Motivating adults to learn

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Adults can be ordered into a classroom and prodded into seats, but they can't be forced to learn. On the other hand, adults who see a need or have a desire to know something new are quite resourceful. Witness the legions of gainfully employed people enrolled in continuing education programs at community colleges, vo-techs, and universities around the world, not to mention the success of proprietary self-development seminars, sports-skills camps, and independent study groups in virtually every industrial and postindustrial country.

When the conditions are right, adults seek out and demand learning experiences. Much of what we know about adult motivation to learn describes those conditions and comes from the work of Allen Tough, Carol Aslanian, Henry Brickell, and others engaged in the study of self-directed learning. The key to using adult natural motivation to learn is tapping into their most teachable moments those point in their lives into which they believe the new to learn something new or different.

For example, several longitudinal studies in corporations have demonstrated that newly promoted supervisors and managers should be trained as quickly as possible. The longer such training is delayed, the less impacted it appears to have on job performance.

In short, there is a window of opportunity during which adults are most receptive to learning – and a time after which they cannot be enticed without a chateaubriand or a baseball bat.

The idea of a window of opportunity applies not only to people's motivation to learn, but also to their ability to retain what they do learn. If trainees begin to acquire a new skill but then have no opportunity to practice it, the skill quickly fades. Information technology trainers have been reporting that training on a new software package or upgraded hardware configuration loses its effectiveness unless the equipment or software is installed and ready to use. The longer the group has to wait for the new system, the less impact the training has on effective use. This as a reconfirmation of an old lesson: use it or lose it.

Adult learning is problem centered

People do learn for the sake of learning: Hobbyists go to model-train conventions and take archery classes, retirees take up golf and tennis lessons, and lots of people joined book clubs. None of that is job-related or problem-related but more often than not, adults seek out learning experiences to cope with life-changing events. Marriage, divorce, a new job, promotion, being fired, retirement, death of a loved one – these sorts of occurrences often create a perceived need to learn.

The more life-changing events adults face, the more likely they are to seek out related learning experiences. In fact, learning may be a coping response to significant life changes for many people: some knit, some drink, some go to school. People who are highly educated are more likely to seek out learning opportunities as opposed to other coping options.

The impulse to go learn something in response to a life-changing event is to some extent, generic: The subject the person suddenly desires to learn about won't always pertain directly to the change that sparked the desire. Witness the divorcee who signs up for a course in art history. Predictably, however adults usually seek out and respond best to learning experiences they perceive as directly addressing the changes that face them. If a change is primarily work-related, a learner will be more motivated if the learning event to supreme merrily work-related.

Adults are generally willing to engage in learning experiences before, after, or even during the life-changing event. Once convinced that the change is a certainty, they will engage in any learning that promises to help them through the transition, including seminars on coping with change.

Adult learners are motivated by appeals to personal growth or gain

Although immediate utility is most often the motivation behind adults' learning efforts, it's not the only motivation. For instance, some evidence suggests that adults more readily engage in job skills training if they see it as relevant to the rest of their lives as well. Adult learners can also be motivated by the promise of increasing or maintaining their sense of self-esteem or pleasure. Developing a new skill or expanding current knowledge can do both depending on the individual's perceptions.

A newer subfield of adult learning, sometimes referred to as feminist pedagogy, suggests that emancipation from domination is a strong motivator. Although most of the research in this area is related to feminist issues, the idea may have wider scope. You could argue that line employees who are enthusiastic about team training and participation techniques are motivated, in part, because they anticipate being liberated from management dominance in the workplace.

Motivation to learn can be increased

Although it may be true that the "best motivation is self-motivation," some evidence suggests the adult learners who are with you and body but not in spirit can be led into participating and learning. If you can stimulate curiosity about the subject matter, demonstrate early on that the learning will be immediately useful, and ensure low risk for learners, you can convert some of the uncaring. Sometimes, simply exploring learners' positive and negative expectations can clear the air and increase participation.

By Ron and Susan Zemke
Reprinted with permission from Computer Trainer's Personal Training Guide

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