We’ve been in the business of training adults for over twenty-five years and one thing we know, adults learn differently than children. As more and more organizations recognize the necessity of training their workforces on a continual basis, the challenge of how to train adults needs to be addressed.
The science of adult learning, first identified by Malcolm Knowles (considered the father of Adult Learning Theory), is called andragogy. Knowles recognized that there are specific characteristics of an adult learner that must be acknowledged. Andragogy suggests that adults are motivated to learn when:
a) They can see the relevance and need for the training in their own lives. Therefore, training that occurs too far from a direct application on the job is less relevant to the learner. For example, an orientation training program that covers materials that won’t be used for months has little meaning for the participant.
b) Adults want to have some control over their own learning experience. The more adults can participate in the identification, pace, and application of the learning the better. When participants are simply told to “show up and learn,” the success of the training is compromised. Polling participants about what they want or need to learn to be competent on their jobs is a vital step to gaining learner buy-in.
c) Participants have a vast store of knowledge and experience that needs to be incorporated and applied to the current learning situation. The notion that the trainer is the smartest person in the room is a fallacy. Trainers must shift their role to “facilitators of information,” drawing from the experience in the room coupled with providing access to other sources of information beyond themselves. The trainer’s focus shifts to the role of coach, guide, and motivator.
d) Adults regard growth in self-understanding equally as important as growth in learning. Training sessions that provide insights into people’s personality, conflict resolution style, change management style, or teambuilding inclination are interesting to adults because of the insights they gain about themselves.
e) Participants prefer taking an active part in the learning process. That’s one reason why online e-learning has certain limitations due to a format that doesn’t lend itself to full engagement. We typically include simulations in trainings, so participants can learn a skill and then practice it right away. For those who prefer abstract conceptualization and reflective observation as their dominant styles, the in-training simulation provides them with an opportunity to observe the training tools in action. One thing is clear: the practice of lecturing to people in a one-way monologue doesn’t work for the adult learner.
f) Adults prefer a cooperative climate in the training environment that encourages risk-taking and experimentation. Adult learners don’t respond well to testing situations or occasions when they are put on the spot and embarrassed in front of others. Using the participant’s name and providing encouraging feedback are key to establishing an effective learning climate. I have found that when you anticipate the need to give constructive (or more critical) feedback, it’s important to state it upfront and ask for permission to share it with the participant before doing so.
g) Adults have a finite capacity for information, and once that limit is reached, they can’t absorb more information. I once had a participant say to me, “Could you stop pouring it in around 2:30 Deb, because my brain is saturated by then.” He was a PhD research scientist, so imagine how the rest of the world thinks. The dilemma for every trainer is the battle between providing all the information people might need vs. the most important information they will need.
Many organizations today have a significant number of in-house trainers who teach on-the-job skills and continuous improvement processes. While many may understand the job or the concepts, they may not be familiar with adult learning concepts. The best thing a trainer can do is to use the list above when building training materials, or next best – watch for “eyes glazing over” and then check the list above to see what’s missing in the environment.
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