Adult Learners: Effects of Age on Cognitive Ability and Memory Retention

Dom Barnard
Aug 22, 2018 · 14 min read

When teaching adults, it’s important to take into account characteristics that affect their learning, especially how previous experiences influence their thinking. At the same time, you must consider how age impacts their cognitive ability which may assist or hinder learning.

In this article, we discuss the following:

  • Characteristics of adult learners
  • Different learning styles
  • Effects of age on cognitive abilities

Characteristics of adult learners

Learners differ in many ways, from gender to culture to previous education. It’s important to be aware of these factors when teaching. However adult learners do share similar traits which impact their learning:

Adults are more reluctant to change because their thinking has become more rigid due to life experiences. It’s important to explain why making these specific changes is important and how the changes will help them, the team, company, etc. In addition, linking new ideas to their existing beliefs and ideas is a good way to get them onboard and optimise learning.

Adults prefer to have control over their learning because they hold themselves accountable for their lives and their decision-making — they take responsibility for their own achievements or failures at learning. Therefore, self-directed learning is preferred because adults can control the content of their learning and how they learn. Adult learners need to:

  • Be challenged and think about their learning
  • Self-assess and reflect
  • Be given the right level of support — some of this will be from the materials provided, such as extra reading etc.
  • Be provided with options and choices

Adults prefer information that can be practically applied and information that improves their performances because they are goal-orientated. It’s important to create a learning environment which consists of practical and hands-on content, rather than just theory.

Adults learn better when they are able to link previous experiences with new ones and adults trust new concepts more when they have been based on previous knowledge attained. This is because, as aforementioned, adults already have lots of experience and existing frameworks which are concrete to them.

First find out what they know and fit new knowledge into this by, for example, using analogies and examples they are familiar with. Norma and Schmidt (1992) created a three-step procedure to explain how the connections made between new and old information can lead to learning and improved memory retention:

  1. Elaboration — we find the links between new information and previous knowledge.
  2. Refinement — we go through the information to retain the things that we understand and which we think are important.
  3. Restructuring — new schemata (knowledge maps which help us interpret information in our environment) are formed which subsequently allow us to learn.

Learning styles

  • Adults prefer having facilitators rather than lecturers, so ensure that your training has problem-solving and reflection.
  • It helps to form classes with adults that have similar life experiences and to create environments in which they are encouraged to discuss and share with one another.
  • They benefit from having a peer community in which they can interact with and ask questions to.
  • Adult learners may feel uncomfortable if the setting is too formal so try to create a supportive environment and build their confidence by giving them tasks that suit their skills.

Kolb’s (1984) theory of learning explains how learning takes place in adults. The learning cycle has four quadrants:

  1. Concrete experience — doing or having a novel experience.
  2. Reflective observation — reviewing and reflecting on the novel experience, focusing on whether there were any discrepancies between the experience and understanding.
  3. Abstract conceptualisation — what was learned from this experience?
  4. Active experimentation — planning or practically applying the learning.

For example:

  • Concrete experience — You had an interview for a job that’s in a different sector to where you have worked for five years but you didn’t get the job.
  • Reflective observation — You realise that you were over-talking and not getting across your key points succinctly.
  • Abstract conceptualisation — You receive advice from friends who work in that job sector.
  • Active experimentation — You prepare according to their advice and practice with your friends.

You can start from any one of the cycle’s quadrants but all of the four steps must be executed for successful learning.

Kolb also acknowledges that depending on a person’s learning preferences, they will perform better in the respective quadrants. Kolb listed four types of learning styles:

  • Accommodating — prefer feeling and doing. They are intuitive, prefer a physical approach and rely on others’ thinking.
  • Diverging — prefer feeling and watching. They are creative, people-orientated and are able to look at a situation from different viewpoints.
  • Assimilating — prefer watching and thinking. They prefer logical theories over practical and physical approaches.
  • Converging — prefer thinking and doing. They prefer technical work and use their thinking and learning to solve practical issues.

