Portrait of the Modern Learner: Trends You Need to Know

Melissa Yeo

Is your company full of Modern Learners?

If you’re thinking “Nope, a sizable proportion of my employees are old”, then perhaps you need to think again.

‘Modern’ has nothing to do with age, and is not just another word for ‘young’. Rather, Modern Learning is a way of learning that has evolved from “the ubiquity of technology, accelerated pace of work, and our consumer experiences” (Kieran King, Skillsoft Global Customer Insight Vice President).

The question arises – Does your company’s learning strategy really meet the needs of the modern learner? They are hungry to learn, but are also easily distracted, impatient and overwhelmed.

Read on to find out what you need to know about today’s astute professionals – this will help you ensure that your company’s learning strategy appeases them.

Why should I bother understanding the Modern Learner?

Having the opportunity to learn is reason numero uno in motivating people to join organizations! Unfortunately, it’s also one of the biggest causes behind why people leave. Hence, it is worrying that only 15% of people surveyed mentioned that they had access to learning opportunities that were related to their job.

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”

- Jack Welsh, former CEO of General Electric

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure your employees are part of that 15%. Firstly, you’ll need to get up to speed on the key attributes of the modern learner. That being said, understand that this is only the beginning of your discovery. Your employees will have their own unique set of needs and preferences that your learning and development team will have to discover and cater for.

5 defining traits of the Modern Learner

1. They are impatient

Modern learners want information at the speed of a click, AND the content has to be personalized, relevant and of good quality. Research has shown that due to the rich array of learning resources available online, instructional designers only have between 5 to 10 seconds to grab their learners’ attention before they click away. That’s shorter than it took you to read this!

“What does this mean for my company’s learning and development strategy?” I hear you asking. It means embracing microlearning as the antidote. It battles impatience by championing intuitively accessible, visually attractive, and personalized learning content in the form of bite-sized nuggets of learning or information.

2. They are easily distracted

Imagine this, you have 5 emails to send out, a report due by day’s end, a meeting in 10 minutes, Slack messages to read and potentially follow up on, and your colleagues keep asking you questions. Oh and, your whatsapp and social media notifications just reached the triple digits… Sounds like a crazy day?

Welcome to the life of a Modern Learner. With so much information competing for their attention, it can be difficult to focus. As a result, many modern learners have shorter attention spans. Consequently, your employees’ ability to filter out distractions and focus on an in-depth learning course becomes increasingly smaller.

Clearly, this suggests that it’s time to put those long drawn out trainings to bed. Has your company begun exploring a microlearning approach to meeting the needs of your impatient and easily distracted employees?

3. They are thirsty for knowledge

Whether it’s machine related, system based, people related or simple hacks/tips, there is an insistent mind, hungry to learn, bolstered by an empowered attitude, deeply ingrained in the Modern Learner. Case in point, 94% of employees surveyed report that they would remain with a company if they believed that it intentionally invested in their professional development.

This is awesome news for businesses, especially since research from Brand Learning shows that learning is critical for business growth, as employee engagement and performance is highly correlated to it. What steps are you taking to provide your employees with access to relevant learning material that is available in their moment of need? We hear mobile microlearning is the way forward, are you on the same page?

First Learn, then remove the “L”.

4. They learn when and where it suits them

Deloitte’s research reveals that, on average, only 1% of the working week is spent on training! To put that into perspective, that’s a paltry 24 minutes, given a 40 hour work week.

Unsurprisingly, research into learning behavior by Towards Maturity found that there’s no set time or place for learning. As Jennifer Hofman writes, “The modern classroom is not defined as a place. Rather it is an experience. And it’s not just one experience but an infinite number of them.”

learn as needed

Technology has granted employees the ability to access information 24/7, and smartphones have become their trusty sidekicks. Mobile traffic has also increased by 1,120% since 2013, providing the modern learner with the choice to learn anytime and anywhere. Has your business explored how mobile learning can become an integral part of it’s learning and development strategy?

5. They are social learners who are always connected

Modern learners are sustained by everything digital, from apps, to tools, to social networks. In fact, studies show that social media increases the level of hormones associated with enjoyment and satisfaction by as much as 13%.

Through the process of sharing and receiving shared ideas and feedback from the community, modern learners grow their depth and understanding of their areas of interest. 73% of modern learners say that they process information more thoroughly when they share it. 85% say reading other people’s responses provides them with an array of perspectives which helps them better understand information and events.

Why does this matter? The modern learning environment is one that understands the importance of technology and social networking in developing talent. Mobile microlearning encourages professionals to embed learning into their daily routine, and to take charge of their learning experience – has your company begun putting structures in place for such an experience?

Wrapping Up

Understanding the modern learner empowers you to design meaningful learning experiences for your employees. When you have a clear vision of their needs and preferences, you are better set up to support them. That said, it is critical to remember that a learning experience is not just about the content and the interactions, also about attracting learners to begin learning, building structures and processes to keep people motivated and engaged, and to keep interactions and discussion alive and relevant… That’s the challenge that lies ahead.

If you are looking for ways to refine your learning and development strategy to better address the Modern Learner, look no further. At Gnowbe, we are more than ready to help you create training programs and learning experiences that are well placed to nurture a continuous learning culture in your company. You may reach out to us here.


Bersin by Deloitte. Meet the Modern Learner. Deloitte Development, 2014.
Elucidat – Profile of a Modern Learner in 2018 Infographic
Gnowbe for Business – Redefining the Digital
Hofman, Jennifer. Engaging Modern Learners: When to Push and When to Pull. InSync Training, 2016.

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