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Editor’s Note: An important advantage of mediated instruction is the ability to test and validate the effectiveness of instruction for a specified audience. We start with a predefined set of goals and a needs assessment to define the knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSAs) of the target audience. A discrepancy analysis, sometimes called a gap analysis, defines what is to be taught and learned. In the process, we gather information about the prospective learners.

Instructional designers define content and create learning strategies most likely to be successful with the intended audience. Prototype materials are constructed, tested, and refined until they reach criterion performance with a sample of the target group, and validated by field testing. In this study, the learners are older adults. As this article shows, they have distinctive needs and learning characteristics that instructional designers must address.

Instructional Design – Considering the
Cognitive Learning Needs of Older Learners

George Pate, Jianxia Du, and Byron Havard


Within the past few years discussion has grown regarding the cognitive learning needs of older adults. In my paper, I would like to look at what research has discovered and what actions have been taken in regard to meeting those needs. I also want to know if instructional designers need to consider those learning needs in their instructional design practices.

But why should instructional designers even consider the cognitive learning needs of older adults. Aren’t these older adults past the point of learning or having the need to learn? Aren’t they just going to retire, relax, travel, do hobbies, visit the grandkids, and live off their retirement income?

Maybe currently, or in the past, older adults would have gone about ageing this way, but we as a society are approaching a new phenomenon that we have not experienced before. As a society we are ageing, and ageing rather rapidly.

Why? Because the baby boomer generation is beginning to reach retirement age. Baby boomers are those adults born in large numbers after World War II, from about 1946 to 1964. Because of the approaching retirement of such a large number of workers, there will begin to be a huge economic and social impact on out society. In the 1950’s there were 7 workers to support each retiree, but by 2030, there will be less than 3 workers to support each retiree. This will create a huge burden on our society that will require that older workers be kept in the workforce as long as possible to help meet not only their own needs, but the needs of others. (“New Opportunities for”, 1999)

Because economically and socially it will be impossible for less than 3 workers to support one retiree, we have to make sure that older adults remain in the workforce as productive contributors. Also, there will be so many baby boomers retiring that there will not be enough younger generation workers to take their place. (“New Opportunities for”, 1999). These facts create an immediate need for instructional designers to begin considering older adults in educational and training instruction. Instructional designers must become more aware of ageing and the cognitive learning needs of older adults. Designers must understand these needs, because they will become responsible for creating instruction for older adults to train and educate them to remain in the workforce.

Other reasons why instructional designers need to consider the learning needs of older adults include the trend that older adults desire to remain in the workforce and continue learning. Older adults therefore will need to be kept trained and educated on new technologies and other issues in the workforce. Research is also beginning to suggest the importance of lifelong learning for our own well-being. (Cusack, Thompson, & Rogers, 2003, p. 401-402).

Instructional Design and Cognitive Learning

For older adults to keep on in the workforce, they must continue to be educated and trained. Instructional designers will have to develop instruction and training for these older adults.

During the instructional design process the designer goes through three (3) phases of instructional development: analysis, selecting strategy, and evaluating. During the analysis phase, the designer not only analyses the environment in which the instruction will take place, but also learns as much as he/she can about the learners receiving the instruction. The designer should seek answers to such questions as: where will the training take place, how much time is available for the training, and what kinds of knowledge do the learners already possess. (Smith & Ragan, 1999, pp. 5-6). Because the analysis phase of the instructional design process is so important in analyzing the learner, I wanted to spend the most time looking at this area as it relates to cognitive learning in older adults.

Cognitive learning theories dominate the instructional design practices of today. These theories place much more emphasis on the internal factors of the learner than on the external factors of their environment. “The learner is viewed as constructing meaning from instruction, rather than being a recipient of meaning residing alone within instruction”. (Smith & Ragan, 1999, p. 20). Therefore when considering the instruction of older adults, their cognitive learning abilities must be understood.

Cognitive psychology plays a very important role in the analysis phase of the instructional design process. The analysis phase places much more emphasis on prior learner knowledge and the organization of this knowledge, because the learner plays much more of a constructive role according to cognitive learning theories. Much more information is sought about the learners’ ability to process information, their attitudes, motivation, and interests because these are strong factors influencing their learning. (Smith & Ragan, 1999, p. 22). In understanding these factors, the instructional designer is much better prepared to meet the learning needs of older learners.

Learning Needs of Older Learners

An important step in developing a learning strategy is to conduct a needs assessment. This will determine what is to be learned and what factors that effect cognitive learning of seniors.

In Purdie and Boulton-Lewis’ study of the needs of older adults, they discovered that technical skills and knowledge, health and safety, leisure and entertainment, and life issues, in the order listed, were the main learning needs facing older adults. The most frequently mentioned technical skills were how to use a computer, how to operate an ATM, how to do phone banking, and how to use or program a stereo, VCR, or TV. These older adults also mentioned they would like to know how to use e-mail, a credit card, an answering machine, and a microwave. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, pp. 133-134).

