As an HR professional who’s been around the track a bazillion times when it comes to training, I often see managers and trainers themselves who think that training adults is as easy as giving them a book and telling them to read it – or worse – giving them a PowerPoint and then READING THAT to them. No wonder training gets a bad rap.
The fact of the matter is all individuals, no matter the person’s age, have differing needs that must be met so learning can take place. The “father” of andragogy, Malcolm Knowles, recognized that these needs are highly different for adults than they are for their younger counterparts and meeting these needs is paramount to developing knowledge and skill competencies in the workplace. Knowles presented six principles of adult learning theory that must be in play for actual learning to take place.
Principle #1– Adults move from a dependent personality to self-direction as they mature.
Just what is the definition of an “adult” actually? According to Knowles, an adult is someone “who has arrived at a self-concept of being responsible for one’s own life, of being self-directing.” As part of the maturation process, adults develop a deep-seated need to be seen by others as capable of taking responsibility. Too often adults are placed in training situations where they are told what, where, when and how to learn. Self-directed learning is not the same as self-paced; self-paced means the adult can only affect when to experience the training, whereas self-directed puts the learner in charge of when, where and how.
To meet this need for self-direction, incorporate some “search and discovery” into the training. Deliver the training with as many different options for learning as possible. Since adults manage most aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing or assisting in the planning and implementation of their own learning.
Principle #2– Adults have a growing set of experiences that provide a fertile ground for learning.
Adults bring into the learning laboratory a broad background that is full of rich resources. They have a broader base of experience upon which to frame new ideas and skills. The more explicit the training can make the relationships between old and new, the deeper and more permanent the learning will be.
One way to do this is through discussion and reflection. To adults, their self-identity is defined by their set of experiences. If training doesn’t take into account, or take advantage of a learner’s set of experiences, the adult may not see the worth of the content or the validity of the training experience. Ensure learning by designing training activities based the actual work the learners will be performing and give them time to debrief and reflect back on the activity so they can link the old with the new.
Principle #3– Adults are more interested in learning things that have an immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives.
Adults will not learn just for learning’s sake. Because they have a significant amount of experience to help frame their points of reference, they tend to spend a considerable amount of energy seeking to understand what the benefits would be to learning something and what the costs would be if they chose not to learn it. Adults become ready to learn when they experience in their work situations a need to know or be able to do to perform more effectively and satisfyingly. Training will fail 100% of the time if people are forced into learning programs before they perceive a need for the training.
To combat this, provide training as close to the time it is needed as possible. Don’t just toss some information to them and tell them they’ll need it at some point in the future. A great example: in my workplace we just finished rolling out a new competency-based, behavioral interviewing training program for our store managers. We told the managers in the training that right after the session, they would be interviewing actual candidates for sales associate positions in their stores. Did those managers want to get it right so they could get great sales professionals for their store? You bet they did. The program was a smashing success.
Principle #4– Adults are more problem-centered than subject-centered when it comes to gathering knowledge.
As people mature, their perspective on learning changes from gathering knowledge for future use to getting it for immediate application. This means that adults engage in learning so they can complete a task or solve a problem; they don’t learn just for learning’s sake. Students in the school system are accustomed to a topic-oriented approach to learning where they focus on obtaining knowledge to pass a test. I call this the “teach me, damn it” approach when it is used with adults. It just doesn’t work.
To combat this, design training so that learners are solving problems or doing things just as they would back on the job. If there happens to be a large amount of information they need to have to solve a particular problem, present that information in a “job aid” or reference format and teach them how to access and use the information. Focus on doing something with the information, rather than just knowing the information.
Principle #5– Adults are more motivated to learn by internal, rather than external incentives.
Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model? Well, that theory comes into play here, too. In the workplace, adults will respond to things such as promotions and bonuses up to the point they are reasonably satisfied. If you want to get them engaged in learning however, you must appeal to their higher level, intrinsic needs in terms of self-esteem, desire to achieve, and emotional satisfaction from accomplishment. Adults will not motivated to learn unless they perceive a need to learn.
Design learning activities that clearly demonstrate to adult learners where and how learning the content will benefit them in the performance of their jobs. Good, high quality training and education is based on the idea of nurturing those intrinsic motivators.
Principle #6 – Adults have a need to know why they should learn something.
Know how kids are parodied for asking the “why?” question all the time and parents get frustrated as a kid takes a deep dive down into why the sky is blue? (In case you were wondering, it’s because molecules in the air scatter the sun’s blue light waves more than red light waves.) Well, adults do the same thing. Not scatter – ask the proverbial question.
Telling an adult that learning a particular item “is a good thing for them” is not going to cut it. To combat this, content development should be based on the needs of the intended audience. All information provided, including module objectives and plans, should include the primary reasons for and benefits of learning the content. Show them where and why they have to have some skin in the game.
There is a theme here, isn’t there. For adult learning to take place, make it relevant, make it interesting, and make it connect back to what they have to know or do back on the job.
Feed the need.
Heather Vogel, SPHR is head of organizational development and leadership with Ashley Furniture HomeStores where she drives corporate culture, employee engagement and leadership development strategies. Prior to joining Ashley, she booked 15 years of HR/OD leadership experience in private consulting with global companies such as AT&T. Heather’s alter ego is the HR Whisperer, who is known for blogging on all things behavior. She is also a past president of the HR Florida State Council.