There are numerous approaches and theories on how adults take in and process information. While most of these theories have been around for a very long time, these same models still hold true today. As training professionals, it’s important for us to know some of the theory behind the application—how to work with adults in an instructional setting. We want to create a climate that encourages motivation and a safe space to learn.
So, how do we encourage and motivate our learners and create a safe space for their learning? At Langevin, we incorporate the following principles of adult learning into the design and delivery of our training.
- Adults see learning as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. They must know what there is to gain and they must see progress being made.
- Adults want courses that focus on real-life problems and tasks rather than academic material. A strong how-to focus is desired. They become restless if their time is being wasted.
- Adults are accustomed to being active. They should be given an opportunity for active participation in an instructional setting that is safe, welcoming, and comfortable.
- Adults bring considerable experience with them, therefore, they wish to speak, participate, and contribute to the proceedings. They dislike long lectures and one-way communication.
- Adults have something to lose. They have a strong need to maintain their self-esteem, therefore, they should be listened to and the course should be set up so they will be successful. Instructors must consult and work with adults rather than be too directive.
- Adults have a “here and now” viewpoint and wish to focus on current issues rather than material that may be useful in the distant future.
- Adults are accustomed to being self-directed. They have expectations and wants that need to be met. Instructors must consult and work with adults rather than be too directive.
Now that we’ve covered the key principles of adult learning, here are five contributors to the research on how adults learn. These aren’t necessarily the top five, but they are all well known for their contributions in the field.
B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) – Skinner theorized that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences, what he termed as “operational conditioning.” Skinner believed learning to be a form of behavior modification, where new behavior can be caused and shaped with well-designed learning programs. This approach is most commonly used in training that requires precision and refined skills. The key factors in behavior modification are positive reinforcement which involves reward for positive behavior, and negative reinforcement which involves the taking away of something negative to increase a positive response.
Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) – Bloom’s work is considered to be foundational and an essential element in adult learning. It centres on the taxonomy of learning objectives which addresses both lower and higher levels of knowledge and skill to encourage full learning. Many military training programs are based on Blooms Taxonomy. There are three domains of learning in Blooms model. The cognitive domain which involves mental skills, the affective domain which deals with feelings and emotions, and the psychomotor domain which focuses on motor skills.
Howard Gardiner (1943-present) – Over his career, Gardiner has written hundreds of articles and over 30 books on adult learning. Probably his most famous work is on the theory of multiple intelligences. This theory states that adult learners process information in eight different ways including interpersonal, naturalistic, spatial, and mathematical. Several of these intelligences are used in relationship-centered programs such as sales and leadership training.
Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) – An educational theorist, Knowles is credited with the definitive classic book in adult learning theory, “The Adult Learner.” Although written in 1970, the book still drives a great deal of learning programs today. Knowles used the term “andragogy,” referring to the art and science of helping adults learn. He focused on the following principles of adult learning: relevance, benefit, participation, experience, self-esteem, timeliness, and self direction which are often incorporated in training. These are the principles outlined in more detail above.
David Kolb (1939- present) – Kolb is an educational theorist who has studied the power of experiential learning ranging from individual learning and career development to social change. Kolb’s work addresses the formation of abstract concepts and generalizations and a framework for understanding how people process and perceive information. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle involves four parts: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.
Adult learning theory is a broad area of study with a lot of contributors and approaches. There isn’t one theory or approach that’s best. You need to consider the situation when contemplating any of the adult learning models.
To learn how to apply the proven principles of adult learning to your training, have a look at our How Adults Learn workshop. It’s filled with tips and techniques that will help you connect with your audience and build your credibility as a trainer.
This article was first published April 30, 2018.