Adult Learning Processes and Theories

Do you remember your favorite subject in school? Do you remember why it was your favorite subject? It could have been the teacher, who did a marvelous job at helping you understand the material. Then again, it could have been the assignments or activities that kept you interested. Teaching styles, activities, techniques, and even the learning environment each play an important part in the learning experience. And, since the learning experience differs from person to person, it is important to look closely into broad learning and development theories that resonate with learners. We will focus on these, and other learning topics in this video. Once complete, you will have an enhanced understanding of learning and development techniques, theories, needs assessments, and learning evaluations.

Let’s start with learning and development techniques.

When an instructor is assigned to teach a group of people on any subject, part of their responsibility as an educator is to be well versed in methods that cater to the different types of learners. Some of the most common learning types are

VISUAL
AUDITORY
KINESTHETIC
TACTILE

Visual learners process and retain information that is presented to them via visual aids, such as vivid images in presentations, graphs, or projected demonstrations. Learning graphic design would most likely appeal to visual learners, since the content includes animation, logos, or videos.

Auditory learners give their undivided attention during the longest of lectures. They may not take notes, but may record the session instead. This is because what they are hearing is what they take in, and they can apply what they’re hearing to recall what they’ve learned. A musician who would have to hear a song before learning to play or sing it themselves would be an example of an auditory learner.

Kinesthetic learners rely on physical activities to help them learn. They may also be described as “hands-on” learners, who in lieu of just being taught, do far better when carrying out the practice themselves. A chef learning to cook special cuisines would benefit more highly from kinesthetic learning in cooking their dishes rather than just being handed the recipe.

Tactile learners are similar to kinesthetic learners, since they too require more hands-on activities while learning new topics. They learn best through memory and sense of touch. They learn best if their hands are involved in whatever they are learning. A tactile learner would be great at solving jigsaw puzzles and role-playing.

As instructors, knowing which response corresponds best with the learning style is equally important. As learners take in new information, they respond in different ways. Rote learning occurs from repetition and memory. It is a necessary tool to help learners become familiar with what they’re doing by doing it over and over. A toddler reciting or singing the alphabet may seem highly impressive, and is an example of rote learning. However, if the toddler grows older and doesn’t eventually learn that the letters form words when put together, they are merely singing a rhyming jingle that they’ve memorized. This is the reason that the “practice makes perfect” concept of rote learning may not be enough.

Let’s explore development in the workplace: It is crucial for employees to be properly developed in order to carry out their duties. This could range from the basics of literary training to more work-specific subjects. We’ll start with literary training:

LITERARY TRAINING

This is basic reading and writing, which could be taught by individuals who would go directly to the jobsite to provide this training. The essentials that are acquired through literary training not only enhance work performance, they can also enrich the learner’s confidence outside of the job.

COMPETENCY TRAINING

Competency is possessing the necessary abilities to complete a given task. This includes a combination of their knowledge, skills, or behaviors. If a forklift driver is promoted to a production supervisor, it would be necessary for them to receive competency training in areas such as leadership, planning, or quality so that they are successful in their new leadership role.

MENTORING

Mentoring involves the partnering of two individuals—one who is more experienced with the less experienced “mentee”—to share knowledge and practices. This creates a career path for the mentee, and along the way, they have their mentor as a guide when faced with changing or unfamiliar work scenarios. Their mentor can also serve as a resource to recommend them for higher-ranking positions.

ATTITUDE CHANGE

When employee skill levels are heightened and they feel that the company is invested in their success, positive changes in employees’ attitudes can occur. They become more motivated, and will likely stay with the company longer.

Now that we’ve touched on learning and types of employee development, let’s take it a step further and discuss some notable training techniques:

JOB INSTRUCTION TRAINING

Also known as on-the-job-training, job-instruction training is when a new employee is trained by either their manager or co-worker on how to carry out their job effectively. Remember the forklift driver who was promoted to production supervisor? That left an opening for the forklift driver position, so an employee from production was transferred into the role. Then, the most experienced forklift driver was assigned to provide job-instruction training for the newly assigned forklift driver to learn the essentials of safety and operations.

E-LEARNING

E-learning is achieved through electronic sources. It is also referred to as web-based training, and could be in the form of videos or some sort of interactive modules. Many e-learning courses are available through corporate universities, which we will cover later.

APPRENTICESHIP

Like job-instruction training, an apprenticeship pays for training for individuals learning to work in a highly sought-after skill or trade. An apprenticeship for electricians allows a potential electrician to shadow accomplished electricians. The experience and knowledge the person shadowing acquires during the apprenticeship will allow for them to later become a certified electrician.