When designing an educational program, it’s important to design tasks that allow the cycle to be followed.

VAK is another model that categorises learners — it focuses on the most common ways people learn. Usually we prefer one of three types of learning: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.

Diagram showing the different VAK learning styles. Image from VAK learning styles.

Visual learning — this is when an individual learns more effectively when information is visually presented, such as, pictures, videos, diagrams etc.


  • Use visual aids — most other learners will benefit from visual elements as well.
  • Provide visual analogies and metaphors to help with visual imagery.
  • Sometimes graphics are not easy to use for specific topics but consider writing key points in front of the class as this provides visual cues.
  • Substitute words for colours and pictures.
  • Ask the students to write down explanations and take notes because this entails looking at your presentation or visualising what you’re presenting.
  • Avoid using large blocks of text.
  • Include exercises where the students create mind maps.
  • Use storytelling to help with visualisation.
  • Colour-code and organise any materials you provide as this helps organise things in their minds.
  • Get students to visualise using phrases, such as, “Picture this”, “Let’s see what you would do.”

Auditory learning — aural learners prefer learning with sound, music, recordings, rhymes, rhythms etc. They remember conversations well and music causes an emotional response in them.


  • Encourage your students to participate in discussions.
  • If reading is required suggest audio books if appropriate.
  • Suggest for them to listen to music as they go over material.
  • Allow recordings of your lessons or make you lessons accessible online — this is also helpful for other learning types.
  • Get students to pair up and explain concepts to each other.
  • Encourage problem-solving aloud.
  • Suggest rereading their notes back to themselves when they get home.
  • Use mnemonic devices and rhyming.
  • If you are explaining a story, play relevant sounds from your computer.

Kinaesthetic learning — these learners process information effectively when a hands-on approach is implemented — when they’re using their bodies and when they are actually doing something. They put their learning into practice.


  • Use physical exercises and provide hands-on experiences.
  • Exercises where they are standing and walking are very effective.
  • Include activities where they use pen and paper to map out their thoughts and problem-solve because writing is a physical exercise.
  • Find a venue that provides these learners with large spaces so they can write and draw.
  • Encourage them to draw diagrams, graphs and maps.
  • Get them to interact with physical objects or solve puzzles.
  • Role-playing.
  • Provide real life examples, such as, case studies.
  • Suggest reviewing their notes whilst they engage in physical activity.
  • Ask them to teach other class members some of the lesson content.
  • When you are asking them to visualise, explain the sensations that would be felt, for example, “The wind was forcibly hitting against the left side of my body.”

Using a combination of tasks and activities that incorporate these learning styles will optimise learning.

Helping adults learn

Let adult learners know how they’re doing so they feel more confident and so that they understand what needs to improve. When you provide the feedback ensure that you are encouraging and you formulate an action plan together.

Adults typically seek education voluntarily so this motivation fuels their learning. It’s important to challenge them so they find the material stimulating but avoid being too challenging because this reduces their motivation.

Adults will have multiple commitments to manage in their lives, such as, their social life, family, work, hobbies etc. It’s therefore more difficult to find the time to learn so courses must make room for busy schedules by, for example, holding day and evening sessions, sessions on the weekend, online courses etc and accept that things might get in the way of learning.

Adults want information that they can apply and they expect instant outcomes. If their expectations are not met they may drop out. Your course must boost their already existing skills. Find out what their expectations are from the beginning and make it clear what you course does — ensure the course objectives are clear right from the start.

Normal cognitive decline

There are multiple challenges for adult learners due to the natural cognitive decline humans experience as they age.

1. Crystallised intelligence

Consists of the knowledge and skills that have built-up from previous experiences. It is overlearned and well-practiced, such as vocabulary. This remains intact regardless of your age and adults are better at tasks requiring this intelligence compared to younger people as this knowledge is formed from experiences.

2. Fluid intelligence

Consists of knowledge and skills that have not been accumulated from your experiences and it is less familiar, such as problem-solving. This type of intelligence declines with age so it’s important to teach older people strategies to assist them for these tasks.

