Principles of Adult Learning

Part of being an effective instructor involves understanding how adults learn. Malcom Knowles, a pioneer in adult learning, identified the following characteristics of adult learners:

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed. Their teachers must actively involve them in the learning process and serve as facilitators rather than fact generators. Teachers must get participants’ perspectives on the topics to cover and let them work on projects that reflect their interests. They should also allow participants responsibility for presentations and group leadership and show participants how the class will help them reach their goals.
  • Adults have accumulates a foundation of life experiences and knowledge. Teachers need to connect learning to that knowledge/experience base by encouraging participants to share relevant experience/knowledge.
  • Adults are goal-oriented. They appreciate an educational program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show adult learners how the class relates to their goals early in the class.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Instructors must identify objectives before the course begins and relate theories and concepts to a setting familiar to participants.
  • Adults are practical. They may not be interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake but rather focus on what is most useful to them.
  • Adults, as with all learners, must be shown respect. Instructors should acknowledge the abundance of experiences and knowledge participants bring to the classroom.

Motivating the Adult Learner

There are at least six sources of motivation for adult learning:

  1. Social relationships: to make new friends, to meet a need for associations and friendships
  2. External expectations: to comply with instructions from another; to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority
  3. Social welfare: to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work
  4. Personal advancement: to achieve a higher job status, secure professional advancement and stay abreast of competitors
  5. Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom, provide a break in routine, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life
  6. Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning, and to satisfy an inquiring mind.

Barriers and Motivation

Adults have many responsibilities that they must balance against the demands of learning. These barriers against participating in learning include lack of time, money, confidence, or interest, lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems, “red tape”, and problems with child care and transportation.

An adult learner may also worry about being the oldest person in a class and their ability to participate with younger students. Creating an environment where all participants feel they have a valuable contribution can work to allay such concerns.

Adults may come to class with varying levels of confidence. Some may have had poor prior experiences with education leading to feelings of inadequacy and fear of study and failure. This can manifest itself in many ways.

The best way to motivate adult learners is to simply enhance their reasons for enrolling and decrease barriers where possible.

Learning Tips for Effective Instructors

Remember, learning occurs within each individual as a continual process. People learn at different speeds which can lead to anxiety in the classroom. An instructor can enhance learning through proper timing/pacing of instruction. People learn through the stimulation of their senses. Instructors should employ a variety of materials that stimulate as many senses as possible to increase teaching success.

The four essential elements of learning that every instructor must address are motivation, reinforcement, retention, and transference.

Motivation demands that the instructor establish rapport with the participants and prepare them for learning by establishing a tone for the lesson that is friendly, open and supportive. Further, the instructor should establish the importance of the learning without over or under selling its value. Finally, it is critical to set the level of difficulty – high enough to be challenging but not so high that the participants are frustrated or overwhelmed.

Additionally, participants need specific feedback and a demonstration of the benefits to be realized from the learning. Reinforcement allows instructors to encourage correct modes of behavior and performance. Instructors need to use it on a frequent and regular basis early in the process to help students retain what that have learned and to maintain consistent, positive behavior.

Retention is essential for the class to be of value. An instructor’s job is not finished until he/she has assisted the learner in retaining the information. Learners are more likely to retain information they see as having meaning and/or purpose. Instructors who can help students see how to apply the information from class to their work or personal life is more likely to see students retain class knowledge. However, the level of retention is directly affected by the degree of original learning. Participants who learn the material well initially will retain a greater percentage of knowledge. Exercises that allow learners to practice during learning enhance retention.

Transference is mostly likely to occur when:

  • Association – participants can readily associate new information with something they already know
  • Similarity – the information is similar to material the participant already knows or finds familiar and/or logical
  • Critical attribute or element – the information is extremely beneficial on the job
  • Degree of original learning – the participant’s level of original learning was high.

The success of the adult learner requires a greater degree of responsibility from the teacher. Learners come to the class with defined expectations. The best motivators for adult learning are interest and benefit. The instructor who can demonstrate pragmatic benefits of the class is more likely to have students who perform better both in the short and long term.

*Adapted from an article by Stephen Lieb, Arizona Dept. of Health Services. Download the full document here.

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