July 20, 2024


Science It Works

How to Engage Adult Learners – Six Steps to Adult Learning Success

How to Engage Adult Learners – Six Steps to Adult Learning Success

The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tse, provides a brief but eloquent prescription for adult learning:

Tell me, I may listen.

Teach me, I may remember.

Involve me, I will do it.

If we want adults to feel involved so that learning will occur, there are six training design steps that will achieve the necessary level of involvement and set them up for success:

1. Treat them with respect.

Many adults feel vulnerable in a classroom, due to: past unsuccessful learning experiences, concern about appearing foolish in front of others, or discomfort with the unfamiliar role of student.

§ Validate and address their concerns.

§ Value their knowledge and experience.

§ Dignify all learning styles.

§ Use a variety of learning activities and training aids to meet the needs of different learning styles.

Implementation Tips: Ask them questions rather than telling them answers they may already have. Also keep in mind that different learning styles respond better to different learning activities. For example, print learners learn best by reading or writing, while interactive learners learn best through discussion.

2. Make the content meaningful.

Adults tend to learn what they consider of benefit and importance.

§ Tailor the content to meet their needs.

§ Help them discover how the content will benefit them.

§ Teach practical, immediately applicable skills.

Implementation Tips: Build in a benefits question or activity early in the lesson that enables them to consider and articulate why the learning is important to them. This will increase the likelihood of their “buy-in” to the training. Keep the content and learning activities focused on real life application rather than theory.

3. Build on what they already know.

Adult learning and retention is increased when new ideas are grounded on information or skills they already possess.

§ Draw on their previous learning and experience.

§ Explain concepts with familiar examples.

§ Facilitate positive transfer and disconnect negative transfer.

Implementation Tips: Draw on any previous learning or experience that will provide a firm foundation for the new learning (positive transfer). For example, when teaching a new policy, reminding them that they received strong support during a previous policy change will make them more receptive now. However, if their previous experience with policy changes was negative (negative transfer), then show how this new change will be handled differently and more constructively.

4. Follow the building blocks of learning.

Most adults feel more comfortable in a learning situation when they have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills.

§ Teach to the desired level of learning.

§ Use learning activities appropriate for the learning levels.

§ Always check for understanding.

Implementation Tips: Bloom’s Taxonomy identifies six progressive learning levels: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation and creation. Certain learning activities are more appropriate at different learning levels. For example, lecture only achieves knowledge. In order to check for comprehension, there are a number of learning activities that can be used, including: discussion, a questionnaire, pop ups, or a case study, etc.

5. Make it easy to learn.

The adult brain is better at absorbing smaller amounts of information at one time.

§ Break complex concepts and skills into smaller segments.

§ Move from simple to complex.

§ Teach only a few things at a time during a learning segment.

Implementation Tips: Brain studies show that adults can learn 4-5 familiar and meaningful items at a time, but only 2-3 new items at a time if they are completely unfamiliar and meaningless. Given this fact, when teaching ten steps in a procedure, teach only 2-3 or 4-5 steps at a time.

6. Let them apply what they’ve learned.

Once adults have successfully used new skills in the classroom, they are more likely to use them outside the classroom.

§ Build their confidence and competence through appropriate practice.

§ Have them apply new skills to solve job-related problems.

§ Give them an opportunity to plan how they will implement their new learning.

Implementation Tips: Begin practice with a new skill by using a simulation and directed large group discussion facilitated by the trainer. Then have them practice the new skill in a different simulation within a small group, with assistance by the trainer when needed. Finally, have them independently practice applying the new skill to their own job-related problem. This should help them feel more confident about their competence, and thereby increase the likelihood that they will continue to use the new skill when they return to their jobs.

These six simple but powerful training design steps will ensure that adult learners will be engaged and involved in the learning process. Their involvement will increase the probability that real learning will occur and will be applied once the workshop is over.