6 keys to reaching and teaching adult students
Whenever I talk about training adults, there are really two questions that need to be answered before you can begin diving into the topic: Who are the students, and do you really need to teach adults differently?
Who are the students? The snarky answer is “adults” but the diversity within that umbrella term makes subdivision rather important. Sure, corporate trainers and healthcare trainers teach adults, but do they teach the same way just because they happen to both be teaching adults? These practitioners understand the differences among adults, and the instructional strategies required to inspire them. They understand the importance of connecting the learning to the adult’s life; they practice the art of presenting training material in a way that appeals to the physical and psychological needs of their student. The needs of the adult student are not feared in these programs and workshops and training sessions.
Why then, do we need to research and present academic scholarship on training and development of adults?
Because adults, much like teenagers and grade-schoolers, are remarkably different and constantly changing. As a corporate trainer nearly two decades ago, I developed expertise in working with adults at various stages of their lives, but if I used the same strategies and materials I did then to teach adults now, I wouldn’t get anywhere with the students. The way teaching has evolved over the past twenty years has dramatically changed my style and choice of media in teaching.
Diversity among adult student groups could be discussed at length, and how this diversity affects the instructional environment would be as varied as the training setting, the training location, the training purpose, etc. Even the categorization of the age of an adult student is a floating reality. Is your 20 year old student an adult? What if the 20 year old has a spouse and a child? How does a 25 year student differ from a 65 year old student? I think we can all agree that there are differences. The research and academic scholarship surrounding the adult learner helps us better understand these differences in order to better serve the needs of the student.
Andragogy, one such academic scholarship theory, was defined by Knowles in the mid-1960’s, as: “the art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles, Holton and Swanson, 2011). The theory helps align the unique needs of adult learners with the practice of facilitating learning. The model presented by Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011) outlines six adult learning principles that trainers or teachers should recognize and foster as they seek to meet the needs of the adult learner.
Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2011) six adult learning principles
(1) Adult learners need to know the purpose of training and must understand why or how the learning affects them.
(2) Adult learners tend to be self-directed, and the learning environment should create opportunities for self-directed exploration.
(3) Adult learners bring with them and relate their learning to prior experience.
(4) Adult learners must be ready to learn, and their personal environments often impact their readiness.
(5) Adult learners often approach learning from the perspective of problem solving or hands-on application.
(6) Adult learners are motivated to learn for different reasons but often it is related to internal or external rewards and benefits.
These principles transcend the environment and diversity of the student. Regardless of what life stage they are in or their demographics, these principles can guide educators and trainers to better engage their “adult” students.
Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. (7th ed.). New York: Routledge. [Kindle paperwhite].