Old dogs and new tricks

27 08 2011

Adult learning is a bit of a holy grail – so much research, so little of it put into action.

While the research often demonstrates that the type of learning that is provided in a school-like environment does not suit adult learning (and might not suit children either), none-the-less, we persist in providing school-like environments for adult learning.

My experience as a university lecturer is that adult learners are often very motivated. They know why they are there, they may have chosen to give something else up to be there (free time, course fees, income). They have often chosen what it is that they want to study so they are interested in the subjects. The mature-age students often blitzed the straight-from-school students. They didn’t stand a chance against that level of motivation.

This is supported by the literature, which characterises adult learners as:

•Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
•Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
•Adults are goal oriented
•Adults are relevancy oriented
•Adults are practical
•Adult learners like to be respected
(Knowles 1970)

So what works for adult learning?

1. Trial and error. Studies demonstrate that adults retain lessons learned the hard way – through making mistakes and understanding the context and reasons for failure. Errorless learning doesn’t “stick”.

2. And on a similar vein, <a href="http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/08/23/see-do-act-imprints-brain-memories/28846.html&quot; title="experiential learning ” target=”_blank”>experiential learning works best for adults, even when it isn’t about making mistakes. Adults are better at remembering things they do (what you did yesterday for instance) than things they read or hear.

3. Observation learning works if there is intention to do the same action. This is similar to the way visualisation works on the brain and on muscle-memory. If the intention to do the action is there and is translated to the motor system rather just the visual system of the brain, then the memory is more likely to embed.

4. Adult learners need to understand why. They tend to resist having ideas and thoughts impressed upon them – as collaborative learners they want to sort through the information and come to their own conclusions.

5. Adults bring their life experiences with them to training or education. They want to use this knowledge and build upon it. They have a lot to offer but also a lot to lose.

6. Generally, adults are in education or training for a specific purpose, They want what they learn to be relevant and practical. They will challenge if it doesn’t seem like it would work in real life.

7. Adult learners have different barriers facing them. They may have job demands, family responsibilities- or commonly, both. Adult education is one more thing they need to juggle in their busy lives. And it is not just about time – it is also about concentration levels and memory space. Let’s hope they are motivated to prioritise their education – but recognise that sometimes they will need to pay more attention to another area of their life.

Some excellent resources are available on the net. One I recommend is :Medscape (you will have to sign up for a free account to access the entire article)

So finally – as someone who seems to be proppin up the university system with my ongoing study and resultant fees debt – what works for me?

– flexibility

– short-term subjects. 10 weeks per subject works beautifully with my busy life

– no group work – I haven’t managed to get out of the group assignments but continually find them frustrating. It is very difficult to get a group of extremely busy adults together to do an assignment, even in the online environment. And there are always passengers – I think everyone knows that.

– really clear instructions. I don;t have time to work out ambiguous instructions, I want to be able to enterall the due dates in my diary and get down to it.

– relevance of subjects – one of the compulsory subjects aI have done for my MBA is finance – which turned out to be about calculating current and future values for bonds, shares and other investments over a series of differnt conditions. As I don’t work in the finance industry and have never had to deal with bonds,this wasn’t very relevant. Happy to do the accouting and economics subjects, still think the finance subject should not have been compulsory.

Well that’s my two cents worth as both a repeat adult learner, and a former lecturer.

What is important to you in education?

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You might also like “Thank goodness I never studied Gatsby“.

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4 responses

28 08 2011
cristycoates

Here Here, Louise!

As an adult learner, I completely agree with your personal observations and experiences in terms of what works for you. And loved the documented research on this rich subject.

I’d like to also add in the ‘clear instructions’ part that online components certainly needed a bit more clarity for me…it was filled with jargon I just wasn’t familiar with and created stress around submissions of papers, group work etc etc. It was a few years ago, so it may no longer be relevant- it may have changed (or maybe I’m more familiar now). I guess I just really like step by step lists I can easily tick off for the more administrative procedures, so I can concentrate on the learning components. Definitely a ‘tell me what you want and I’ll do it’ type of gal.

And group work…never been a great fan- it’s always been more of a lesson in diplomacy rather than learning in my mind. I always felt more pulled back by the experience…I’d rather go away and integrate it on my own and come up with something brilliant (or not!) and be marked accordingly.

And, I must say, as a ‘mature age’ on-campus student at the ripe old age of 25 (two children on), I felt like I was with a bunch of…let’s say ratty school kids. I know it was all part of their development as human beings and a growing into adulthood through shucking the chains that had them bound. But, man….life has a tendency to change your priorities. It’s one of the best learning tools I know.

28 08 2011
Mudmap

Couldn’t agree more Cristy – and I know the universities say that the group work emulates teamwork in the workplace – but I did always suspect it was just a way of managing the number of assignments that needed to be marked! I know when I was lecturing, marking a couple of hundred very similar assignments was a real chore!

28 08 2011
cristycoates

I can only imagine….. (ewww!)

3 09 2011
Thanks goodness I never studied Gatsby « Mud Map to Life in the Modern Age

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