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How (quick) do adults learn?


A long time ago I heard about some research that showed that as adults we need to hear things 7 times (as compared to kids who are like sponges and take everything in "immediately"). I often refer to it during training but have never come across the research itself and was hoping to read up about it. Can anyone help? (I've searched the internet but cannot find anything that confirms this theory.)


Karen Roem
Karen Roem

12 Responses

  1. Reinforcement not Repetition is Key

    I am not familiar with the specific research that you describe, but would like to sound a note of caution.

    I don’t believe there is anything magic about the repeating things seven times. Quite the reverse in fact. Simple repetition is generally seen to be an ineffective strategy for addressing adult learners since any stimulus that repeats continuously is regarded as uninteresting and filtered out.

    Adult learners generally require reinforcement not repetition.

    By reinforcement I mean active engagement with facts, skills, and attitudes in diverse, and interesting ways until they are learned.

    As the father of two boys (7 and 4) I could’n’t help but chortle at the idea that children take everything in “immediately”. If so, why do I have to repeat the simplest instruction what seems like seven times…


  2. Personal Bugbear – Repetition Is Good
    OK, It’s boring – agreed repeating ad infinitum is dull but and it’s a big but, Repetition (otherwise known as learning by rote) is the most successful tool for learning facts.

    Since our schools stopped using this method our children’s performances have deteriorated in comparison to other developed nations.

    Korea, Japan – places with high acheivement in academia despite class sizes 2 or 3 times bigger than our own “overcrowded” classrooms succeed because in part they use rote learning.

    Reinforcement is great for behavioural learning but if you want to learn facts the hard but dull slog is always more rewarding than the more interesting but less useful touchy feely methods.

    7 times though? Not heard that before, it sounds like a corruption of the 7 items that you can store in short term memory (as a maximum) that’s become confused with other behavioural learning patterns.

  3. Repetition
    Karen did not mention repeat learner performance in her original posting. She simply mentioned the hypothesis that adults needed to hear information multiple times in order to learn effectively.

    In response I pointed out that merely listening to the same repetitive stimulus multiple times is unlikely to be a very effective learning strategy for adults.

    I agree that repetitive learner performance has a key part to play in learning many types of knowledge and skills (e.g. learning lines in a play or field stripping a rifle). The act of repetitive performance obviously involves genuine learner engagement and variety is constantly provided by the errors and resulting performance improvements generated along the way.

    Finally, like so many other things learning styles are embedded in culture, so I would caution against simply extrapolating educational best practice from places like Korea and Japan.


  4. Recall is the key
    If, when given the appropriate stimulus, someone can recall something (knowledge, skill, feeling/attitude), they can be said to have learnt.

    The learning can be as simple as answering a question, carrying out actions following a command or identifying what key to use when presented with a locked door.

    The underlying task of a trainer is to get the participants to recall information or actions when they are presented with a situation and the trainer is not there. Unfortunately there are a great number of trainers (and most managers) who simply present information and do not have the participants engage with it at all. Hence no or very little recall.

    Children are often taught simple and necessary information and skills that are of interest to them at the time. They have both the need and the motivation to learn. They are usually engaged in immediate application of the skill (e.g. pushing the correct button on the TV remote to turn it on, pushing the pedestrian crossing button, etc.), or engage in follow up questions (e.g. Why?). This immediate recall and repitition by the learner is the critical factor.

    Adults are often presented with information. Without engagement or application there is very little learning. The will go back to thinking the way they were thinking or doing things the way they had always done them. The solution often used to deal with the lack of learning is to tell the staff again, and again, and …

    [Could it be that continuing to do the same thing with the expectation of a different result really is a definition of insanity?]

    As trainers we need to engage our learners in recall activities where they can utilise and apply the learning.

    Hence, we tell children once and have them engage with their learning. Do the same with adults.

    I think you’ll find, like I do, very little difference in their ability to learn.

    (Now, if we were to talk about adults unlearning what is out of date or doesn’t work, …)


  5. Learning effectively
    Can I suggest you read Tony Buzan and Alistair Smith and their work on multiple intelligences and accelerated learning. Get hold of a couple of their basci texts that are written for an education audience. That way you’ll not only get some of the answers that you may be looking for, but will also pick up lots of tips for helping people to learn. The others are right, look at some of the basic principles around effective, meaninful teaching methods – there are lots more things going on in schools now than people think.

  6. 7 times
    I have comes across repeating a message 7 times in marketing theory.

    This is generally a rule used to ensure the name of the product, brand or company is filtered through all the other noise.

    Additionally, repetition is used to gain brand position, and is especially effective through the medium of TV.

    Maybe marketing communication thoery does have a part to play in learning??

  7. The worng question?

    I couldn’t help but wonder if you took the word “quick” out of your question whether you might get a whole new perspective on the issues that interest you. It is not the pace of learning that is the issue for me at least. I wish we would slow down things to provide time for reflection. Adults will learn effectivly given that time and the conditions and exercise to help. They will also learn well when provided with learning tasks that best mirror real-life tasks (authentic learning. For me, It is not the pace that matters but those of us who have the responsibility for designing learning opportunities for otehrs need to ensure we engage them with opportunities to learn to learn.

  8. it’s about practice
    I have heard 6 times, but O think the key is allowing people to practice a skill. Application of the learning is one of the most critical success criteria for learning

  9. there probably isn’t any research
    Hi Karen,
    I think Nik’s right that this is a misappropriation of Millar’s work (G.A. Millar. The magic number seven, plus or minus two: Some constraints on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, (63):81–87, 1956).

    It may be a handy heuristic in advertsing, but when you relate it to general learning, it would only apply to declarative memory anyhow. Episodic memory [memory of an event] usually works after just a single exposure.


  10. Accelerated learning techniques are quicker than repetition – an
    Although repetition can be helpful in learning, it can also be boring and off-putting as a principle applied to training. The quickest and most effective way to ensure that people can learn effectively and then recall their learning is to engage their minds on as many fronts as possible. To do this, it is useful to engage as many senses as possible, include elements of surprise and fun, to get the learners actively engaged. With adults, it is important to link the learning to their needs, so they will be motivated. It is also important to understand how different people learn and take in information, and have a mix of activities that address the different styles(visual-auditory-kinaesthetic, from NLP, as well as Activist, ragmatist, Theorist and Reflector, from Honey and Mumford). Colin Rose’s book “Accelerated Learning” (available from the Training Shop – explains the basis of accelerated learning and gives references to research that has shown how very fast people can learn when taught using these techniques rather using traditional methods.

    I have been on several of the Training Shop’s course, where they teach a range of techniques and theories (including Multiple Intelligences, referred to by another contributer). I now include these on all my courses, to great effect. I use scented pens for smell (and sometimes aromatherapy oils); use coloured sweets to divide people into groups (and have more available to munch); get people moving around; provide things for people to handle (e.g., squeezy toys and balls, etc.); and use lots of colour and pictures. And all my exercises have a practical purpose that I can point out to delegates (our service is weighted towards pragmatists!).

  11. By making mistakes and generalizing them
    karen, if you allow me to talk in a different direction other than a 7 times-theory, we believe that adults learn by making mistakes and by generalizing them in the overall context. sorry if i sound a little business-like – but then that’s what i do – you could check more about it by reading roger shanks learning by doing approach. or for quick access check out

  12. Thanks!
    Just wanted to say thank you for the various answers. As suggested it was probably a “corruption” of Millar’s “The magic number seven, plus or minus two” but I was glad to see so many passionate replies.


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