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Revisiting adult learning


This article is contributed by Javid Jamal who heads the e-learning team at He can be contacted by email

In a recent article, the mahaguru of management, Peter Drucker estimated the US education and training market at around $1 trillion. Not just the US, corporate education ranges from 4-6 percent of the GNP in many nations. An estimated 20,000 programmes are imparted to the executives in India.

This has lead to the potential market for continuing adult education embracing at least 40% of the typical developing country's workforce. Why shouldn't it be; there's a premium on managers with a wider horizon and broad outlook today. Added to this is the need to acquire general management skills among the specialists. All this is fine to recognise the opportunities available for the facilitators who are into adult training. But do adults really learn? Do all derive benefits from the programs? If they do, how do they learn and what motivates them? Lets explore:

Do Adults actually Learn?

The facilitators and trainers will find value in answering this question. Not just that, it also is essential in being an effective facilitator to understand how adults learn best. Compared to children and teens, adults have special needs and requirements as learners. That's what andragogy and pedagogy is all about. Despite being widely discussed, adult learning is a relatively new area of study. Malcom Knowles and many others pioneering researchers like him identifies the following characteristics of adult learners:

Adults are self-directed:
The first principal says that adults do not like to be taught; they can be guided towards learning. It is therefore a must that the trainers must actively involve adult participants in the learning process and serve as facilitators for them. There is a strong desire among adults to be self-directed. Therefore facilitators should allow the participants to assume responsibility during the training program while guiding participants to their own knowledge rather than supplying them with facts. Finally, they must show participants how the class will help them reach their goals.

Adults have accumulated experiences and knowledge:
This may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, previous jobs, and education. They need to connect learning to this experience / knowledge base. The facilitator, therefore, should help them do so, by drawing out participants' experience and knowledge, which is relevant to the topic.

Adults are goal-oriented:
Adults seldom enrol to a program just for the thrill of attending, they usually are aware of the goal they would want to attain. Hence they will see benefit in a program that is organised and has clearly defined elements. Instructors must show the participants, very early in the program, how will it help them attain their goals.

Adults are relevancy-oriented:
Adults must see a reason for learning anything. Better still, the learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants that are of relevance back at work or home.

Adults are practical:
They focus on those aspects of a training program that are most useful to them in their work. Adult learners may rarely be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Facilitators must tell participants explicitly how the lesson will be useful to them on the job.

Adults need to be shown respect:
Facilitators must acknowledge, and respect, the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom. These participants need to be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in program.

How Do We Motivate the Adult Learner

We explored the principles that need to be considered while designing a program for the adult learner. But what is it that motivates an adult to participate in that program? Research has shown that the following serve as sources of motivation for adult learning.

There is this basic desire to make new friends, to meet a need for associations and friendships that brings many an adult to a training program. Some adults come to the program to explore and experiment with instructions or recommendations from someone with formal authority. Some attend to achieve higher status in a job, secure professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors. Well, haven't we come across people, who attend programs to relieve boredom, provide a break in the routine of home or work, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life? A few defy one of the adult learning principles and come to the program to learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge for its own sake, and to satisfy their inquiring mind. A rare breed now-a-days, some are motivated by the desire to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work.

To be effective, the facilitator must remember that learning occurs within each individual as a continual process throughout life. People learn at different speeds, so it is natural for them to be either anxious or nervous when faced with a learning situation. Positive reinforcement by the instructor can enhance learning, while negative attitude will hinder it.

How does learning take place? It results from stimulation of the senses. In some people, one sense is used more than others to learn or recall information. Facilitators should present materials that stimulates as many senses as possible in order to increase their chances of teaching success.

Just to give the readers a clearer picture, the critical elements of learning that must be addressed to ensure that participants learn, are:

If, for any reason, the participant does not recognise the need for the information (or has been offended or intimidated in any way), the facilitator's efforts to help the participant learn will be in vain. The facilitator must establish rapport with participants and prepare them for learning; this provides motivation. In addition, participants need specific knowledge of their learning results i.e. feedback, that must be specific, and non-biased. Participants must also see a reward for learning, in terms of the benefits to be realised from learning the material, as adults must see the benefit of learning in order to motivate them to learn the subject.

Reinforcement is a very necessary part of the learning process, through which the facilitators encourage correct modes of behaviour and performance among the participants. Facilitators need to use it on a frequent and regular basis right from the beginning of the process to help the students retain what they have learned.

The learners must retain information from the programs in order to benefit from it later. The facilitators' jobs are not finished until they have assisted the learner in retaining it. The amount of retention will be directly affected by the degree of original learning. Simply stated, if the participants did not learn the material well initially, they will not retain it well either. Once the learners demonstrate correct or desired performance, they should be urged to practice it in order to maintain and retain it.

Transfer of learning is the result of training -- it is the ability to use the information taught in the course in a new context - be it back at work or home - and in a new setting. Transference is likely to occur in a variety of ways depending on the situations. Participants may associate the new information with something that they already know. Sometimes, the information learned may contain elements that are extremely beneficial - read critical - on the job.

As mentioned earlier, adult learning is a relatively new field of study; but it is just as substantial as traditional education and is here to stay. A lot of corporates and individuals have realised its potential, lending reasons for its popularity and success. However, this success has put a great deal of responsibility on the facilitator. The learners come to the programs with precisely defined expectations. If the facilitators can address these by enhancing the motivations and reducing the barriers, the training programs will derive benefits so forceful, that will not only help them perform better, but also make benefits long lasting.


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