Applying Adult Learning Theory to Training - dummies

Applying Adult Learning Theory to Training

By Elaine Biech

Trainers are most successful when they understand conditions under which adults learn best. Therefore, it is important to understand the difference between why adults learn and how adults are traditionally taught.

The traditional style of teaching is based on a didactic model, a synonym for lecturing. Generally this model is teacher-led and content-centered. Another word used is pedagogy, which literally means the art of teaching children.

Most adults learn things because they want to or need to. Children do, too. However, children’s formal learning is usually led by someone else and is based on learning specific tasks to prepare them to learn additional, more complicated tasks.

For example, you learned to count to 100 in kindergarten, so that you could learn to add and subtract in first grade, so that you could learn to multiply and divide in third grade, so that you could learn algebra in eighth grade, so that you could learn trigonometry in high school, so that you could learn calculus in college.

Most people have experienced the pedagogical model of learning. It has dominated education for centuries and assumes the following.

  • The instructor is the expert. Because the learner has little experience it is up to the instructor to impart wisdom.

  • The instructor is responsible for all aspects of the learning process, including what, how, and when the learners learn.

  • Learning is content-centered. Objectives establish goals, and a logical sequence of material is presented to the learners.

  • Motivation is external, and learners learn because they must reach the next level of understanding, pass a test, or acquire certification.

Does this sound familiar? It should. Unless you had an atypical learning situation, it is most likely how you were taught starting in kindergarten and through college. Some schools are changing however. Although the lecture method is still used, it is frequently enhanced with other learning methods. This suggests that someone has identified a better method for teaching.

Whether you’re the trainer or the learner, you have responsibility to ensure that the training is successful, that learning occurs, that change takes place, and that improved performance is transferred to the workplace.

If you’re the trainer

  • Create a learning environment that is safe both online and in a classroom.

  • Be organized, have well-defined objectives, and establish a clear direction for your session based on the participants’ needs. Be so well organized that it is easy to be flexible when the participants’ needs are different from what you anticipated.

  • Ensure that your content is meaningful and transferable to the learners’ world.

  • Treat your learners with respect, understanding, and genuine concern.

  • Invite learners to share their knowledge and experiences.

If you’re the learner

  • Be an active learner, participating in the interactive exercises.

  • Be critical of poorly defined sessions, an unprepared trainer, or processes that prevent your learning; provide constructive feedback to the trainer.

  • Ensure your personal success by encouraging feedback from the trainer.

Delivering constructive feedback is a key action expected of all professional trainers. Learners have a right to receive feedback from their trainers.

  • Recognize that you’re responsible for your own learning, so ensure that all your questions are answered, whether in a traditional or virtual classroom.

  • Contribute to your own success by clearly identifying a learning plan for yourself; then do your part to achieve your objectives.

Trainers beware! Learners should be critical of you if you’re not prepared or the session doesn’t meet their needs. Why? Professional trainers profess to build on the foundation of adult learning theory. If something is not working, step back, determine why, and fix it. If you’re not doing that, you’re not practicing good adult learning principles. You may need another trainer to guide you.