Applying adult learning principles for improved senior volunteer training


This practice, based on the National Service Fellow report by Caroline E. Crocoll titled Inspiring Volunteer Development: A Resource Book for Training Senior Volunteers in Intergenerational Programs, includes principles of adult education and learning styles relevant to those training senior volunteers. By applying these principles in a training setting, project directors and training staff can enhance the quality of their in-service offerings and promote continuous development that resonates with senior volunteers.


Many people charged with training senior volunteers may not be familiar with adult education principles, characteristics of the adult learner, or adult learning styles, which all differ from those of children and youth.


Adult Education Principles

Although there is no one definitive list of adult education principles, gaining an awareness of the following principles will help trainers of senior volunteers in developing more effective in-service programs.

  • Involve learners in planning and implementing learning activities. Senior volunteers can help establish the program goals and objectives via the needs assessment, then continue their participation throughout the learning activity and into the evaluation phase.
  • Draw upon learners' experiences as a resource. Not only do senior volunteers have experiences that can be used as a foundation for learning new things, but also the readiness to learn in adulthood frequently stems from life tasks and problems.
  • Cultivate self-direction in learners. If adults have been accustomed to teacher-directed learning environments, they may not display self-direction in adult learning settings. In-service training should be structured to nurture the development of self-directed, empowered senior volunteers.
  • Create a climate that encourages and supports learning. The training environment should enhance trust, mutual respect, and learner self-esteem. This does not mean the environment is free of conflict; when conflict does occur, it will be handled in a way that challenges learners to acquire new perspectives in a supportive manner.
  • Foster a spirit of collaboration in the learning setting. Adult learning is a cooperative enterprise that respects and draws upon the knowledge that each person brings to the setting. The roles of trainers and learners can be interchangeable.
  • Use small groups. Groups promote teamwork and encourage cooperation and collaboration. Structured properly, they emphasize the importance of learning from peers, and they allow all participants to be involved in discussions and to assume a variety of roles.

The Adult Learner

Adult learners differ from child learners in several ways:

  • Adults must want to learn. Adults learn most effectively when they have an inner motivation. They will resist material forced on them, or that which is only vaguely described as being "good for them to know."
  • Adults will learn only what the feel they need to learn. Lessons must be relevant and have immediate effects. Adults want to see how lessons relate to authentic situations and real solutions to problems.
  • Adults learn by comparing past experience with new experience. When learning new material, most adults need to see how it fits in with (or is different from) what they already know.
  • Adults need immediate feedback concerning their progress. Adults want to know how they are doing all along the way. Feedback is very beneficial, both in recognition for work well done and guidance when improvement is needed.
  • Adults want their learning to be practical. Adult interest soars when training is built around a clearly defined challenge, rather than hypothetical situations.
  • Adults try to avoid failure. Adults are much less open to trial-and-error than children. Many adults will resist trying something new if it involves the risk of making an error and feeling foolish as a result.

Learning Styles

Developers of training need to be conscious of the fact that individuals process, absorb, and remember new information in different ways. When materials are presented in a way that complements a learner's preferred style, that individual will learn more readily and is more likely to retain what is learned.

  • Auditory learners learn by hearing the trainer's key points, and reinforce this learning by offering spoken feedback either to the trainer or other learners. They tend to recall best what they have heard.
    • 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.
    • Read material aloud where possible or feasible.
  • Visual learners learn through seeing key points in the written word or some other type of visual communication (e.g., films, charts, graphs). They tend to recall what they have read or seen and take particular interest in role-playing or films of actual work that depict what they will have to do.
    • Be sensitive to declining vision and related problems for some older learners.
    • Allow adequate time for adjustments when going from light to dark or vice versa, such as when showing a film.
    • Ensure that lots of light is available.
    • Reduce glare or direct sunlight.
    • Use high contrast on visuals and handout materials.
  • Hands-on learners learn through applying spoken or written theory to actual practice; they respond well to small group discussions. Like the visual learner, they gain a great deal of insight from viewing role-plays or films of actual work experiences, and they like to reinforce this learning by experimenting with it first hand. Their best method of learning comes from being trained on the job.
    • Be aware that the senses of touch and smell can decline with age.

A mixture of learning styles is the best way to capture the entire audience. Many in the audience will understand the concept or skill when they first hear it explained. A second group will not "get it" until visual information is added. The third and last group will not really integrate the learning until they get to practice its application.

  • Use combined auditory, visual, and hands-on presentation modes.
  • Carry out diagnostic evaluations of learners' needs, abilities, and limitations.
  • Pay attention to various obstacles that can interfere with learning.

The most effective method of training adults is to have the trainee walk through the work with their supervisor. It gives the trainee first-hand knowledge of the work that needs to be done, offers opportunities to ask questions, and reinforces what they might have read about the work. If project directors are unable to offer this training option, they can set up practice sessions to allow people to experience a simulation of the skill they are being taught.

In General

  • 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 levels or occasional depression.
  • Be sensitive to possible memory losses and the corresponding impact on assimilating new information.]
  • Minimize distractions at the time of the learning, including background noise, room conditions, and personal anxiety.
  • Be sensitive to life satisfaction needs.
  • Be sensitive to the manner of the presentation.

Cognitive and Sensory Aspects of Aging

It is widely recognized that adults — within the range of their mental capacities — retain their learning capabilities throughout their life span. Research indicates that any person who had the basic ability to learn certain varieties of knowledge at the age of 20 will be equally able to acquire knowledge and skills of similar types at age 50, 60, and beyond. They may take longer to do so, but the acquisition hinges not on age, but rather on the pattern of interest, motivation, genetics, and the personal values that have become part of their personality over the years.


The findings and subsequent training resource book associated with this study provide senior volunteer project directors with valuable resources and information — identified by stakeholders — to build a new framework for the continuous improvement of senior volunteers.


The report on which this practice is based contains information and effective practices from leaders in the fields of adult education, gerontology, program development, and evaluation. The target audience was comprised mainly of adults over the age of 60. The researcher conducted an extensive literature review on training and the senior volunteer, interviewed senior volunteer project directors and project volunteers, and developed the Survey of Senior Volunteer Training Needs to gather data from volunteer station staff and supervisors.

For more information:

Related Resources: 

Senior Corps


Crocoll, C. E. (2001, July). Inspiring volunteer development: A resource book for training senior volunteers in intergenerational programs. Washington, DC: Corporation for National Service.


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