Regarding health and safety, the Purdie and Boulton-Lewis study revealed that this older age group wanted to know how to manage their health problems, such as loosing sight in one eye. They also wanted to know how to obtain information from their doctors regarding particular ailments they had. Sometimes they felt embarrassed because they did not understand what the doctor was telling them about a health problem and therefore did not ask questions. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, pp. 134-135). They wanted to learn more about managing and understanding their own health and health-related matters.

In the area of leisure and entertainment, a variety of learning needs were identified by the older adults in the Purdie and Boulton-Lewis study. They wanted to learn things like how to garden, how to paint, and how to play a piano. Life issues that they need to know included how to keep their financial records and how to deal with the loss of a spouse. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, p.135).

Maintaining an educated and skilled older workforce creates the same kinds of learning needs that younger workers have. Koopman-Boyden and MacDonald maintain that in order for us to maintain the older workforce that we will need in the future, because of the baby boomers, will require us to invest in ensuring that older workers have the same opportunities for education and training that younger workers have. Older workers need to be challenged and given new roles just as the younger workers are.
(Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003.)


Barriers to Cognitive Learning in Older Learners

Because the learning needs of older adults can be identified, it does not necessarily mean these needs will be met or will even be available. Older adults experience many barriers to learning as discovered by Purdie and Boulton-Lewis. These barriers include not only physical problems, but cognitive matters, self matters, and social factors. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, p.136).

Physical problems identified by Purdie and Boulton-Lewis included “reduced mobility, illness, degenerating sight and hearing”. Other examples of physical problems of older adults included not being able to sit for extended periods of time, poor hearing because of meningitis which was a common childhood ailment that was not medically treated as well as it is today, not being able to get on a bus or train without assistance, and arthritic knees that reduce mobility. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, p.136). They also experience safety concerns because many times they live alone and have to take care of themselves because of the passing of a spouse. Also they are not as strong as they once were and feel more vulnerable to violence.

In the Purdie and Boulton-Lewis study, the largest barriers to learning were identified as cognitive and self matters. The older adults identified such barriers as not being able to remember sequential procedures as well, not being able to concentrate for extended periods, and some had learning disabilities as youth that had never been addressed in their lifetime. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, pp.136-137). Research on performance-based behavior like those above show that intellectual capabilities do not decline significantly if at all until very old age. (Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003, p. 33). Barriers regarding the self included references to attitude. Statements were recorded that said learning was “not necessary”, “don’t need to know”, or “not worth the effort”. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, pp.136-137).

Older adults also had less confidence in their learning abilities particularly as they relate to technology. Cost barriers were also present in preventing older adults from acquiring computers and other technology for their personal use. (Purdie & Boulton-Lewis, 2003, p.145).

A study in New Zealand showed that while the majority of employers preferred older workers’ expertise, stability, and loyalty; these same employers acknowledged that they discriminated against the older worker by hiring employees aged 25 to 50 years. Employers openly discriminated because they felt that older workers had age-related illnesses or lacked motivation to learn new things or to change. Research has shown that older workers are not incompetent when it comes to training but they are exposed to insufficient training or training that is poorly designed. (Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003, pp.34-35).

Jennings and Darwin also found that age-based stereotyping plays an important role in how older adults perceive themselves. Older adults tend to see their memory performance and cognitive abilities more negatively than younger adults and discriminatory practices such as stereotyping decrease their confidence in these abilities. (Jennings & Darwin, 2003, p. 72)

These discriminatory social practices present learning barriers in older adults by creating low self-worth and the perception that they are no longer needed or wanted in the work place. Older workers are led to believe that they can no longer learn or contribute because of employer practices such as this. Research on training for older adults has suggested that their perceived incompetence may not be due to age, but to lack of proper training and poor training design. (Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003, pp.34-35).

Suggestions for Overcoming Barriers
to Cognitive Learning in Older Learners

Koopman-Boyden and MacDonald find that age-related stereotypes still remain regarding the work performance of older adults, but that cognitive and physical changes associated with ageing can be modified. Older adults can be assisted in overcoming barriers to cognitive learning by properly designed training programs, flexible training schedules, and employer education and recognition of their learning needs. (Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003, p. 29).

Several studies have placed the level of early life education and ongoing intellectual activity in older age as two principal factors in maintaining a high cognitive performance in older age. Successful ageing has also been attributed to an active social involvement where personal isolation is prevented. A positive attitude also tended to increase the life span of the older adult and several studies found that religion was also a positive factor in the older adult’s life. All of these factors tend to increase the well-being and the cognitive abilities of the adult learner. (Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003, pp. 31-32).