Attention is the ability to focus on specific stimuli. There are different types of attention:

Sustained attention: There are no age-related differences in focusing attention on a task over a period of time, for example, watching TV.

Divided attention: This consists of processing multiple stimuli or engaging in multiple tasks simultaneously. This declines with age, especially when the task is more complex. There is evidence that more practice, training and aerobic exercise can help:

  • It’s thought that more training might help the activity become more automatic and therefore require less attention. Or perhaps the individual has more time to develop better strategies.
  • Cardiovascular fitness may increase the effectiveness of neural processes or increase necessary resources (Hawkins, Kramer and Capaldi, 1992).

Selective attention: Attending to specific stimuli in the environment whilst disregarding irrelevant stimuli, such as, trying to talk and listen to someone in a busy restaurant. Selective attention also involves switching attention.

A lot of the original evidence for age-related differences in selective attention came from the Stroop task. This task consists of participants naming the ink colour of an incongruent colour word, for example, the word “yellow” printed in blue. Performance speed declines with age so it’s better to avoid overloading adult learners and allow them to fully attend to one task at a time.

It’s well-known that memory is affected by aging but not all types of memory are negatively affected.

Working memory

Working memory involves temporarily holding information in your mind and simultaneously manipulating this information (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). An example is holding numbers in your head and reorganising them in a certain way. As age increases, working memory declines. This affects learning because it can make tasks, such as, problem-solving and decision-making more difficult.

Emotional working memory

Mikels et al. (2005) found no significant difference between emotional working memory with age. Since emotional working memory does not decline, this suggests that increasing the emotional valence of information may increase memory retention in older adults.

Long-term memory

Long-term memory requires information to be retrieved but this information is not being actively maintained so the original learning could have occurred within the last minutes or many years ago. Long-term memory is important for learning as you want information to remain in your long-term memory.

Declarative (explicit) memory

Declarative memory is the conscious recollection of facts and events in your life. There are different types of declarative memory:

Semantic memory consists of general knowledge about the world, factual information and knowledge of concepts. This type of memory is not affected by age and sometimes older people are better at remembering this information compared to younger people. However, the speed of retrieval may be slower, especially for words and names but this should not interfere that much with learning.

Episodic memory is the memory for personal experiences and events that took place at a certain time and place. This type of memory is the most affected by aging. The impairment with episodic memory and other memory types may be due to the way the information is encoded, consolidated (stored) or retrieved:

Flow of encoding, consolidation and retrieval of information. Diagram from Explore: My Significant Learning


  • With age, information may be encoded in a less meaningful way leading to the memory traces not standing out from other memories. This makes retrieval more difficult.
  • Salient information may be attended to and less salient information may be ignored, for instance, the context of the experience. This is called source memory as it consists of remembering where and when information was learned — this recollection becomes more difficult with age.
  • They may lack effective encoding strategies, for example, they may forget where they placed their notebook. Following a routine reduces this age difference such as, always placing the notebook in the same place. Or using external aids, for example, a list, a calendar or alarm. More time should be taken to actively process new information, such as, discussing it with a peer or creating associations to remember certain facts.
  • Divided attention is needed.


  • Aspects of an experience should be connected and formed into a memory trace but this may be impaired if a substantial amount of the experience is associated to its context.


  • Retrieval depends on encoding because information is more difficult to retrieve if it hasn’t been encoded effectively.
  • Free recall decreases with age but when provided with the appropriate cues information can be retrieved.

Nondeclarative (implicit) memory:

Nondeclarative memories are when there has been a change in your behaviour due to previous experiences but you have no memory of this experience, such as, remembering the words to a song. This type of memory remains stable throughout life.

Procedural memory is a type of nondeclarative memory and it’s also not affected by age. It is the memory for cognitive and motor abilities which have been acquired due to practice, such as, riding a bike. This suggests that it’s important for learners to practice as much as possible with new information.

