Adult learning is growing rapidly in this day and age. Adults of all ages, cultures, and economic background are embracing this new freedom and evolution to learning. Some adults delay enrolling in learning courses due to the processes that they may feel are more overwhelming than beneficial—such as registering for classes, financial aid, and adjustments to their personal schedules or demands. Educators have made it a priority to create a process that is accommodating for older learners and in turn, it gives them the necessary tools and interest in pursuing new knowledge.
There are several principles to adult learning and each one is vastly important in different ways. As philosophers say, a principle is the beginning of action. It is important to expansively understand adult learning principles in order to effectively develop education programs that result in participant engagement and the facilitation of learning. In this paper, we will be providing the reader with information on what we believe the three most important adult learning principles are and what they each encompass. Additionally, there will be two separate adult learning principles presented in the appendix and they represent two additional learning principles that some of us believe to be just as important.
As more adults are deciding to go back to or continue school, educators must have a firm understanding of whom their adult students are and what they want to accomplish. This requires layers of respect between adult learners and educators. The concept of respect can be seen in many adult learning theories, starting with Malcom Knowles in 1968 and continuing to the present day as andragogy evolves. Bassett (2005) best defines respect in the Emergent Wisdom model, which is based on the in-depth interviews on adults who consider themselves wise and thoughtful. Respect is a quality that allows adults to express “a kind of caring for the other, even another we might not agree with, feel empathy for the other, or love; it manifests gratitude and an expanded sphere of consideration” for both other people and our social environments (p. 9).
All students deserve respect. Adult learners expect and demand it. Educators must learn to treat adult learners as equals and allow them to voice their thoughts and ideas freely in the classroom. Adult learners have an extensive depth of experience, which serves as a critical component in the foundation of their self-identity (Knowles, 1984). Adult learners may have an established life context that determines their learning; they are likely to desire a greater sense of cooperation between the student and teacher as they proceed through the educational process (Zmeyoy, 1998). Additionally, returning veterans may bring additional skills, such as a higher level of maturity and understanding of world affairs than traditional students (Byman, 2007). We must recognize that, even though they are students, they are also our peers—not subordinates. The old attitude of teachers that “it’s my way, or the highway” simply won’t work anymore and has no place in the classroom— especially with adult learners.
Adults who return to the classroom after an extended period of time, or who approach a new learning situation with hesitation, need to feel valued, know their opinion is appreciated, and feel they have been heard; they need to know they are respected. Effective educators show respect in many ways, including: tone of voice, body language, active listening, and word choice. Remembering this “golden rule” and treating all with respect creates a safe environment of learning.
Relevancy is defined as “the ability to retrieve material that satisfies the needs of the user” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Adult learners emphasize on the practical knowledge given their life experiences. It is important for adult learners to be a part of a course that is designed to provide immediate relevancy and application. Due to “life” barriers that adult learners face, courses and trainings that have obvious relevancy to their professional and personal well-being motivate them to devote the time needed and take responsibility for their learning. “Adult learners are motivated when they feel free to direct their own learning and when it is related to real-life task that develop experience”. (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner, 2007). Children are excited learners and commonly have an exploratory nature and curiosity about them; adult learners, too, sometimes like to take the opportunity to construct knowledge in a way that is meaningful and exciting to them. In a perfect learning environment adult learners are more likely to get inspired or find a niche that makes them want to learn more.
As we get older, we tend to gravitate more toward learning experiences that offer some sort of social development benefit. For example, we are often more ready to challenge ourselves with new learning opportunities if we know they will help us to fine tune skills that pertain to our professional, personal and social roles. Adult learners, essentially, need to know the why and when before they actively engage in the learning process. Adult learners will not only want to know why they need to acquire specific information, but whether or not that information can be applied in the immediate future. Younger learners accept the fact that the knowledge they're acquiring today may not be used for quite some time. However, mature learners prefer to engage in learning experiences that help them to solve problems they encounter on a regular basis (in the here-and-now, rather than the future). So, you'll want to emphasize how the subject matter is going to help them solve problems immediately by offering real world examples and scenarios (Knowles, 1980).
The “What’s in it for me?”, or WIIFM, principle stresses the importance of identifying, and then reinforcing, why your message is important to the listener. While ultimately it’s the listener who has to decide what’s relevant, helping him or her answer WIIFM will facilitate that process. The same is true for teaching adults; you can't force learners to see how decision-making skills are important to them, but you can engage them in a discussion that encourages them to reflect on a time when the inability to effectively make decisions led to an undesirable result (Examiner.com).
Adults are relevancy oriented and as an instructor it is important to lay the ground work for this discovery early in their learning. To support learners in their quest for seeking and identifying relevancy, there are a few questions to ask, such as: asking at the beginning of the learning experience what they expect to learn and how they would like to apply that to their current work or future goals and determining how to best frame the information so it can be easily digested and applied.
The learning principle of hands-on learning can be defined as “relating to, being, or providing direct practical experience in the operation or functioning of something” (Merriam-Webster). It is important for an adult learner to experience the situation that is being taught because the more distant they get from the concept; the quicker and easier it is for him/her to forget the application.
A Kinesthetic learner is one who learns by hands-on approach. These types of learners learn best by actively exploring the physical world around them. They have difficulty sitting still for long periods of time, and easily become distracted by their need for activity and exploration (Lieb, 1991). This is particularly important to an adult learner because they need to understand that in order to succeed in the subject, they must comprehend the information. Adult learners are like detectives. They need to examine the information and figure out how to solve the problem.
