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Designing a Training Program That Stimulates the Adult Learner to Learn

By Nancy Thompson, Executive Director, AWENS – Association of Workplace Educators of Nova Scotia  @nthompsonED

As an Adult Educator, when creating and designing an education or training course – be a half day, full-day or 40-hour program – it is important to ensure the intended desired outcomes of the learning are met. This means learners need to retain the knowledge presented and then confidently apply the newly acquired skill in the work they do. This is accomplished by integrating lessons that are designed to stimulate how adults learn.

Based on a US study, 45 percent of the adult population will attend at least one learning program per year. The study only accounts for enrollment in classes, workshops and training programs. It is also noted in the study if we were to take self-directed learning activities such as online learning programs into consideration, it is estimated nine out of ten adults take on at least one learning project a year. In other research (Knowles, 1960) it is stated adults remember 20% of what they hear, 40% of what they see and hear and 80% of what they do!

When we look at the Cone Theory of Learning, an adult memory increases when they hear and see something together – like watching a movie or going to an exhibit – remembering about 90 percent of what is said and done. To ensure the learning objectives are met, learners need to experience or “do” what they are being taught. This is an important element for adult educators to recognize and implement as they design and deliver training in an adult learner environment.

If we are to consider learners retain 80% to 90% by what they “do” in the classroom, choosing the appropriate methods for delivery is critical in increasing retention. Learning needs to be engaging, experiential and interactive.

Adult educators need to be learner focused. Bob Pike, a nationally known trainer, recommends we allow participants to discover data for themselves. I ask that we reflect and ask the questions, how many adult educators walk into a classroom with prepared lists of solutions for the attendees.

Two other perspectives by Pike are: learning is directly proportionate to the amount of fun the learners have and lessons need to be designed so participants leave “impressed with themselves” and what they learned. Pike points out, adults only listen with retention for about 20 minutes. If we want our learners to learn then our courses, workshops, training and education sessions need to have interactive classroom activities.

So, what exactly is interactive learning? According to the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, active learning is “anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing” (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). It is defined by Felder & Brent (2009) as “anything course-related that all students in a class session are ‘called upon to do’ other than simply watching, listening and taking notes”.

Active learning is not the only component to ensure learning objectives are met. Other components that need to be considered are: adults learn best when they are respected, prior experience is acknowledged, feel safe in the environment, can see the immediate applicability, and the learning is relevant in their lives. These components need to be integrated with the primary component of being engaged in the learning process – allowing the learning to take place by doing.

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Nancy Thompson is the Executive Director of AWENS – Association of Workplace Educators of Nova Scotia. She has worked across a wide range of industries and organizations within the business development, government, construction, corporate and non-profit sectors. As an experienced trainer and adult educator, Nancy’s passion is for promoting lifelong learning and helping people to grow both personally and professionally.


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