Variations in skill and differences in aptitude should be considered by the instructional designer when considering training for older adults. Designers should realize that older adults do not learn the same way or at the same rate as younger workers, but that this does not mean that they cannot learn. Older workers learn better among their own age group and at their own pace. Instruction for older workers must be flexible and relaxed in order to reduce their anxiety. (Koopman-Boyden & MacDonald, 2003, pp.35-36).


Halpern and Hakel in their article, Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond, discusses how although every college teacher has an in-depth study in their academic area, they have little if no formal training in adult learning, memory, or learning transfer. College teachers learn about adult cognition through practical trial and error rather than through formal training, and use what they know about this subject very little, if at all in the classroom. The science of human cognition is based on a solid foundation and research-based applications that can and should be used in the college classroom and by instructional designers in developing instruction for older adults. Halpern and Hakel reveal in their article that what cognitive training instructors receive is rarely practiced. Most instructors practice instruction as they were instructed. (Halpern & Hakel, 2003, p. 36-37). Thus in order for the learning needs of older adults to be understood, barriers overcome, and successful transfer of learning accomplished; it is vitally important for the instructor as well as the designer to receive more instruction and application on the cognitive learning of older adults.

Research has provided evidence that mental decline is not a consequence of aging. There is hope that continued learning prevents or delays mental decline. Results also show significant improvement in memory and confidence in one’s mental abilities through personal physical and mental fitness. “Learning is the best medicine after all. The greater challenge is to position education as an essential life practice for quality of life across the lifespan”. (Cusack, Thompson, & Rogers, 2003, p. 395-402).

After reviewing this paper, maybe you have a clearer understanding of why it is a must that instructional designers consider the learning needs of older adults. The designers need to not only understand the learning needs, but also the barriers to learning and how to overcome theses barriers. For after all, with the approaching retirement of so many older adults from the workforce, the continuation of the older worker in the workforce is our future and their learning needs have to become important to all of us.


Committee for Economic Development, Research and Policy Committee (1999). New opportunities for older workers: a statement on national policy. New York: Rowe Design Group.

Cusack, S. A., Thompson, W. J. A., & Rogers, M. E. (2003, May). Mental fitness for life: assessing the impact of an 8-week mental fitness program on healthy aging. Educational Gerontology, 29(5), 393-404.

Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (2003, July/Aug.). Applying the science of learning to the university and beyond. Change, 35(4), 36-42.

Jennings, J. M., & Darwin, A. L. (2003, Jan.). Efficacy beliefs, everyday behavior, and memory performance among older elderly adults. Educational Gerontology, 29(1), 71-92.

Koopman-Boyden, P. G., & MacDonald, L. (2003, May). Ageing, work performance, and managing ageing academics. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 25(1), 29-41.

Purdie, N., & Boulton-Lewis, G. (2003, Feb.). The learning needs of older adults. Educational Gerontology, 29(2), 129-149.

Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (1999). Instructional Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

About the Author

George Pate earned his B.S. from Mississippi State University in Interdisciplinary Studies. His major areas of concentration were in Office Systems Technology and Business Management. George has 14 years of business level experience in software instruction and support. He began working on his M.S. in Instructional Technology at Mississippi State University in the Fall of 2003, during which he authored the article, Instructional Design – Considering the Cognitive Learning Needs of Older Adults. He is pursuing a lifelong dream of teaching and researching on the college level by working toward his Ph.D. in Instructional Technology at Mississippi State University. His research interests include race, gender, and age issues in instructional technology, online discussion, and collaborative learning.

Contact: George Pate, GIS Administrator, 4-County Electric Power Assn.
PO Box 351, Columbus, MS 39703. Phone: 662-245-0738   email:

Jianxia Du earned her B.A. from Southwest Normal University in China where she later served as Assistant Professor. Prior to this, she taught math and science for about 15 years at a prestigious high school, where she earned numerous teaching and service awards. She entered graduate school at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and earned a M.A. in Educational Policy and Technology and a Ph.D. in Educational Technology. She has enjoyed her role as assistant professor at Mississippi State University for the past several years in the Department of Instructional Systems, Leadership, and Workforce Development. Her research interests include race and gender issues in instructional technology, online discussion, and collaborative learning.

Byron Havard earned his B.S. at Auburn University. His interest in education began very early growing up in a family of educators. While, pursuing his interest in instructional design he earned his M.S. in Instructional Design and Development from the University of South Alabama. Continuing his interest he earned his Ph.D. in Instructional Technology from Georgia State University. Byron has roughly nine years of corporate experience in instructional design, needs assessment, and evaluation. Several years ago Byron began serving as assistant professor in instructional systems at Mississippi State University. His research interests include collaborative learning, online discussion, race and gender issues in instructional technology, and instructional strategies.

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