INTERNSHIP

Internships are usually outfitted for college students to provide them with work experience while they’re still enrolled in college. Internships allow students to gain exposure to the work environment so that once they graduate, they will have established considerable work experience which can make them more competitive candidates. Depending on the circumstances, internships can be either paid or unpaid.

JOB TRAINING AND CROSS-TRAINING

Job and cross training allow employees to work in, or learn different skills in, different departments within the workplace. It also allows them to become cross-functional, which improves both knowledge and performance. The newly assigned forklift driver from earlier is an example of the benefits of job and cross-training. If there is ever a shortage in production, the employee’s versatility from the cross-training received will be put to effective use.

COACHING AND COUNSELING

Coaching and counseling is usually performed by members of leadership, who provide guidance to employees in times of need to help them achieve their goals. If the new production supervisor has team members who are lagging behind in production goals, offering ideas and strategies for their improvement are examples of coaching and counseling.

All of these examples so far have been training methods that occur at the workplace. Off-the-job training methods can be equally effective, so let’s take a look at those:

INDEPENDENT STUDY

This allows for individuals to take on a special topic, and create a course outline of the topic without supervision from an instructor. Some independent study programs involve research that helps the learner to transfer that knowledge into their work environment. Let’s say the new production supervisor decides to pursue industrial engineering as an independent study topic. They would study the different phases of industrial engineering so that in the end, applied knowledge can be placed toward optimizing performance of equipment, materials, and the workforce.

CORPORATE UNIVERSITIES

Corporate universities are specifically offered to and designed for employees so they can have access to training and development that aligns with the company’s goals. Many training resources are incorporated into a learning management system chosen by the company. Corporate universities offer more control of content delivery so that the culture of the business is reinforced within the lesson plans. Before taking on independent study, it may be suggested to the production supervisor to first refer to the corporate university for courses related to their interests in industrial engineering.

VESTIBULE TRAINING

This type of training allows workers a hands-on experience to the functions they will be performing without actually being at the workplace. A forklift placed in a warehouse that has been set up for the use of training potential operators is an example of vestibule training.

LECTURES

Lectures are in-depth teachings provided by an instructor, and can be performed at a conference or university campus.

MANAGEMENT DEVELOPMENT

If a company recognizes that some of its employees display key characteristics of managers, they will likely endorse a management development plan to teach prospective managers about coaching, delegating, and effective problem-solving.

LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

This takes development a step further with a more pronounced approach. It provides opportunities for leaders to establish the culture of the business by inspiring others to fulfill the vision of the organization. Leadership development focuses on areas such as cross-functionality and change management.

Now that we’ve covered training types, let’s take a moment to consider all that goes into creating a development plan. If a small business decided to develop a training plan, they would follow the ADDIE model. ADDIE is an acronym that includes the five steps for establishing a training plan:

Analysis: Analyze any gaps of knowledge to understand the company’s “whys” and “hows” of training. The “who” will be identified in future steps.

Design: Think about the delivery methods for training. This is the time to brainstorm course content and delivery, while further communicating the need for training.

Development: In this stage, you actually create the course content within the learning management system. The needs of the audience should be assessed so the appropriate methods will be applied. There should be a great deal of testing so that errors are quickly identified and resolved.

Implementation: This is the “who” stage, where content delivery specialists are identified. This is also the time where the content is introduced to the learner. Afterward, it is properly tracked and can be assessed for reporting.

Evaluate: This is the time to gather feedback from the audience. Was the training, including both the method and the subject, effective? Are there other areas of training that would be recommended? This information could be gathered by way of surveys at the end of the course within the LMS, or separately via an online surveying tool. Now that you know what worked and what didn’t, you can revisit any of the previous steps to improve where necessary.

As we pointed out in the ADDIE model, the first step in creating a successful training program begins with analyzing the need for training. Once the ADDIE cycle is complete, the opportunity for training in other areas will arise. And when they do, a Needs Analysis must take place. A needs analysis recognizes any deficiencies which may be preventing the company from meeting its goals. Once those areas of opportunity are presented, you would think of training options available and recommend the appropriate training plan. Let’s say the production supervisor we’ve been using as an example notices that their team is finally meeting its production goals, but safety and quality are considerably low. This is the time to conduct a needs analysis. You are aware of the areas of improvement, so the next step is to explore training options, delivery, and then creating the training plan.

