ID Strategies to Connect with the Adult Learner

Posted on : July 1st, 2011
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We learn something new everyday. Some of that fades off with time while lessons that truly make an impact, stay with us forever. E-learning is a platform where the learner is self-driven and self-paced. While this alone should attract the adult learner, it also puts a greater responsibility to the designers. In absence of a teacher or instructor, it is the intrinsic design of the course that should grab the attention of the learner and sustain it for the entire learning cycle. It should also facilitate assimilation of useful learning from the course content and show clear ways of implementation of the learning to bear results.

There are many strategies and models in Instructional Design that have been developed through the decades. While all of them have their merits and strengths suited to different kinds of trainings, there are some common tenets that all of them share. And all of these tenets stem out from an understanding of the adult learner and how she learns. One can delve deeper into learning philosophies and the science of instructional design to follow a more structured path into what suits the learner profile and the learning objectives best. However, in this post I wanted to discuss a broader perspective of how e-learning is designed and the various nuances that make it the most effective for adult learners.

  • The first step in any kind of training – be it classroom or online, is to grab attention of the learner. In designing e-learning for adult learners, it is of prime importance. The good news is that there are many ways of achieving this
    • Adults are often known to have a ‘problem centric’ approach to learning. So one simple but effective way of grabbing attention would be to illustrate a real-life problem that the learner associates with. If the course promises to show a possible solution to that problem, you’ve got your learner hooked!
    • Adult learners are also results oriented. A brief overview of the objective of the course provides the learner an answer to the popular question we invariably ask ourselves before the onset of any learning activity (even if not aloud!) – What’s in it for me?
  • Most adult learners cannot be approached with a ‘clean slate’ theory. Adults have a lot of life-experience and a repository of knowledge which acts as the foundation for further learning. This foundation needs to be assessed and kept in mind at the designing stage.
    • The course material should give ample opportunities to revive and refresh prior knowledge. One way that this can be done is by asking open-ended questions that bring out where the learner stands.
    • Sometimes in addition to prior knowledge, the learner group may also have established values, opinions or beliefs that have to be kept in mind when designing the course material. These factors can be religious, cultural or even gender specific – and if ignored they can stand in the way of effective learning.
  • The main bulk of any course remains the section where new knowledge is imparted and this is also, possibly the most important part of the course. While there are many ways to present information to the learner, some strategies that work for the adult learner are as follows:
    • Graphics can be useful in creating visually impressive content and bring some relief amidst text. It is also a popular way of sustaining attention. Chunking information into small bits also helps in making the content less ‘bulky’.
    • Adult learners, in general, are oriented more towards ‘doing’, and not just learning ‘how to do it’. So in addition to theory, there should be ample examples for the learner to see how the new-found knowledge can be applied practically. This may be effectively achieved through demonstrations e.g. through real-life videos.
    • Another innovative way of demonstration can be through animation, where a simulated environment or characters can show many applications of the knowledge. This is very effective as the cues to create the simulation can be taken from the learners’ environment i.e. the workplace – bringing the learning experience right where it needs to be applied.
  • Once the knowledge is shared, even adult learners need some amount of hand-holding! This aims at increasing the confidence of the learner to productively apply knowledge and reap the benefits of learning.
    • A popular ways of doing this is through providing notes, overviews, job-aids or other quick-reference materials which help the learner strengthen what has been learnt through the course material.
    • Practicing what is learnt infuses confidence and practical exercises work best for adult learners. These can be done in the workplace, applying the knowledge directly to on-the-job problems. In the absence of the availability of resources or time do practice at the workplace (which is the case in a growing number of organizations), similar exercises can be done in a simulated environment too, with the same, if not better, results.
    • Adult learners learn best when given opportunity for self-paced learning but it is also true that learning is a social exercise. The best results can be achieved when there is a common thread of interaction between fellow learners and most developers champion the need for such social interactions. With the advent of social networking sites, online forums, discussion boards and virtual classrooms, there are many avenues for learners to connect and share their learning.
    • In addition to the content, directions to other resources like online support systems, blogs or wikis can be included so that the learner is encouraged to want to learn more – even beyond the strict confines of the course-ware. This creates the ground for sustained interest in the subject – resulting in better application and hence, performance.
  • And finally, designing learners’ assessment is yet another important step when building a course. Keeping our adult learner in mind, assessments have to rise above the mere pop-quiz or two.
    • The workplace is a competitive arena. In the corporate context, learners are well-aware of a sense of healthy competition and come to expect that in learning as well. Courses which provide certificates or scores create a strong sense of achievement for the learner.
    • Feedback should definitely be provided to the learner, and it should be useful to him or her in achieving their expectations out of the course. Feedback should be context specific, provided at the end of an assessment tool like a test, review or even a simulated game. If the problems presented during assessment were solved by learner with finesse, it should be highlighted. But the mistakes too should be shared, so that they could be rectified in future and make way for better learning.
    • Feedback from the learners is also very important and especially, adult learners who have strong views and opinions. Taking feedback from learners gives them the sense of importance and the feeling that they are being taken seriously. In addition it can also provide great insight into developing further course-ware for the learner group.

In conclusion, there are many strategies and approaches to instructional design that work with adult learners. We have listed some, which based on our experiences, have shown accountable success across a multitude of organizations and varied audiences. While this is definitely not all-inclusive, it is a good place to start. We hope to add on to this, with more insights and experience.

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