group Settings



Many education bodies working in the aging area point out that many of us learn in a different manner as we grow older, and that people need information offered in a different way. The literature on older adults as learners is now quite extensive.

It can be helpful to draw on this adult education literature when offering support groups for seniors with alcohol problems (and possibly even training or education sessions with service providers). Both are learning opportunities.


Differences between the older public and other groups.

Many older adults bring knowledge, experience and maturity to the classroom. Older adults are a very diverse group. Some will have gone to college or university.  A large proportion (over 25%)  may have less than a grade nine education. As new generations head into later life, lower levels of formal education will become less common, but it is an important matter to consider now.

For many older adults, English or French may be an acquired language, not their first language. Older adults also come from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, which will affect the types of knowledge they have, as well as their attitudes, values, and beliefs.

When planning  workshops or other education sessions, be aware that older adults may not be familiar with tools or tests such as Likert scales that other younger people may take for granted. For example, this scale was first developed in 1932, but really did not come into vogue even in college psychology departments until the late 1960s, early 1970s.  Most seniors have not had the opportunity to go to university or college.

Whatever tool you are using, never assume it is familiar to the other person.



The distance education program at Syracuse University offers this guide. I've divided it into parts. While a lot of it is common sense, sometimes we forget common sense.


The following material has been adapted from Hiemstra (1980) and Syracuse University updated it with more current information.


The Personal Approach of the Facilitator

  • Be positive, supportive, and helpful

  • Help older learners compensate for intellectual and non-cognitive changes

  • Help to promote learning confidence, self-discipline, and self-respect.

  • Maintain an environment of informality and levity.

  • Work to make learners feel welcome in any new learning setting.

  • Work to make learners feel welcome and at ease


Relate the Information to Needs and Experiences of Learners

  • Base learning activities and instructional approaches on the needs and interests of the learners. Be flexible in terms of differing needs, interests, and abilities that may exist

  • Be sensitive to life stages and the impact of life changes on needs .

  • Be sensitive to the value of social interactions among learners.

  • Use small group discussion to help learners analyze personal and group needs .

  • Encourage people to work together in groups when feasible on meeting certain needs

  • Help learners to relate new knowledge to past experiences

  • Help learners understand the advantages and disadvantages of being an older person and the corresponding impact on needs

  • If text material is utilized, help learners tie the information to their current knowledge base

  • Understand cognitive style of learners and develop instructional approaches for different styles

  • Avoid acronyms and jargon.


 Be Sensitive to Barriers, Obstacles, and Physiological Needs

  • Be sensitive to declining hearing and related problems for some older learners

  • Be prepared to help learners move closer to sound sources

  • Use extra voice and media amplification

  • Be sensitive to declining vision and related problems for some older learners

  • Allow adequate time for adjustments when going from light to dark area or vice versa, such as showing a film . Ensure that lots of light is available

  • Reduce glare or direct sunlight

  • Use high contrast on visuals and handout material

  • Be sensitive to memory losses and the corresponding impact on assimilating new information . Be sensitive to life satisfaction needs

  • Be sensitive to the manner of the presentation

  • Read material aloud where possible or feasible

  • Use combined auditory and visual presentation modes

  • Carry out diagnostic evaluations of learners' needs, abilities, and limitations

  • Minimize distractions at the time of the learning, including background noise, room conditions, and personal anxiety

  •  Pay attention to various obstacles that can interfere with learning

  • Pay attention to the physical environment

  • Analyze the environment and ensure that comfortable heating and proper ventilation exist

  • Reduce distractions

  • Take appropriate breaks

  • Provide for those with limited mobility and help learners accommodate for declining energy level or occasional depression


Pay Careful Attention to the Pace of Learning

  • Allow for long periods of time between stimuli, for responding to questions, and for group discussion

  • Allow more time for all aspects of the learning experience

  • Avoid sudden surprises or changes

  • Be sensitive to perceptions about life satisfaction and locus of control

  • Keep sessions short (perhaps 50-60 minutes), the discussion time on any single subject matter topic short, and present small amounts of information at any one time

  • Keep the pressure of time at a minimum

  • Permit and promote self-pacing by learners

  • Promote certainty, confidence, and success by moving from easy material to difficult (build on earlier successes)

  • Provide for frequent refreshment and restroom breaks



Make the Organize the Learning Activities and Make Them Meaningful

  • Be highly organized. Suggest goals or objectives and help learners develop their own

  • Help learners increase a belief in personal learning ability

  • Help learners process information they receive

  • Help learners increase their ability and perception of self in terms of reading proficiency.

  • Help learners organize and reorganize their learning activities

  • Encourage practicing techniques

  • Make organizing the material part of the learning

  • Stress tying together of concepts, relevancy of information, and connections to learner's experience base rather than memorization

  • Utilize materials and information that will have real meaning to the learner

  • Use a highly stimulating approach that will appeal to several senses

  • Use concrete examples and base them on past experiences of the learner when possible

  • Be sensitive to cognitive or learning style differences with corresponding effects on meaningful materials

  • Utilize various cueing devices

  • Encourage the learner to develop various mediators or mnemonic devices (visual images, rhymes, acronyms, and self-designed coding schemes)

  • Seek cues that are familiar or that can be tied to past knowledge

  • Use review aids


Involve the Learner in the Instructional Process


  • Facilitate the learner's active involvement in all aspects of the individualizing process

  • Facilitate self-directed learning

  • Encourage self-directed determination of learning goals, approaches, and resource needs

  • Enhance the development of a positive self-concept

  • Gradually reduce learner dependency on the instructor and increase self-responsibility

  • Promote self-motivation and learning efficiency

  • Utilize discovery techniques


Evaluate and Assess What People Have Learned

This  section is geared primarily to classroom types of education, but there are some useful points for educational groups. These have been placed in bold.

  • Be sensitive to quality and life satisfaction issues in relation to educational participation

  • Encourage the use of outside validators who may be the most knowledgeable about a topic area

  • Minimize the chance of failure and impact of making errors

  • Provide regular feedback on progress

  • Use peer feedback

  • Use positive feedback techniques

  • Use review strategies

  • Reduce or eliminate required homework

  • Use interview techniques if feasible to help learners talk about their learnings, problems, and aspirations

  • Use multiple choice testing when trying to understand what the person has learned

  • Use recognition techniques as opposed to more traditional recall methods


All adapted from:


References and Resources

Canadian Health Network magazine. How Literacy Affects Health. Online:

(be sure  to copy the whole link)

Canadian Health Network magazine. (August , 2003).  Beyond words - The health-literacy connection

Hiemstra, R. (1980c). Preparing human service practitioners to teach older adults (Information Series No. 209). Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State University, ERIC Clearinghouse for Adult, Career, and Vocational Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 193 529).


Page last updated Sunday October 31, 2004

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