In Employee Learning, Adult Learning Styles Matter

Believe it or not, we absorb information differently as we grow older. Knowing the subtle changes to the motivations that drive information retention as we age help us adjust learning styles for the workplace. In many cases, the most effective outcome in adult education comes from a non-traditional approach.

Different learning strategies

Think about the structure of a traditional classroom: A teacher presents information through a lecture, assigns homework, and then assesses students based on their performance. This technique works fine during our younger years, but as we age, we evolve into different learning styles. The Lessonly customer PeerView group saw their training improve in effectiveness when they used face-to-face sessions for the application of information rather than presentation,

Employees should learn systems and processes on their own time, in a comfortable setting for them. Then we can use in-person time for practicing and coaching in real time instead of talking at people. — Anonymous PeerView feedback

In this sense, we’re completely reversing learning theories practiced throughout our childhood. As our PeerView group shows us, we need to take adult learning processes into account with employee learning. Encouraging employees to absorb information in their own time, in an environment that’s conducive to their individual learning style, and then reinforcing the content through in-person practice aligns more with adult motivations for learning.

And not just our anecdotal evidence supports this idea. A very smart guy named Malcolm Knowles, who pioneered a lot of research on adult learning, emphasized the importance of “orientation to learning.” In a nutshell, Malcolm says that as we age, our focus on learning shifts from “I’ll use this at some point in the future” to “how can I use this in my life right now?” Passive adult learners quickly dismiss uninteresting information that isn’t helpful. Another Lessonly user in our PeerView group found that “You can’t just barrel through information and then move on. You have to watch when people are losing interest and attention.”

A little more adult learning theory

Knowles is considered the foremost name in the study of “andragogy”—the methods of teaching adults. In his work, he identified a few key assumptions about adult learners; assumptions that can now be used to boost your online learning.

  • “Motivation to learn becomes more internal as people grow older.”

In high school, what was your motivation for getting good grades? Your parents’ expectations? Your hopes for attending a good college? External factors like these shape most of our motivation for learning as kids. But as we become more realized adults, our motivations shift toward improving who we already are. So how should this information influence learning/training content? Using anecdotal and story-driven examples to explain ideas and concepts resonate with these learning methods.

Adults learn to solve their current issues. Make sure that the topic of the training is directly relevant to participants’ current situation. Understand what they are looking for: what types of solutions to what types of problems. State a course’s objectives clearly. During the course, always relate new knowledge to situations your participants are trying to solve. No abstract solutions – you need to use concrete examples.

  • “As a person matures, his/her self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.”

Beyond merely trending toward internal motivations as we grow older, Malcolm says adult learners also become more motivated by anything that moves them toward becoming more independent. Information that helps us fend for ourselves in the adult world is immediately more useful than knowledge that would go does not.

Learning content creators should consider this tendency when building for different learning styles. Frame employee development as emphasizing long-term personal growth, and the information immediately becomes applicable. And the return on learners’ investment becomes real: promotions, higher salary, and better living. While these aren’t the only motivations for employee learning, they do help adult learners understand and embrace the benefits of learning

  • “As a person matures he/she accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.”

By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve attained a large pool of knowledge that we didn’t learn in a classroom setting; rather, we picked it up through real-world experiences. Traditional learning rarely takes into account how to utilize or expand this existing experience. Here’s how to relate to this type of learning method:

Ask participants to share their knowledge. When training adults, every participant is also a trainer. Very often people decide to take part in training not because they want to learn new skills from a trainer, but because they want to meet other people and learn from their experiences. Allow and facilitate that in your training.

Understanding and embracing the subtle differences between traditional classroom training and adult education are necessary to help make information really stick with learners. One member of our PeerView group said it best: “Don’t talk at people.” Instead, truly include your adult learners in the process. If you’re interested in a software that involves all of your adult learners, take a tour of our software. Sign up today.

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