4 theory-based tips for effective adult learning
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4 theory-based tips for effective adult learning

1 month ago · 3 min read · AICPA Insights Blog

Adults and children learn in different ways. Although children more easily soak up new information, adults have deeper wells of experience to draw from and can make connections with existing knowledge.

Adult learners can take advantage of this by immediately applying new skills and knowledge to real-world situations, whereas children often don’t know if or when they will ever apply the things they learn in the classroom.

And although children typically have the benefit of focusing exclusively on school, many adults must juggle learning with their careers and other responsibilities.

There are several adult learning theories that lay out these differences and offer insights into how adults can best learn new skills and knowledge. Four theory-based pieces of advice for continuous learners include pinpointing your reason for learning, setting clear goals with achievable steps, spreading out your learning plan, and finding ways to put learning into practice.

Pinpoint your reason for learning

Adult educator Malcolm Knowles promoted the theory of andragogy in the 1980s, which laid out the ways adult learning differed from childhood learning. The gist of the theory is that adults benefit from knowing why they should learn something and how it will specifically help them achieve their goals.

Once adult learners are clear on the importance of learning new concepts or skills, they are more likely to have the intrinsic motivation to take charge of their learning journey. For example, accounting and finance professionals might consider which skills or knowledge would be most beneficial to their professional or personal goals and select one at the top of the list. If your firm is in the process of implementing new technologies, you have a good reason to brush up on things like data analytics, cybersecurity, and robotic process automation (RPA).

If your soft skills could use some work, you might be motivated to brush up on your leadership, communication, or change management skills.

Set clear goals with achievable steps

Scholars Chris Kenyon and Stewart Hase pushed for a move from andragogy to heutagogy (self-determined learning) in the early 2000s. Of course, this idea of self-directed learning is extremely common today, with many accounting and finance professionals completing online CPE courses in their own time or specializing with a certificate.

Because adult learning is often self-directed, it’s essential to develop clear goals and break them down into small, achievable steps. For example, if you want to become a better communicator, you might focus that goal on one aspect of communication (like public speaking or translating your ideas for those in non-finance functions).

If you want to focus on becoming a better public speaker, you could break down that goal further into steps such as joining your local Toastmasters International, recording yourself speaking and playing it back to find areas for improvement, and giving a presentation to a small group of friends to build your confidence.

Breaking down goals into small steps can also help you gain momentum and avoid getting discouraged or overwhelmed by vague, unrealistic goals.

Spread out your learning plan with regular reviews

People of all ages benefit from regularly reviewing concepts and practicing new skills, and psychologists have found that spacing out that learning over time rather than cramming can boost retention.

As individuals age, their brains lose some neuroplasticity, but adult brains are still very capable of forming and strengthening new connections. In fact, several studies have shown that learning new skills can help prevent cognitive decline and even increase grey matter.

Get the most out of your learning journey by taking the steps created for your learning goals and evenly spreading them out over the course of several months. Regularly review key concepts to strengthen those new connections in your brain so you can apply them when relevant problems arise in your day-to-day life.

Find ways to put learning into practice

One of the main benefits of adult learning is the ability to immediately apply new skills and knowledge to your career.

Rather than memorizing facts and figures, you might read relevant information about your area of expertise to get an understanding of how concepts are playing out in the real world.

Once you have absorbed concepts or developed a new skill, try applying it right away. For example, if you have just learned about data visualization, you might incorporate visuals in your next cross-functional meeting.

Once you find your motivation, set goals, create a plan and spread out your learning, you're on your way. And as you apply new skills and knowledge and see the benefits in your personal and professional life, you will hopefully set off a virtuous cycle of continuous learning that will endure.

Hannah Pitstick, B.A.

Hannah Pitstick is a content writer at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA.

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