Adults deal with different situations when faced with going to school later on in life. They have work life, home life, and obligations that a child or young adult does not typically have when going through school. Hands-on experience is a key factor because it helps the adult learner remember and understand the concept of the lesson. Sometimes, when reading a book or listening to a lecture, the adult learner cannot visualize the concept; they actually have to apply it in their life to understand the purpose of the concept. Some key methods that help the adult learner are role playing, simulations, and writing/note-taking (Knowles, 1996).
It is important as an instructor to find hands-on activities to deepen the learning. One example is role playing. Role playing is a helpful activity because the individual is able to get feedback on understanding the concept. This methodology involves acting out a problem and talking about the situation afterwards. This can prove to be helpful because the individual actively works through the problem and doesn’t just read about it. Simulations are necessary so an individual can feel and comprehend what it is that he is learning about. Sometimes, simply reading about it does not make sense, but actually completing the task helps to connect the dots.
While there are a number of factors to consider when conducting learning activities for adults, there is no single combination for the best learning experience. Respect, Relevancy, Hands-on Learning, Experience and Gamification are only a few of these factors; known as Adult Learning Principles. In order for an adult student to truly learn, they need to have awareness of their learning preferences. If you couple the adult learners’ self-awareness and understanding with an effective educator who can provide a unique learning experience you will have that sweet spot where a deep learning has occurred and transformed the learner.
Gamification in Adult Learning
Emily Graham believes that in addition to the three key principles listed above, adults learn best when they engage in gamification. Gamification stems from ideas around engaging students in their learning environment, by leveraging game mechanics. As we learned from Malcom Knowles, adults are often motivated by social interaction and personal goals (Knowles, 1980); these two pieces of motivation directly relate to gamification and why it is an important approach to adult learning. Gaming has gained traction over the past few years due to the advances in technology, but the core concepts of gamification can translate any learning concept into interactivity.
Although the idea of gamification is not solely based on technology, it is important to acknowledge that technology has changed over the past few years and understand how this impacts the learning environment. Adults are now accustomed to gaming— whether it’s the ongoing game on their cell phone, computer or gaming system. Leveraging this shift in acceptance to technology, adult learning can now become a more student-centered process. Creating games to support adult learning not only ties into their desire for relevant training; gaming allows for interactivity and self-directed learning.
Gamification is specifically focused on the learning process, not the technological features. The design elements of the games enhance the adult student’s involvement with the content and allow them to experience learning through interaction. Leveraging experiential learning keeps adults engaged through fun and rewarded by knowledge (Arnold, 2014).
Though gamification is an effective tool, it is important to understand that it can be impacted by the culture of an organization and the student’s receptivity to competition. If the teacher is able to instill positive competition, the adult student will feel a sense of responsibility for their learning. One major criticism with this style of adult learning is when there is negative competition or too much aggression, for adults specifically; the competition becomes too important and defeats the purpose of the gaming interaction. Regardless of the recent criticism, the direct application of training content through gaming significantly increases adult learner’s desire to continually learn.
Gamification of education continues to gain support amongst researchers as they recognize that gaming stimulates productivity and the students’ hands-on experience (Arnold, 2014). Increased interactivity, ability to problem-solve and learning at one’s desired pace makes gamification a perfect learning style for adult students.
Katerina Koperna believes that in addition to the four key principles list above, adults learn best when they from experience. One of the strongest learning principles for most adult learners is experience and as Lindeman states “the resource of highest value in adult education is the learner’s experience” (as cited in Baumgartner, Caffarella and Merriam; 2007). Since adults have been around longer, they come to classes or trainings with broader knowledge and a variety of experience.
Just in St. Joe’s classes, in fact this class, the experience levels are extremely different. We have students participating from other countries, different ethnic backgrounds, with 10+ year’s professional experience and then all the way to young professionals that grew up in Philadelphia trying to find their career path. Everyone has been through something in their life and “has a story” and a reason for being in that class or training; the magic is in the learners tapping into their life experiences to gain a deeper learning.
Just as each learner is different, there are different theories to experiential learning. “Fenwick (2003) proposes five perspectives: (1) reflecting on concrete experience, (2) participating in a community of practice, (3) getting in touch with unconscious desires and fears, (4) resisting dominant social norms of experience; and (5) exploring ecological relationships between cognition and environment” (as cited in Baumgartner, Caffarella and Merriam; 2007). These theories are important when it comes to application.
All of this can be challenging when we flip from the learning side to the teaching/training side. It is important that when teaching adult learners, trainers and professors are aware of the impact the experience principle can have on the learning. Not only do the trainers need to be open and able to connect the learners’ experiences but they also need to challenge the biases that adult learners hold subconsciously. Sometimes reflection on past experiences is the best way to draw these thoughts out of an adult learner but the way the trainer goes about this will likely be based on which experiential learning theory they prefer.
In addition to gaining insight into thoughts and biases to assist in the learning process, trainers need to be mindful of the experience levels of each learner. Since technology is constantly evolving it is important to ensure the learners can access and use all of the tools needed to complete the course. While some participants may be tech savvy others may struggle with the basics so using a variety of hard books and virtual tools is something to be considered.
Since experience is just one of the learning principles, using it as a learning tool needs to just be one option in the “trainer toolbox”. This is why the job of trainer/professor is so difficult; it requires a combination of knowing the learning styles and their preferences, planning out a course using a variety of mediums to reach the different learners, and of course keeping things fun and interesting.
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