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Applying the Adult Learning Theory for More Effective Training

Adults learn differently than when they were children or teenagers. Gone are the days when the traditional classroom environment was the primary way of studying the economics of supply and demand or the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Most of the drive and motivation during the younger years were from external factors – pleasing parents and teachers, competing with peers, and having no choice because one needs to go to school.

On the other hand, when adults want to learn something, it is more internally driven. They see the subject valuable and interesting, something they can use and apply in their work, whether it’s becoming a better public speaker or knowing the ins and outs of selling finale expense insurance. They don’t have the patience anymore to sit through days of lectures and workshops to learn something that they’ll soon forget and never utilize in everyday life.

Making sense of the Adult Learning Theory

Famous educator Malcolm Knowles best illustrates the different learning styles between adult and child learners in his principles of the andragogical approach. First, adults want to be more in control and involved in their training plan – its execution, topics, and delivery. Second, past experiences are more effective in giving better context and understanding than theoretical examples. Third, solving problems, especially their current issues, can help retain information and skills compared to memorization. Lastly, adults are more motivated if they know how they can use the information immediately.

With these principles in mind, businesses and training providers can design more powerful and engaging programs. Here are a few ways they can integrate Knowles’ approach in their training and development initiatives:

1. Always start with a needs assessment.

Having employees accomplish a training needs assessment shows that the organization cares about their opinions and perspectives. They will feel more invested in the training because it is something that they want, instead of what was mandated by the management. The assessment can also help businesses save money and time because they can zero in on training needs with the highest impact. Asking for feedback, once the training is over, will be beneficial in revising the current program and design future ones.

2. Link the course material to the expected results.

Answering the question, “what is in it for them?” during the beginning of the training session shows how the training is relevant to their current work. They will be more attentive and forthcoming with questions and past experiences to reflect on. If employees know what management expects from them after the training, they will be able to apply what they learned in solving current problems immediately.

3. Challenge through games and brain teasers.

Since adults learn better through practice and challenges, training should be more experiential rather than pure lectures of facts and figures. They will remember how they felt and what they learned in tackling problems – even more so if the games and brain teasers are real-life examples and case studies. Assessments, simulations, and role-playing activities are useful in sustaining interest and engagement, and deepening knowledge and skills.

It’s easy to fall back on the usual classroom set-up for corporate training programs, especially since it was the standard method during one’s younger years. However, lumping the learning needs and mechanisms of adults and children will only lead to bored employees, forgotten knowledge, and wasted resources.

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