Training plans, depending on the method of delivery and materials, can be costly. Businesses want to be assured that their investments in training programs are worth all of the time, effort, and money. Once a training program is proposed, it is far more likely to be taken more seriously if a cost/benefit analysis is conducted beforehand. This involves taking time to consider all costs associated with training materials, instructors, administrative and staff hours, etc. If costs and the overall need for training are presented convincingly, both can support the benefits of the training. And naturally, the benefits of training vary from company to company depending on their needs. Generally, the benefits for a lot of companies could be employee retention, increased competencies, or heightened morale.

Okay, so we’ve talked about creating solid training plans and the steps from start to finish to keep them effective. Now, we’ll go in depth with the last step, evaluation, which measures the success of the training. Other than a generalized survey, how would you know if the training held any true value? Kirkpatrick’s Four-Level Evaluation is a method used by many learning and development specialists, and we’re going to examine each of those levels:

  1. Reaction. This is where you gauge the audience’s reaction to the training. Was it well received? Will they be applying what they learned to their work practices? These questions can easily be placed in a survey, but there is also verbal and non-verbal feedback that instructors should watch for. Once response and suggestions are received, prepare to take appropriate measures and make changes as necessary.
  2. Learning. In many training sessions, learning objectives are established on the front end. There is an expectation set for the learner to know more about the learning topic once the training is complete. To ensure that the training “sticks,” a pre-training assessment might be incorporated to measure the learner’s knowledge. Once the training is complete, the same set of questions are posed again to test what they’ve just learned. Scoring could be tracked on the post-training assessment to evaluate effectiveness.
  3. Behavior. People’s behavior—post training—lets you know if they retained and applied the tools they picked up during training to the appropriate areas in their duties. This is obviously not an item that can be evaluated directly after training; it is an observation that has to be tracked over time. The business must also support the training by encouraging the skills and behaviors picked up during training.
  4. Results. Finally, you analyze your results! This is where you find out if all the cost and time applied to the training was beneficial. For example, and to answer some of the questions from the reaction level, did employees return to work and apply the tools provided during training? Or, has employee retention improved? Has the training increased sales, customer service, or other key areas in the business? These are your training “report cards” to show the results of the training.

To continue on the path of evaluation topics, let’s consider the learning curve. It is a term you may hear a lot when people start a new position, or start a new class. The learning curve refers to the amount of time it may take for a person to develop a full understanding of a new activity after they’ve learned it. And, as time goes on, the person’s knowledge and proficiency improves. Think of a line graph with a gradual mark of acceleration toward the highest point, which would be mastering a skill. With a learning curve, this would be considered positive acceleration, which is the preferred direction of movement in progress with a learning curve. The person’s knowledge and skill levels ascend to a level of maximized efficiency. Let’s consider the new forklift driver from earlier. It is reported that after two weeks of training he was ready to operate in the warehouse. This means that his learning curve would have been considered a positive acceleration. A negative acceleration in a learning curve holds an opposite effect. Although the task is being repeated, there is no significant improvement in the learner’s abilities or knowledge, and their understanding doesn’t seem to ever catch on. There is also an S-Curve. The S-Curve starts off similar to the positive acceleration curve. Then, as time goes on, knowledge levels can plateau. The plateau could be associated with additional skills or responsibilities required to carry out the task. Once a better comfort level is established with those additional proficiencies, the acceleration resumes toward the level of mastery until it is successfully reached.

One thing to note with the learning curve is, learners who experience a steeper learning curve are not necessarily less knowledgeable. The training techniques that are being used may not support the trainee’s style of learning. If that is discovered to be the issue, the technique can be properly adjusted to give the learner a fair chance.

Let’s now take a turn of focus onto learning theories, where opinions differ on the similarities and differences between training and education. The concept of the two is very similar. The difference comes in with education conveying a wider range of knowledge and training teaching specific skills. Education tends to hold more long-term effects since a good amount of its teachings include fundamentals and core values. Educational teaching is also more standardized. For example, research is best acquired in an education environment, while improving customer service skills with customized techniques would work best in a training session.

Now that we’ve established the difference on how things are taught, let’s talk about how we share new knowledge.

  1. Explicit Knowledge. Consider this as the type of knowledge that can be easily recalled, interpreted, and can be clearly communicated to others. A procedure manual or an employee handbook would be considered explicit knowledge within a company. If our forklift driver received a safety manual covering safety guidelines for operating a forklift, he is in receipt of explicit knowledge. It can be read, retained, and shared with others as needed.
  2. Tacit Knowledge. This is far more complicated to explain or share, since tacit knowledge comes from a person’s own experience performing an action. If the experienced forklift driver who is training the new driver were to only recite or write down effective ways for the new driver to maneuver the forklift in crowded spaces, it would not be effective. This is because the trainer’s years of experience driving a forklift in various spaces has placed them at an expert level, and that portion cannot be taught.

