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The principles for adult learning, summarized below, should help you establish the right learning climate and/or develop or buy good courses for your employees.

Adults As Learners

Effective instruction involves understanding how adults learn best. Compared to children and teens, adults have special needs and requirements as learners. The field of adult learning was pioneered by Malcom Knowles. He identified the following characteristics of adult learners: 

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct themselves. Instructors must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them. Specifically, they must get participants' perspectives about what topics to cover and let them work on projects that reflect their interests. They should allow the participants to assume responsibility for presentations and group leadership. Instructors should act as facilitators, guiding participants to their own knowledge rather than supplying them with facts. Finally, they must show participants how the class will help them reach their goals (e.g., via a personal goals sheet).
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. To connect learning to this knowledge/experience base, instructors should draw out participants' experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic. They must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize the value of experience in learning.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. Upon enrolling in a course, they usually know what goal they want to attain. They, therefore, appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show participants how this class will help them attain their goals. Goals and course objectives should be discussed early in the course.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins. Theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. Relevancy can be addressed by having participants choose projects that reflect their own interests.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work. Instructors must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job.

As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Instructors must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in class.

Motivating the Adult Learner

Another aspect of adult learning is motivation. At least six factors serve as sources of motivation for adult learning: 

  • Social relationships: to make new friends, to meet a need for associations and friendships.
  • External expectations: to comply with instructions from someone else; to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority.
  • Social welfare: to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work.
  • Personal advancement: to achieve higher status in a job, secure professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors.
  • Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom, provide a break in the routine of home or work, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life.

Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge for its own sake, and to satisfy an inquiring mind.

Barriers and Motivation

Adults have many responsibilities that they must balance against the demands of learning. These responsibilities may create barriers against participating in learning for adults. 

Motivation factors can also be a barrier. What motivates adult learners? Typical motivations include a requirement for competence or licensing, an expected (or realized) promotion, job enrichment, a need to maintain old skills or learn new ones, a need to adapt to job changes, or the need to learn in order to comply with company directives. 

The best way to motivate adult learners is simply to enhance their reasons for enrolling and decrease the barriers. Instructors should understand why their students are enrolled (the motivators); they have to discover what is keeping them from learning. Then the instructors must plan their motivating strategies. A successful strategy includes showing adult learners the relationship between training and an expected promotion

Learning Tips for Effective Instructors

Learning occurs within each individual as a continual process throughout life. People learn at different speeds, so it is natural for them to be anxious or nervous when faced with a learning situation. Positive reinforcement by the instructor can enhance learning, as can proper timing of the instruction.

Learning results from stimulation of the senses. In some people, one sense is used more than others to learn or recall information. Instructors should present materials that stimulate as many senses as possible in order to increase their chances of teaching success. 

There are four critical elements of learning that must be addressed to ensure that participants learn. These elements are:

  1. Motivation
  2. Reinforcement
  3. Retention
  4. Transference

Motivation. If the participant does not recognize the need for the information (or has been offended or intimidated), all of the instructor's effort to assist the participant to learn will be in vain. The instructor must establish rapport with participants and prepare them for learning; this provides motivation. Instructors can motivate students via several means: 

  • Set a feeling or tone for the lesson. Instructors should try to establish a friendly, open atmosphere that shows the participants they will help them learn.
  • Set an appropriate level of concern. The level of tension must be adjusted to meet the level of importance of the objective. If the material has a high level of importance, a higher level of tension/stress should be established in the class. However, people learn best under low to moderate stress; if the stress is too high, it becomes a barrier to learning.
  • Set an appropriate level of difficulty. The degree of difficulty should be set high enough to challenge participants but not so high that they become frustrated by information overload. The instruction should predict and reward participation, culminating in success.

Participants need specific knowledge about their learning results. Feedback must be specific, not general. Participants must also see a reward for learning. A reward can be simply a demonstration of benefits to be realized from learning the material. Finally, the participant must be interested in the subject. Adults must see the benefit of learning in order to motivate themselves to learn the subject. 

Reinforcement. Reinforcement is a very necessary part of the teaching/learning process; through it, instructors encourage correct modes of behavior and performance. 

  • Positive reinforcement is normally used by instructors who are teaching participants new skills. As the name implies, positive reinforcement is "good" and reinforces "good" (or positive) behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement is normally used by instructors teaching a new skill or new information. It is useful in trying to change modes of behavior. The result of negative reinforcement is extinction -- that is, the instructor uses negative reinforcement until the "bad" behavior disappears, or it becomes extinct.

When instructors are trying to change behaviors (old practices), they should apply both positive and negative reinforcement. 

Reinforcement should be part of the teaching-learning process to ensure correct behavior. Instructors need to use it on a frequent basis early in the process to help the students retain what they have learned. Then, they should use reinforcement only to maintain consistent, positive behavior. 

Retention. Instructors should assist the learner in retaining the information. Participants must see a purpose for the information as well as understand and be able to interpret and apply it. This understanding includes their ability to assign the correct degree of importance to the material. If the participants did not learn the material well initially, they will not retain it well either. 

Retention is directly affected by the amount of practice during the learning. Instructors should emphasize retention and application. After the students demonstrate correct (desired) performance, they should be urged to practice to maintain the desired performance. Distributed practice is similar in effect to intermittent reinforcement. 

Transference. Transfer of learning is the result of training -- it is the ability to use the information taught in the course but in a new setting. As with reinforcement, there are two types of transfer: positive and negative.

  • Positive transference, like positive reinforcement, occurs when the participants use the behavior taught in the course.
  • Negative transference, again like negative reinforcement, occurs when the participants do not do what they are told not to do. This results in a positive (desired) outcome.

Transference is most likely to occur in the following situations: 

  • Association -- participants can associate the new information with something that they already know.
  • Similarity -- the information is similar to material that participants already know; that is, it revisits a logical framework or pattern.
  • Degree of original learning -- participant's degree of original learning was high.
  • Critical attribute element -- the information learned contains elements that are extremely beneficial (critical) on the job.

Focus on adult learning theory carries the potential for greater success and requires a greater responsibility on the part of the teacher. Learners come to the course with precisely defined expectations. If they can be shown that the course benefits them pragmatically, they will perform better, and the benefits will be longer lasting. v





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