How to Deal with Difficult Adult Learners?

7th May 2021

Although corporate training often draws several training tips and strategies from the various effective teaching methods employed in schools and universities, there are certain major differences, especially in the context of the learners’ age-group. Corporate trainers deal with adult learners, who often come with years of former education and experience. Hence, training them can sometimes get tricky because adult learners always need a clear purpose to justify their attendance in the sessions, are more likely to question the trainers’ style, and are particularly driven by practical examples that they can relate with. Moreover, adult learners need to be involved in classroom discussions more frequently and the learning process has to be much more collaborative as opposed to an instructional approach. While not all of these differences are an issue for the trainer, sometimes handling difficult adult learners can become fairly challenging. For instance, highly experienced adult learners may be unwilling to un-learn, and thus frequently interrupt the trainer or oppose everything that s/he says during the session. An online specialised train the trainer program would typically explain the various strategies to deal with adult learners, especially the difficult ones. In the blog, we will briefly go through some of the ways that help trainers deal with difficult adult learners.

  • Do not argue: It is worth remembering that the purpose of a training session is to convey knowledge, skills, and ultimately set the learning goals. However, deviations from achieving these objectives can arise if the trainer gets embroiled in an argument with the learners. This will consume time, form a bitter relationship with the learner, and may also impact the other learners’ motivation to remain engaged and attentive. The trainer must remember that it is normal for the learners to complain, oppose, and interrupt the trainer. However, the trainer must stay calm and not step into any kind of arguments.
  • Do not give false praise: Difficult learners can also be the ones who never pay attention and make no contributions during the session discussions. Often, trainers believe that praising these learners for doing the bare minimum might motivate them. However, it does not work like that. Instead, they may take the trainer for granted, and continue staying disengaged from the sessions. Thus, a certain degree of sternness is required.
  • Do not yell: Any qualified trainer with a train the trainer certification will probably know that yelling at difficult adult learners acts as salt to the wound, and does not do any good to anyone. In fact, it can make matters worse because the adult trainee may get offended and either quit the lessons or place a complaint with the management. Besides, other trainees will also develop a wrong impression of the trainer.
  • Be assertive: Despite being advised to not yell or argue with the learners, trainers must not think that ignoring the difficult students and not paying attention to their disturbances can be a solution. This way the learner will continue to interrupt or ignore the discussions, which in turn will keep them from learning and escalating their performance standards in the long run. Since the trainer’s responsibility is to improve the productivity of all the employees, being assertive, pushing the learners to engage, and even separately interacting with them to comprehend their problems is important.
  • Be a good listener: It might turn out that a learner is constantly interrupting the class because s/he is trying to make an important point that is relevant to the topic being discussed. However, the trainer may view it as an interruption because the trainee is not being able to explain her/himself properly. In such cases, the learner is not a difficult student. All the trainer needs to do is be patient and attentively listen to the learner’s views. In fact, the view shared may turn out to be relevant and interesting for the other learners as well.
  • Be aware of cultural differences: It may be common in certain cultures to talk less and listen more. For example, a Chinese or Indian learner may be quiet and unwilling to participate in group discussions because the learning format in their cultures is more instructional. Hence, it is not that the learners are not paying attention, and pushing them to talk can only demotivate them.

Usually, the circumstances in one session is very likely to be different from another one, as will be the nature of the ‘difficult’ learners. Therefore, there is no common ‘tool book’ or list of strategies that will work for all the learners. Hence, the trainer needs to know her/his learners well and then handle them accordingly. If someone is not focusing because of dire family issues, then being stern may not be the solution, and giving her/him some time to recuperate might work. In order to do this, the trainer needs to share a certain level of interpersonal connection with almost all the trainees.

Written By : Shivangi Chakraborty


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