Over time, there have been acclaimed psychologists who have conducted studies that have supported the vast reactions to learning. When we learn, the brain processes different reactions to certain stimuli. Stimuli can be anything externally (sound, sight, smell, etc.) or an experience that directly influences learning or a response. An example would be smelling food when becoming hungry. The food is the stimulus, which is causing a response, the hunger.

Another response to mention is motivation. In learning, motivation is associated with reinforcement, which could be positive or negative. The positive reinforcement usually comes with an incentive so that a positive outcome is achieved. An example would be a mother who praises her child for doing their chores. Then, there’s negative reinforcement, which uses avoidance measures that can still result in a positive response. If the mother removes her negative response of nagging when the child doesn’t do their chores, that would be considered negative reinforcement.

We can’t talk reinforcement without mentioning feedback. Learners need to have an honest impression of their progress. Without it, there is no way to measure their knowledge and skills. Constant feedback as the training takes place is helpful, and that includes constructive feedback. Constructive feedback can be perceived as negative, but if delivered in the right way so that students feel motivated to overcome their challenges, it can be far better received. Once training is complete, the knowledge and skills students have acquired become transferable. This is because all that they’ve learned has enabled them to transfer new concepts into real-world scenarios.

We spoke of psychologists earlier and how their theories have helped to shape our views and reactions to learning. Let’s look at Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning, which is a six-level approach to learning mastery. It starts students off at a basic level of knowledge on a particular subject. With each increasing level, students’ knowledge is further challenged until they reach the top level, where all they’ve learned on all prior levels has advanced them to mastery. The levels, which flow from bottom to top are:

  1. KNOWLEDGE. In this level, students learn the basic concepts of a particular subject and can recall certain aspects about the subject from long-term memory. Using a potato as an example, if a student is asked, “What is a potato” they would state facts from memories, such as its color, it’s texture, and its starchiness.
  2. COMPREHENSION. Comprehension is understanding. Students take what they know from general knowledge and know that potatoes come in more than one color and can be cooked in several different ways.
  3. APPLICATION. With application, students are applying the information they’ve learned from the knowledge and comprehension stages and using it to understand how the subject—the potato—would change in a different environment. An example would be asking the students to try to predict the physical condition of a potato once it is boiled, baked, or fried.
  4. ANALYSIS. In the analysis level, students become more hands-on with their learning, and this often involves experiments. Students could test their predictions from the application stage by boiling, baking, and frying potatoes. They may consider using different types of potatoes and analyze how each cooking process affects each potato type.
  5. SYNTHESIS. Forming a theory, or synthesis, can now take place. Now, students are able to take the information they’ve learned from the results of the analyses and from that, develop their own theories. They may observe how a red potato shrivels considerably when baked.
  6. EVALUATION. Evaluation is considered the mastery stage. Based on what students have learned in their analysis and experiments, they are able to defend their understanding of the subject. At this level, students could argue that russet potatoes are more versatile than a red potato, since the russet can be both fried and baked without losing its flavor and shape.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning is an approach that can be applied in classrooms and beyond. But Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy is more restrictive, since it is a learning system designed specifically for adults. Knowles theorized that adults learn differently from children. His Five Assumptions of Adult Learners helped to support his theory, and each assumption should be noted by teachers who are instructing adults:

  1. Self-Concept. Once children become adults, a change takes place. Their thinking transforms from dependence to independence.
  2. Adult-Learner Experience. As adults navigate through life, their knowledge becomes keener because along the way, they’re drawing from their life’s experiences.
  3. Readiness to Learn. Adults are more open to learning when it enhances their personal lives and positions at work.
  4. Orientation to Learning. Adult learners seek out specific learning topics that are useful and helpful in everyday scenarios.
  5. Motivation to Learning. Adults are motivated by their own internal forces to learn.

Pedagogy refers to the act of teaching students and the range of teaching methods the teacher decides to use based on the curriculum and/or class size. Although there are a number pedagogy styles to note, we will use the style of crossover learning as an example. A music teacher choosing crossover learning for her class of 15 students allows the teacher to take the students on field trips to concert halls, rehearsals, or music museums to extend their learning from the classroom. Afterward, the students can share their experiences from each event, which alone could spark new learning topics.

From learning styles, to techniques and settings, to theories, by now, you may have developed a better idea of what type of learner you are, and why certain classes may have been more interesting than others. And if not, you’re definitely ahead of the “curve” on some important learning and development topics!

I hope this overview was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: October 2, 2020