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Adult Learning and Employer-Sponsored Training

Joyce Thomas, President, Bizgrok, Inc.

Successful businesses and organizations provide training and educational experiences for their staff. When selecting a trainer, it is important to consider whether the trainer understands adult learning styles and needs and if the training reflects this. Although the study of how adults learn is fairly new, there are some basic characteristics that adult learners share that are not often incorporated into many trainings or courses offered. Adult learners require a different approach than traditionally practiced by educators trained in classic techniques for classroom teaching.

How Are Adult Learners Different?

Life Experience:
Family, work and school are all places where adults have gained lots of experience, knowledge and skills. When an adult learns something new, they need to connect it to something they have already learned through past experiences. One of the challenges for the trainer is to connect the new information & skills to each adult learners experience in some way, to help the adult learner make the connection to both past experience and relevance to their current lives. Even if the training is provided by the adult learners employer, the adult learner may make the connection to any sphere of their life.

Hint: This is where getting to know the adult learner (establishing rapport), even just a bit, can pay off for the trainer.
Start with the basics, find out:
> Why each of the adult learners is at the training session
(even if it's mandatory training, it's still a choice to be there, so why did they come?)
> What does each one wants out of the training?
> What are each one's expectations of the training?
(You should already know what the employer's expectations are for the training.)
> Take a few moments to learn about each of the adult learners, especially key (influential) individuals in the group.

Adult Learners are Practical & Goal-Oriented:
Once the adult learner has made the connection to past experience, the trainer needs to illustrate how the training content and what they'll learn will be useful at their place of work. This emphasizes the importance of the trainer knowing what the work requirements are, and how the adult learner fits into the workplace. It is equally important for the training goals to be clearly stated and for the training to meet those goals. Find out what, if any, goals the adult learner has for the training. Most adult learners focus is to solve a problem rather than to learn about something.

Hint: Don't wait until the training is over to start asking for feedback on how the training is meeting the stated goals. Use the adult learners themselves to help make the case for the relevance of the training being offered. And, don't forget to get formal evaluations at the end of training.

Adult Learners are Adults:
Is this stating the obvious? Ever sit through training where you were treated like a child? Adult learners are self-governing, self-directed, and self-reliant. Include the adult learner in the process by,
> Getting their ideas and asking for their input
> Creating ways for them to work on the elements of the training they are interested in
> Delegating responsibility for project management, or group leadership
> Providing the adult learner with the opportunity to influence how the training meets their goals.

Hint: The trainer's role is that of a facilitator who uses creative ways to vary the learning experience. To make the learning experience more useful, the trainer should:
> Be prepared to explain how the task relates to the adult learners work
> Be prepared to change teaching methods in order to accommodate the current group of adult learners
> Not be afraid to bargain, and once agreements are reached, to keep his/her word. Even in a one-time training experience, trust is important to your success as a trainer.
(An experienced guide knows the trail, but is aware of alternate routes to reach the destination, and when to take them or not.)

Aretha Franklin said it all - respect. It is likely that every adult learner student has life experience and knowledge comparable to the trainer. Adult learners should be treated with respect and acknowledged as equals. They need an atmosphere where they may voice their opinions freely - within the context of the training and the training goals.

How Does a Trainer Motivate the Adult Learner?

Any Way You Can! (But seriously, first . . .)
> Present clear training goals
> Ask the adult learners what their expectations are & weave this into the training
> Explain how the training will relate to the workplace
> Help address any identified problems
> Explain what the employer expects the training to accomplish
> Identify the key (influential) trainees in the group

Use Adult Learners Personal Needs/Goals
> Everyone wants to make new friends, whether for personal relationships or work-related networking
> Workplace security, and advancement
> Increasing ease of execution of tasks and quality of work
> Mature adult learner's curiosity, love of learning and/or desire for self-improvement
> Just something different to do. Make the training fun when possible to provide an optimal break from routine and provide a more relaxing time than the workplace

Use External Motivators
> Tendency to comply or feel as if we should comply with instructions out of politeness will motivate to some degree
> Support and authority from the employer is important. Training time & space needs to be respected by the employer and not interrupted for routine work-related matters. IOW: The employer needs to act as if the training is important.
> Impetus to improve general welfare and service to the group

What Are the Barriers to Learning for Adult learners?

Time, Money and More Time:
Adult learners must balance the demands on their time from a variety of arenas; family, extended family, work, health-needs, etc. Regardless of who is paying for the cost of training, cost may increase the pressure to receive a good value.

How to Remove Barriers?
Some cannot be removed, but the value of overcoming them may be increased. The more the training meets the goals of the adult learner, the more worthwhile it is to endure the added pressure or inconvenience the barriers may present.

Setting the Stage

Everyone learns at different rate. People use their senses to learn, some learn best by listening, some by watching videos, ideas written on the board, others retain what they learn better if they write it down. Anxiety, lack of sleep, and general health all impact how well anyone might learn at any given time. Creative use of all the senses can increase the effectiveness of any training. Reading, listening, writing, acting out, discussing in groups, and solving problems that reflect the materials taught can all enhance the adult learner's ability to learn and to retain.

The learning environment and the atmosphere of the training session are both important. The comfort of the adult learner - whether physical or psychological should be considered. Rooms that are too hot, too cold, too crowded, or too big to see or hear the trainer present avoidable barriers to learning, and learning receptivity.

What to do?
Once assembled, it may not be possible to move a training group somewhere more comfortable. You can, however:
> Acknowledge the short-comings of the space
> Seek remedies from the source providing the training space - allowing the group to witness your advocacy goes a long way to overcoming to problem
> Seek ideas for remedies from the group - without taking too much time from the training schedule
> Stay calm, positive, polite, open, friendly, flexible and use appropriate humor

Do it frequently and begin early on in the training.

After the Curtain Calls

First, something must be learned before it can be retained. How does the trainer know how successful the learning process has been?
> Review, test and evaluate.
> Ask the training participants.
> Throughout the training sessions, emphasize application of the information and skills taught.
> Repeat the information often, in different ways and practice skills often, via different methods.

Ability to Use the Information/Skills Learned:
Taking what is learned and integrating it into daily performance - transferring the learning to everyday life is the result of successful training. Such transference has occurred if:
> Training participants connect the new information/skills with something that they already know.
> Training materials have a foundation in the participants' prior experience or knowledge and are understood within that framework
> The information/skills learned are beneficial in the workplace.

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