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Training for Excellence: How Adults Learn

To prepare you for the training program’s planning, purchasing and/or designing process, we want to review the principles of how adults learn. These principles form the foundation for any program you may consider as you undertake operational excellence.

There is an old saying that “if somebody needs to learn to tell time, they don’t need to learn how to build a clock.” We often err on the side of teaching too much or the wrong information. Adults want to learn only what they need now and not something else. This chapter will teach you how to do just that.

The relationship between learning theory and the practical aspects of training is often a matter of debate. Some people insist that good training depends on a thorough knowledge of learning theory and principles. Others believe that theory is not very helpful in any business situation, including training. Both positions have some validity.

Learning theory rarely provides direct answers to training program designers’, instructors’, managers’ and/or program participants’ questions. Yet, any serious consideration of training techniques must begin with a common understanding of learning principles.

This brief presentation is based on a conviction that learning and training depend on each other. We define training as a set of procedures that are meant to cause learning. Anyone who successfully offers training programs must know and respond to these procedures.

The presentation is organized around four major topics:

  1. Basic principles of learning
  2. Conditions that make learning easier
  3. Characteristics of adult learning
  4. Fundamental training processes.

1. Principles of Learning

In many ways, training can be compared with the art of fishing. The lure and other paraphernalia are designed to catch the eye of the fisherman, but not necessarily the fish! Likewise, many so called training programs are designed to the style of the instructor. They “cover information,” “tell how,” or “show how.” It is sometimes difficult to tell whether there is any real relationship between the teaching techniques and the learning taking place. Often the learner can describe the instructor’s style, humor, or presentation skills, but cannot remember or use the presented information.

At times, the teaching appears to succeed. However, experience tells us that in many cases, teaching is probably unimportant. Learning can and does happen without it. As you study the information that follows, you will see that the role of the instructor has shifted from being subject matter-oriented to being learner-, problem-, and process-oriented.

  1. Learning is an experience that happens within the learner. The learner is in charge.
  2. Meaningful learning is more permanent and transferable than learning that consists of memorized facts.
  3. Adult learners learn what they do.
  4. Learning is a cooperative process between the instructor and the adult learner.
  5. Among the richest resources for learning are the adult learners themselves.
  6. Learning requires change, and change is sometimes resisted.
  7. Adults prefer to take short, focused courses for immediate application.
  8. Learning takes time. It takes place gradually.
  9. Learning proceeds most effectively when the adult learner receives immediate feedback on responses.
  10. There are different kinds of learning and they require different training processes.

2. Conditions That Make Learning Easier

In addition to the fundamental principles that govern learning, instructors need to recognize the impact of surrounding conditions. Basically, we need to address the influence of atmosphere and attitudes that aid in achieving the training objectives.

“Conditions that make learning easier” can be organized into two categories: conditions that relate to a “sense of acceptance,” and conditions that relate to a “sense of freedom” within the learning situation. The following conditions that make learning easier can be grouped under these two categories:

  1. Sense of acceptance
    1. Learning is made easier in an atmosphere where people feel accepted.
    2. Learning is made easier in an atmosphere that honors and shares the learner’s, as well as the instructor’s, background, experience and perspective.
    3. Learning is made easier in an atmosphere in which difference of opinion is considered good and desirable.
    4. Learning is made easier in an atmosphere that consistently recognizes people’s rights to make mistakes and not be criticized.
    5. Learning is made easier when learners are not embarrassed by their individual performance.
  2. Sense of freedom
    1. Learning is made easier in an atmosphere that encourages people to be active.
    2. Learning is made easier in an atmosphere where the evaluation emphasis is on self-evaluation.
    3. Learning is made easier when learners are free to question other class members and the instructor, as well as be questioned by other class members and the instructor.
    4. Learning is made easier when the learning objectives are clear and the instructor’s methods encourage active learning through practice.
    5. Learning is made easier when learners have fun and enjoy the learning process.

3. Characteristics of Adult Learning

Given the principles of learning and the supporting conditions we have presented, it is clear that the teaching process is important to the learn-ing process. The definition of “teaching” adults, however, needs to be examined. Traditional approaches to adult training were based on assumptions derived from outdated principles of youth education. Adult learners have at least four characteristics that differ from these outdated ideas. An awareness of the expectations of adult learners will add an-other important dimension to your understanding. What are these expectations? What are the implications for helping adults to learn?

  • Adults have a need to be treated with respect and not be embarrassed.
  • Adults have accumulated experiences and need to share them.
  • Adults are not always ready to learn. They must see a need.
  • Time perspective is shorter for adults. They want information they can use now.

4. The Fundamental Process of Training

The following four fundamental training processes are derived from the principles, conditions and characteristics of adult learning. These principles, conditions and characteristics describe the learning environment and provide critical inputs for training decisions. Acknowledging the principles, conditions and characteristics helps the training program designer and the instructor commit to using the appropriate processes.

The four processes are:

  1. Guidance and reinforcement: Lead adult learners through carefully prepared course materials containing clear objectives, and give ongoing positive reinforcement.
  2. Association: Be sure to relate new ideas to information already known. Also, relate to the need for what is being learned.
  3. Active participation: Learners should be actively engaged in all learning activities.
  4. Provide opportunities: Give learners the chance to practice and apply newly acquired knowledge.
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