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Training the Adult Learner: Lessons from Benchmarks CQi Team


When many of us think about education, we may picture children sitting in a classroom and a teacher at a chalk board. But many adults take part in educational opportunities and trainings throughout their personal and professional lives. Some participate in mandatory trainings to enhance skills while others seek learning opportunities for their own personal enjoyment. No matter the reason, adults learn differently than children, and their trainings and educational opportunities should reflect that. While children typically respond well to teacher-led learning environments, adults tend to respond better if they can participate in their learning experiences. When working with adult learners, it is important to consider adult learning principles and best practices to achieve your agency’s learning and training goals.

Benchmarks Center for Quality Integration (CQi) develops and implements test of change projects in communities across the state. A major component of facilitating long-term project success are effective training programs. When thinking about sustainability, good training programs analyze and determine how well a project’s efforts can be maintained. If agencies do not have a thorough understanding of the overall purpose a project and its parts, over time, the project can often loose effectiveness as adherence to fidelity dwindles. Through our experience with various test of change projects and training community members and stakeholders across the state, we understand that effective training programs require an understanding of the adult learner.

The following training tips were gleaned from past training experiences. These insights may prove helpful for others as they develop trainings for adults in their agencies.

Understand Motivation Behind Adult Learning

While some adults enjoy learning for the sake of obtaining knowledge, the reality is this is not the general motivation for most adult learners that attend trainings. Many adults are pursuing a new career, hoping for opportunities to advance, or to meet a requirement to stay in compliance with their current job. For adults pursuing a different career or looking for advancement, acknowledging their established knowledge and skills throughout the training can help validate their experience and increase engagement. In addition, when adults attend required trainings, especially when offered by an outside agency, engagement can be a bit difficult. To thwart issues with engagement, trainers should recognize and remind adult learners throughout the training how the information is relevant to them. During the development of trainings, trainers should incorporate relevant examples and explain how or why the information will be useful for attendees.

Be Aware of Different Learning Styles

Another way to engage adult learners is to understand the different learning styles, including the way an individual absorbs, processes, understands, and retains information. People tend to have a combination of these styles. Common learning styles include verbal, visual, musical/auditory, tactile/kinesthetic, logical/mathematical, social, and solitary. While it is impossible to tend to every learning style, being able to design a training that incorporates a variety of elements through lecture, activities, role plays, demonstrations, and discussions can help increase the effectiveness of your trainings.

Facilitation Tips

Finally, there are other factors to consider beyond curriculum such as facilitation techniques and how training rooms are used. If facilitation skills are lacking or the training space is not conducive to healthy learning, even the best designed training can flop.

Here are a few general training tips that can be helpful:

  • Be visual
  • Be brief and clear in your explanations
  • Use storytelling
  • Know your audience
  • Defer unrelated questions to a later session
  • Keep sessions moving at a rapid but manageable pace
  • Be flexible
  • Use U-shape training configurations
  • Ensure adequate lighting
  • Enlist technical support
  • Ensure adequate writing surfaces
  • Offer refreshments
  • Take breaks

Whether you are creating on-the-job trainings, continuing education courses, or onboarding materials, knowing how to appeal to adult learners will make trainings more effective and successful. There are many resources available online and developing your own list of lessons learned can be effective in helping you tailor your trainings as well. Happy training!

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