First off, my writing here will focus mainly on designing an e-learning course for adult learners, in my case, university students. I guess, the instructional approach will be slightly different when designing the course for learners from different age groups. Compared to children and teens, adults have special needs and requirements as learners. Understanding how adults learn and applying these principles as we create e-learning content can help us produce more effective and engaging information that users truly learn and appreciate.
In this article, I will review some of the theories or views (more fancy terms – school of thought) on adult learning and try to relate them with my own experience and observation. I do hope that other readers can share their own experience on this subject matter.
I must admit that when I first embarked on the project (developing my first e-learning course), the issue of how adults learn didn’t cross my mind at all. And I must humbly admit also that, after more than 12 years teaching, I didn’t know much about the various learning theories and pedagogical aspects of teaching-learning (ignorance bliss?). You see, I’m a food technologist. Soon after I completed my Ph.D in Food Technology, I came back and joined the university as a lecturer – and I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to teach the adult students! (that was back in 1994). I think most university lecturers do not have sufficient knowledge and exposure on pedagogy, learning theory or instructional methods. Of course, there are “induction” courses and other programs conducted by the university for young lecturers but these are still largely inadequate to equip them to become good educators. So we end up using our best teacher/lecturer during our school/university days as a role model and try to emulate them.
So, whether we are teaching in a classroom or designing an e-learning course for adult learners, ideally the e-learning team members (especially the subject matter expert and instructional designer) should have some basic understanding and should be aware of the current learning theory on adults learning. By the way, adult learning theory is a relatively new field of study and there’s a special term for it -- andragogy (I don’t know how many more “gogy” is out there, but you can start to add it in your Microsoft Word dictionary, otherwise you’ll get that irritating red underline!).
So, how do adults learn? Although there are ongoing debates in academic circles about how adult learning differs from child learning, the ideas of adult education expert Malcolm Knowles* are generally accepted as a foundation of adult learning theory. He identified the following characteristics of adult learners:
- Have real-life experiences;
- Prefer problem-centered learning;
- They prefer to manage their own learning
- They are goal-oriented;
- Have varied learning styles;
- Expect learning to be meaningful;
Obviously adult learners are unique in that they have more life and work experiences on which to draw. What kind of experience? It could be professional experience, practical work experience, previous education and training or perhaps even family experience. Adults can connect learning to their life experiences and should be respected for having that knowledge. Think about it…if you are teaching high school or college students, they have between 16 to 20 years of “experience” behind them. Hmm…not bad ha..
Okay, what about problem-centered learning? Well, it just means (the way I understand it) that they are motivated to learn as a response to problems and changes. This is where they will have the opportunity to apply their experience and make appropriate strategies to solve the problem. Adult learners are also autonomous -- they are independent and selfdirected. They need to be free to direct themselves in learning activities. In other words, they should be able to work with minimum supervision or hand-holding. Teacher/lecturer should act more as a facilitator. Put it another way, treat them like adults! Well, I have something to say about this. In the context of university students (Malaysian scenario), adult students tend to expect learning to be delivered in a traditional, teacher-led way, and to expect the lecturer to do the “work” of the learning. They are there to absorb the learning. The blame is not entirely on them because, for years, they have been taught via a certain method, namely, teacher-led instruction. They have not been expected to be part of the hands-on and independent learning process. This is a pattern that is in the process of being broken down; however, we are talking about breaking down a pattern that has been in existence for decades. This mindset is not going away easily, and to expect adult students to automatically embrace a brand new way of learning immediately, or without proper orientation, is expecting too much.
Adults learners are goal-oriented – they know what they want to accomplish at the end of the course. Therefore, they would appreciate a well-plan and well-structured course. We should recognize also that adults have varied learning styles (I guess that’s also true for children). This means that the course should be designed to be flexible and accomodative of different learning styles. Wait…say it again…flexible and accomodative of different learning styles. Hmm…I’ve heard or read somewhere about this. How exactly we can design a course to allow that kind of flexibility. I need to research more on this aspect. Perhaps I will get some experts to elaborate on this point….help!
Adults are practical too, focusing on the parts of a lesson that are most useful to them. They may be interested in knowledge for its own sake but it is more important for them to understand the usefulness of a lesson. In other words, adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins. This means, also, that theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. This need can be fulfilled by letting participants choose projects that reflect their own interests.
Another aspect of adult learning is motivation. Unlike children and teenagers, adults have many responsibilities that they must balance against the demands of learning. Because of these responsibilities, adults have barriers against participating in learning. Some of these barriers include lack of time, money, confidence, or interest, lack of information about opportunities to learn, scheduling problems, and the list continues. I have some experience dealing with adult students when I was the Deputy Dean for Student Affairs. I can tell you, it’s a real headache! People are motivated to learn in different ways and for different reasons. For one person, the impetus for learning might be the expectation of improved social interaction; for another, it may be the promise of working more efficiently; and for yet another, it may be satisfying an academic or managerial requirement to achieve rewards or recognition. The best motivators for adult learners are interest and selfish benefit. If they can be shown that the course benefits them pragmatically, they will perform better, and the benefits will be longer lasting. Understanding the diversity of motivation of your students is the first step toward designing effective courses.
Well, after reading all these theories, let’s ponder for a moment…how much of these elements have we (educators/trainers) really incorporated in our own course, be it off-line or online? Hmm….well….errr…all right, just think about it, okay? Now, how do we apply adult learning principles to e-learning? First, we have to recognize that although the technology of learning is changing and will continue to evolve, the principles of adult learning have not changed – and these can be adapted to e-learning course as well. For example, class discussions can still take place in a distance learning setting, in the form of bulletin boards, chat rooms or online collaboration (using various applications such as Webex, Microsoft Live Meeting (did you watch Apprentice 4?), GoToMeeting, etc.—more on collaboration software in my next writing). There are even more alternatives nowdays such as direct conversation using applications such as Skype or Google Talk. As for the assessments of the course, this can be done using Web site forms instead of paper and pencil (learning management system, or LMS, provides an easy way to do online assessment).
Back to the question: how do we apply adult learning principles to e-learning? This would be elaborated further in the coming writing, but for now, these are the essential points suggested by Knowles:
- set a cooperative learning climate
- create mechanisms for mutual planning
- arrange for a diagnosis of learner needs and interests
- enable the formulation of learning objectives based on the diagnosed needs and interests
- design sequential activities for achieving the objectives
- execute the design by selecting methods, materials, and resources; and
- evaluate the quality of the learning experience while rediagnosing needs for further learning
Why is Malcolm Knowles one of the most frequently cited theorists in adult education, and why is he frequently referred to as "the Father of Adult Learning?" Read more…
*Malcom Knowles has written a few books on the subject of adult learning:
- The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy
- Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers
- The Adult Learner, Sixth Edition
The following books are also recommended:
- Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction (Michael W. Galbraith)
- Best Practices In Adult Learning (Lee Bash, ed.)
- Developing Adult Learners: Strategies for Teachers and Trainers (Kathleen Taylor et al.)
- Taking Learning to Task: Creative Strategies for Teaching Adults (Jane Vella)
Here are selected resources on adult learning:
- How adults learn? -- Marcia L. Conner's comprehensive resource features an overview of adult learning theory, a list of books about how adults learn, and website links.
- Patterns in adult learning -- Dr. Judy Smith describes five typical patterns in adult learning and explores the implications for teaching and learning in both traditional and online learning;
- Principles of adult learning --A practical and brief article by Stephen Lieb.
- 30 things about adult learning --This is a list of 30 things to consider with respect to adult learners and motivation, designing curriculum for adults, and working with adults in the classroom.