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  • Rikki Lee

Helping Reluctant-Learning Adults

Those of us who specialize in developing courses for businesses and organizations are reluctant-learning adults who regularly enjoy acquiring new knowledge: new subject matter, new instructional design techniques, helpful tips on better writing, and so on. Learning is our job as well as our hobby. The more we learn, the better learners we become. Also, we try to transfer some of that knowledge into the courses we create.

There’s a downside, too: We’re not willing to learn everything, especially if it requires that we change our long-held opinions, attitudes and beliefs. Also, we retain only a fraction of new information unless we use it often. Otherwise, the content we peruse on Wikipedia, LinkedIn or an instructional design blog doesn’t stick inside our brains for very long.

Attributes of 'reluctant-learning' adults

But if this is our knowledge retention profile, just think about everyone else: the "reluctant-learning" adults who don’t like learning—that is, the people we must train. They have several attributes:

  1. In general, learning is difficult for these adults. It’s hard to keep their attention focused on one topic for any significant length of time, and there’s usually something else they’d rather be thinking about. An attention deficit or the need to always multitask is common among these adults, regardless of age.

  2. Also, “reluctant-learning” adults already know a lot through previous training and experience that may conflict with their newly gained knowledge. No amount of training in a classroom or online will help them easily unlearn the outdated (or wrong) info and replace it with new (or right) info. So, they'll forget the new or right info and hang on to the old or wrong info.

  3. In addition, as they become older, “reluctant-learning” adults don’t process information as quickly as when they were at school. They don’t have as many available brain cells as they once did, and all the time they’re losing cells they have through the aging process. There just isn’t as much capacity left over to continually learn new things, and not much time to do it. For example, if they try learning a complex language like Mandarin on evenings and weekends—while reading, writing and speaking their native tongue the rest of the time, they probably won’t get far, and then they'll stop learning because of the difficulty.

  4. Finally, “reluctant-learning” adults won’t learn something unless they have an incentive:

  • They’ll learn if it helps them keep what might be at risk if they don’t learn, such as their job, financial security, health, reputation and so on.

  • They’ll learn if they can gain something, such as more money, a higher position, praise, prestige or some time off. Organizations that value their employees’ learning will usually incentivize it by offering a small reward.

  • They’ll learn if they think the topic is fun or interesting to them, or they’re naturally curious about it. Maybe they’re practicing Mandarin to prepare for that long-awaited vacation to the Great Wall of China, so they’ll enjoy learning it and retain more.

Tips for helping the ‘reluctant-learning’ adult

Knowing that you’re dealing with “reluctant-learning” adults can put you in the mindset for developing courses that can actually engage them:

  • You can’t offer money or time off in your training, but you can make the learning challenging. Instead of slide after slide of bullet points, ask learners to show what they already know before beginning the topic. Then they'll have a point of reference to start learning from.

  • You can also make the subject matter fun by gamifying it. For example, offer learners “experience points” for each activity and give them a score at the end. Then get employees or departments to compete with one another to achieve the highest score.

  • You can also use fear as a motivator. Develop scenarios or videos that depict what might happen if certain equipment or techniques aren’t used properly. Most adults will learn a concept like safety, respect or tolerance better when it’s applied to a real-life situation that matches the learner’s experience—especially when the potential harm of not using a given skill or behavior is shown.

  • Provide learning in small amounts, such as in 10- to 15-minute modules. If training lasts much longer, attention might drift away. Also give learners a chance to absorb what they’ve just learned with knowledge checks spread throughout each module. And instead of beginning the next topic immediately after conducting a knowledge check, build in a short break in the form of an interesting learning activity.

  • Finally, don’t expect adult learners to absorb everything, because some concepts will be more important to retain than others. So, identify the “must-learn” info as quickly as possible and display it in the course; these concepts should have the highest priority. Call attention to them more often using repetition, application, quizzing and activities. In this way, your learners will know that they don’t need to pick out the most important items themselves. Continue reinforcing the high-priority concepts for weeks after training.

Wait, we're all adults here

OK, it's time to confess: There really aren’t categories of "intense-learning" and "reluctant-learning" adults, each with a different inclination to learn. We made them up.

But we invented that false dichotomy to drive home a point: There are no different types of adult learners, only adult learners—and we're all adult learners! So, the above attributes we mentioned for a so-called "reluctant-learning" adult also apply to you and me. We learn if we need to or want to, but it's also hard for us to learn and retain knowledge. We might design learning experiences, but that doesn't mean we're different from those we train.

In fact, if you set yourself apart from other adults and their learning habits just because designing training is your job, you'll completely ignore the value of shaping the experience to meet the learners' needs. Know yourself, but also know your learner. Think about what makes learning enjoyable for you as well as for your learners, then apply those insights to help make your next training project an engaging one for every adult you train.

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