serious senior man using laptop while sitting at table with books

The hardest hour in teaching a senior how to use computers

As a computer trainer, I have become adept in teaching a senior how to use computers. While some people think that seniors are really hard to train to use computers. It’s the first hour that is the worst. This is where my students try to convince me that they are a special case and can not ever learn how to use a computer…. Every single one … for the last 20 years.

Mental and cognitive issues aside I have never really run into anyone who can not learn how to use a smartphone or a computer.

DEDICATED to thinking they are stupid even when they are brilliant

Once again I’m going to say this over and over again but seniors are not stupid. In fact, it’s my job to remind them they are brilliant. However every senior will fight to the death to prove to everyone they can not learn. This is why the first hour is so hard because they have convinced themselves this is true.

While I am not sure why they are so dedicated to this false concept they do seem to enjoy it.

So before we talk about how to get past this we need to talk about WHY they are like this in the first place.

Lazy learners

This sounds worse than it is. Lazy learners are people who did not want to learn something when they were younger. Hell, I was that way too. I did not start trying to learn how to speak Japanese until I was 30 and I am still working on it. This most of the time covers people who had a job where computers were not required. They had no use for computers and did not want to learn it then and surely don’t want to learn it now. But now they have to learn.

Lazy learners are those who have better things to do. Maybe they are experts in other areas. In any case, they don’t really have an interest in computers and are resentful that they have to learn now.


These are the people who have heard horrible stories about the internet. They think that everything online is trying to hack them. They fear they are going to break their computer. They assume that just touching the computer may cause total disaster.

To give you an idea of how fearful some people can be I sometimes worry that a few of my students may have panic attacks or heart attacks during my classes. (By the way, My CPR is current).

They want to be experts instantly or not touch it at all

This is something that I noted with my kids. They either want to be the expert in something right away or they want nothing to do with it. This could be the fear of failure or not wanting to look stupid. Most people do not understand that learning anything takes time and a lot of mistakes.

Would rather say they are stupid than look stupid

This is another one of those things where the fear of looking stupid is so strong they would rather just tell people they are and avoid the whole situation entirely. While this seems counterproductive I do see it a lot. The fear of failure is really strong for some people.

HISTORY of bad teachers

There is a special skill to teaching computers to seniors. and let me tell you this it is not something that a family member or a high school teacher can do easily as it is an entirely different process.

TAFE, Uni, and High School are designed to process as many people as possible through a one-size-fits-all all-study guide. Someone falls behind and too bad sorry. Trying to force memorization is not going to help. And most teachers/family members/ kids etc move way too fast for anyone to remember anyway,

Everyone does it for them

If your phone stops working,, hand it to your son or daughter. Repeat everything if there is an issue. While tis does solve the problem it starts building a much bigger problem. You never learn how to solve the problem yourself.

If you want to teach a senior how to use a computer you should never touch the computer. Make them do it

Screen blindness

This is where most seniors get so stressed out by using a computer they forget how to read English. I have seen cases of this so bad that someone who had been practicing Law for 40 years could not even recognize a contract on their screen and swore up and down they could not read. (Exactly how stressed do you have to be to drop 40 years of reading contracts every day in the bin? …… Really stressed)

So how do we get past the first hour?

When teaching a senior the first thing we need to do is understand all the above issues with learning computers. We listen to the seniors and get an idea of their story. Find out why they have not learned how to use a computer in the past and why they want to learn now.

Let them know they can’t break it

Most people do not know this but it is really hard to break a computer these days by only pushing buttons. While it can be done it normally requires deliberate action on the part of the computer user. The problem is the seniors do not know this. So We have created an environment where the student can not harm the computer at all.

I have even set up a challenge that if anyone can break one of my training computers (No Physical damage) in five minutes they get a prize. While I am sure nobody will ever claim the prize. What this dose is force them to think about what it would actually take to break a computer. Most seniors just assume the computer will break. They have no idea how. Most can’t even tell you what would happen if they pressed the wrong button. They just assume the world will end.

By showing that is actually hard to break computers it removed the biggest block in their brain .. FEAR

serious senior man using laptop while sitting at table with books, Teaching a senior how to use a computer
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

We change how we speak

I’m working with one of our junior techs on how to talk about computers to seniors. One of the key things is that we never say any word, that can not be found in a 115-year-old dictionary. The moment a trainer says a word they do not understand the student will panic and miss the rest of the topic as their brain shuts down and focuses on the wrong problem.

By using terms they understand it removes some of the fear when teaching a senior how to use a computer.

We also use metaphors and analogies to explain complex topics. We do this because an analogy avoids jargon and tech speak while giving a general idea of the concept.

We celebrate our mistakes

Nobody wants to make mistakes and that is our best teacher. So when we celebrate mistakes we are showing that it is ok to make them. We are also removing any shame in mistakes. Teaching a senior is about making mistakes the key tool to learning.

One of the biggest problems with computer trainers is they tend to try to show all the options a computer can have. Almost like they are trying to sell them one. However, this can be very daunting. So when teaching a senior what I do is try to keep the topic on areas that they will actually use on the computer.

Small bite-size pieces

Baby Steps.. when teaching a senior we only work a little bit at a time. This is because it is easy to get overwhelmed with too much information. This is important when someone is fascinated by the topic. Even more so when they are not exactly thrilled to be in a class about a topic that stresses them out.

No more than an hour

The average Adult attention span is 45 minutes. Being that the first 15 minutes is almost always trying to convince them they can learn computers the rest of the time is about perfect to give them some knowledge on a topic before we reach a full hour.

Working beyond an hour can only be done in rare occasions.

No Tests or Quizzes

I don’t care who you are a test or quiz will always stress you out even when you are told it is just to get an idea where they are. While this seems counterproductive to most teachers it is honestly a good policy.

While it is true that a test or a quiz can be used to get a good idea about where a student is … it does not create a good learning environment After all we are about learning not proving that we have processed so many people through the school.


This is a big key. When trying to learn something from a family member it is very common to lose patience with them. This is the reason why our family members make shitty teachers. They could even be trainers in their job and then suck at teaching when they get home to the family. For example, I can not teach my family. 94-year-old man how to use email .. no problem. Teach my wife how to use a feature on her iPhone … Never going to happen. This is not because she can’t learn but our relationship gets in the way of teaching/learning. That said she does learn a lot just by being in the same room with me.(We just can’t actually be doing a lesson)

That said patience is important because we may have to repeat the process over a few times before it sticks in the student’s brain. This is normal and expected The trainer needs to keep that in mind.

When teaching a senior how to use a computer we need to continuously remind them that they are brilliant.

More from MacMason