Autobiographical memories are personal memories that are episodic and semantic:

  • Recent memories are the easiest to retrieve
  • The earliest memories are the most difficult to retrieve — the gist of the experience is recalled but fewer details are remembered.
  • Memories between the ages of the 15–25 years of age are also more easily recalled. This is referred to the reminiscence bump where the memories are more easily recalled due to the salience and emotionality of that period of life. This again suggests the importance of emotional valence for encoding and retrieving information.

Key points

  • Declining working-memory can make some learning processes, such as problem-solving, more difficult.
  • There are age-related differences in effective encoding strategies.
  • Information may be encoded in a less meaningful way which makes retrieval more difficult.
  • Source memory declines and less salient information may not be encoded.
  • Using emotional relevance to encode information can decrease the rate of forgetting.
  • More time is needed to actively process new information.
  • Cues can help with retrieval.
  • Practice can assist in making memories and processes easier to recall.
  • As age increases, the gist of an experience is remembered but fewer details are recalled.

These memory changes may be due to a slower processing speed, inability to divide attention and the lack of using strategies to improve learning and memory.

Processing speed is the speed cognitive processes and motor responses are performed. This declines with age and lots of cognitive processes are affected due to this. For example, Salthouse (1991) explored age-related decline in cognitive ability by testing 672 people between 20 and 84 years of age.

From the results they concluded that a decline in processing speed mediates the relationship between aging and declining cognitive ability. Therefore, older people need more teaching time because their difficulty is with learning the information adequately for recall — once they have learned the information well enough their recall is not impaired . So it may take longer to teach adults compared to younger people thus they should be given longer teaching time.

Language is made up of both types of intelligence and this ability remains intact, including vocabulary. With age, it becomes more difficult to retrieve words — it takes longer and it becomes more difficult to generate the relevant words quickly (verbal fluency). Recalling familiar names and places (visual confrontation naming) also becomes difficult from 70 years of age.

Executive control consists of a variety of cognitive processes that are involved in selecting and engaging in behaviours appropriate for achieving certain goals, for example, planning, organising, problem-solving, management, implementation and evaluation.

  • Executive control is especially needed for novel situations but this ability declines with age due to the decline in mental flexibility.
  • There are age-related differences in response inhibition — this is when you stop yourself from engaging in an automatic response and instead produce a more effective novel response.
  • Reasoning with unfamiliar information also declines, for example, research suggests that inductive reasoning declines from 45 years old (Singh-Manoux et al., 2012).
  • It takes longer for adults to find solutions to problems not experienced previously.

Many of the age differences in cognition seem to be mediated by the decline in working memory which may be due to the decline in processing speed.

What can affect cognitive ability when aging?

Factors linked to aging may also be partially responsible for cognitive decline:

  • Health problems: the chance of health problems increases with age and multiple studies have suggested that any physiological disease can negatively affect cognitive function. Hypertension has been especially linked to poorer cognitive functioning and research has suggested that chronic hypertension predicts cognitive decline (Waldstein, 2000).
  • Medications which cause side effects, such as tiredness
  • Lifestyle factors, for example, smoking, alcohol consumption, dietary insufficiencies, engaging in mentally stimulating activities etc.
  • Mental health problems, such as depression which is common in older people, can affect motivation and concentration etc.
  • Sensory changes can reduce information processing, for example, reduced hearing ability.
  • There are neurobiological explanations of why processing speed decreases. O’Sullivan et al. (2001) suggest that processing speed is due to cortical disconnection — where white matter tracts degrade during aging.

It’s important to understand age-related differences in cognitive abilities because many abilities decline but others remain stable or are even enhanced. With this information you can prepare aptly and create a class or course that suits the needs of your learners.

Learn more about teaching with our Train the Trainer course, combining traditional online learning with virtual reality.

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Dom Barnard

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Award-winning off-the-shelf training courses designed to improve skills in the most efficient way. We combine e-learning with VR training and simulations so you can learn from experience in realistic immersive scenarios.