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6 Keys to successful adult learning

Posted Jul 07 2009 5:57pm
One of my employees popped into my office this morning with a quick question. I was in the middle of a thought for an article and was typing like a banshee on crack (sorry – a figure of speech from my teenage daughters’ vocabulary).

His question got sidetracked as he shared how his 10 year old son asked him to teach him to type over the summer, and how valuable he thought this learning would be for him. He went on to talk about his son’s summer learning assignments from school, and how they were much less useful than learning to type.

It got me thinking about how we learn as adults – and how we, as trainers, need to focus our instruction in a way that truly suits adult learners. I turned to my best friend, Google, and did a quick search. Here are some of the keys I found that are important in adult learning
  1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They don’t want assignments and homework; they do want goals and real application for learning. One of my favorite inservice approaches that my own managers used was a self-directed learning activity. Employees were given a quiz over all the key points of the training – without any lecture or instruction. They were given 20 minutes to collaborate with each other, in any way they choose, to come up with their own answers. Ideally, they would be given access to books, manuals and the internet, too. At the end of the time, each group shared one answer with the entire group. The instructor, really a facilitator, was able to draw ideas, concepts and answers out of the entire group and offer feedback and further discussion. Each individual actively searched for information that he or she needed to complete the task. It was fun, active and successful.

  2. Adults need to connect learning to their life experience. When we’re kids we have little life experience. We need to learn how to successfully gain that experience. As adults, we’ve often got more experience than the trainer. Much of that life experience comes off the job, too, in personal and family relationships. As a trainer, ask your team members to think about what experiences they’ve had in specific areas, and what those experiences taught them. Relating new information to past experiences is a great way to give that new information context and meaning.

  3. Adults are goal oriented. Complete an assignment; get certified; meet compliance. What’s the goal? Make it clear, and then make the process to meet that goal very simple to follow. The learning itself doesn’t need to be simplified; just the goal and process to achieve it.

  4. Adults need to understand the reason for learning. This is a little like the point above, but it goes farther. My employee who stopped in my office to talk about his son’s summer homework expressed complete disbelief in the one task assigned of practicing cursive penmanship. “No one uses cursive writing anymore,” was David’s point. His son, however, will probably simply do the assignment. Training adults means making sure that the materials you use, for example, are relevant to their needs. I’ve seen facilities use training videos clearly intended for acute care hospitals. I’ve watched while the participants viewing the videos whispered and squirmed. The training had little relevance to their needs and environment – it was not an affective training tool.

  5. Adults prefer practical information. Many adult learners are less interested in abstract knowledge than in knowledge that has clear practical application in their lives. Many of us still love those odd little facts that have no apparent practical application, until you have the opportunity to share them at a cocktail party (“did you know that…!” In general, keep learning practical, or make it quirky-fun.

  6. Adults need to be respected as learners. One of the first things that will turn a group of employees off is a condescending guest speaker. If it’s a mandatory inservice, they’ll stay in the room, but you’ll see their attention start wandering immediately. If they’re free to walk out, some will. Adult learners need to be treated like adults, but more than that, they need their life experience to be noted and respected.
Understanding the way adults learn best will help us not only in our training functions but also in all management and team-building functions. Next week we’ll look at ways to motivate the adult learner.
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