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Teaching Adults: How to Create Learning Experiences They Actually Care About

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Learning is a life-long endeavor. As adults, we are continuously learning new knowledge and skills. Some of our learning is informal, such as following a new recipe on a cooking show. Other learning can be formal and structured, such as completing an online safety training module as part of employee training.

When helping adults learn new information, it’s important to use instructional strategies that are specifically most effective for adults. Research has demonstrated that adult learners have unique needs and characteristics when compared to younger learners. Adults prefer learning experiences that are relevant, practical and self-directed.

Relevant

Adults first seek to understand why learning is needed. Unfortunately, many of us are familiar with the mandatory training session that made you think, “I’ll never use this information – this is a waste of time.” Information that’s not relevant to our work or lives is quickly forgotten. Adults need to put what they learn in context, including how it will benefit their personal or professional lives.

Adult learners also come in with a wealth of knowledge and experience. If there’s opportunity to connect new information with past experiences, adult learners can process the knowledge more effectively and better retain it. Start training sessions or classes with an explanation of why and how the new information is relevant to their lives. This will make adult learners more invested in the experience.

Practical

Adult learners are more motivated to learn if they feel what they are learning will be immediately practical or will help them solve a problem in their lives. Take this example: Employees in a shipping department are experiencing significant challenges with sending or receiving goods. Would they be more motivated to participate in a webinar about setting up an ergonomic office space or one about addressing supply chain issues? It’s important to show how the new information they are learning will directly alleviate current and practical problems in the workplace. Fortunately, adults do tend to be internally motivated to learn – especially if they see real benefits to their daily work or career.

Self-Directed

Adults have a wide variety of learning styles and abilities. Some adults process information better through visual means while others prefer auditory or tactile processing. When teaching adults, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for them to direct their own learning. This includes giving choices in format (e.g., a conference call, a webinar, videos or hands-on training) so they can choose what works best for their learning style. In addition, the best learning experiences for adults allow them to learn at their own pace. Some adults need longer to learn something new while others pick up new information quickly. Self-directed learning allows adults to take control of how and when they learn.

While there are abundant research studies and many detailed adult learning models to guide adult trainers and educators, the above three factors are a strong foundation from which to start when developing or delivering instruction to adults.

Be an expert in adult education. Explore American College of Education's fully online M.Ed. in Adult Education and Training.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.

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