Learning As an Adult: How Is It Different?

Last Updated: 28 June 2022

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One day, someone likened children’s brains to sponges: they soak up everything in front of them with very little effort, as well as very little worry about when they’ll use that information in the future. When this was said, it was also implied that adult brains don’t soak up information. This is incorrect.

In fact, the adult brain soaks up more nuanced information and spends time creating links between pre-existing knowledge in order to contextualise and retain new information.

So, it’s clear there are differences between the child and adult brain. What are these differences, and how can you use them to your educational advantage?

What are the differences between child and adult learning?

Not only do adult brains work differently to those of children, but adult lives work differently too. When all of these factors are combined, it creates an almost entirely different environment for effective learning when you’re an adult to what was perhaps effective when you were younger.

Adult education comes with higher stakes

Generally, when adults need to learn something, the actual act of learning has higher stakes attached to it than it does for a child. Especially in the context of healthcare, professional education and development come with a responsibility to make sure you’re engaging with accurate, relevant and reputable information.

Because of this, professional development and CPD for healthcare professionals – especially early in their careers – can become a daunting task. What if you’re learning the wrong thing? What if this doesn’t actually apply to your practice? What if the information is wrong and your patients experience adverse outcomes as a result?

This is why it’s important to only use reputable resources

Adults can draw context from a wider range of experiences

Ahh, the beauty of age. Adults generally make better-informed decisions than kids because they’ve lived longer and seen more. This extends to learning as well.

While children tend to learn about abstract concepts that they probably won’t apply to their everyday lives - think long division – adults tend to learn about things they can reinforce with their work or daily tasks. For example, an ICU nurse learning about risk factors associated with intubation would be more likely to take an active role in that education because they see intubation every day. The knowledge is clearly applicable to life, and thus falls into a pre-existing context. A twelve-year-old learning about long division is less likely to easily slot that information into their day.

Adults have a stronger sense of what they want (and how to get it)

Again relating back to the contextualisation of learning, adults have a clearer (or more linear) link between what they’re learning and what they’re likely to gain from that. While it’s not all about gaining things from educational experiences, most humans are programmed to be more engaged if they know there’s a reward in the future.

For example, if a healthcare professional learns about supporting patients with a niche but not unusual condition, they are likely to become a leader or mentor for others who want to learn about that too. In time, that healthcare professional will presumably have better patient outcomes than their peers in that area and this could positively affect their movement into a management position (if that is their goal). Admittedly, there are a lot of ‘could’s and ‘maybe’s in that example, but you can see what we mean: adults can see that education is a series of steps along a journey, whereas children (whose school lives revolve around tests and exams) see education as an end in and of itself.

How can you apply this to your own learning?

Seeing as all of these differences relate to the contextualisation of the learning itself, you can optimise these differences by doing one thing: identify the journey of each learning goal.

This means you should figure out exactly what you’re learning, why you’re learning it, what effect it will have upon your patients, and what effect it will have upon your career.

Here is the process of identification broken down into four steps:

  1. Choose a learning goal (based on a knowledge or competency gap).

  2. Apply the goal to an ideal learning outcome (eg. ‘by the end of this module, I want to know a Cushing's Syndrome management strategy off by heart’).

  3. Link that learning outcome to your patients (eg. ‘by memorising this management strategy, I will provide faster and more accurate care to patients who present with Cushing's Syndrome’).

  4. Link your patients' health outcomes to the future of your career (eg. ‘by optimising care for patients who present with Cushing's Syndrome, I will be rewarded for my professionalism and the high number of ideal outcomes, and, as a result, I will graduate into a management role faster than I otherwise would’).

Not only will filling this out in relation to every one of your learning goals (not every one of your learning activities – that would take too much time) make the learning process more straightforward, it will also help you to be purposeful with your learning, as opposed to the more randomised learning completed by children. If you struggle to iron out the details of a prospective learning goal, use Ausmed's learning goal feature to help you figure out what you want to learn, how it will impact your practice, and where you need to start.

Where can you read more about this?

The differences between child and adult learning – and the effectiveness of each – are a large area of discussion and research in education and psychology: pedagogy and andragogy were discussed as separate spheres of education as far back as 1833 (SOURCE).

Here are a few great resources on the subject:

To learn more about how you can optimise your learning habits and get the most from your education, have a look at the Learning Theories tab on The Handover, or sign up to the weekly newsletter to stay up-to-date.


Boyle, M., 2016. ‘5 Ways Adults Learn Differently than Children.’ LearnKit. Accessed 28 June 2022 via https://learnkit.com/2016/01/13/adult-learning-needs/#:~:text=Children%20learn%20because%20they%20are,their%20own%20goals%20and%20progress.

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