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Challenging Adult Learners


Here’s something for you to try. (C’mon, I’ll wait for you to get out of your chair!)

Stand up and stretch your right arm out behind you, as far as it will go. (You may turn your body as you do so.) Now, come back to center and relax your arm.

Next, visualize doing this again. Think about taking your arm further back. Then do it again, but really “stretch” your eyes back as far as you can as you do it.

Did you notice this time that you could take your arm back much further?
To me, as a teacher of adults, this exercise serves as a metaphor for adults and learning. As learners, we thrive on challenges that are slightly beyond our reach, but reachable. In fact, research is clear that adults learn best when provided with learning tasks that really make them stretch.

Here are three ways trainers can help adult learners stretch.

Make it challenging, but present it simply. One of the biggest challenges we have as trainers is to present complex subjects simply. Strive to say things in the simplest possible way. This involves real practice for trainers, not just a quickie “run-through.” One way to challenge learners is to periodically “shut up” during the training. Provide opportunities for learners to discover things themselves. Don’t feel compelled to explain everything. Act as a facilitator to their process.

The excuse trainers often give for lecturing is “I have to cover the material!” Interestingly, this phrase can be taken in two ways. One of the meanings of “cover,” after all, is to “cover up”, or obfuscate. By trying to cover everything, we confuse, muddy and even lose the core, “must-know” content elements.

I encourage you to use the Acid Test when developing a workshop: When time limitations and a desire for simplicity mean you can only include the “must know” elements of a topic, first figure out what those are. Then identify the “nice to know” elements. Strip them out. Leave them behind. You can inject meaningful small-group activities into the class time you gain.

Make it fun. A great trainer once said: “I make ’em laugh, and when their mouths are open, I throw something in for them to chew on!” Humor and creativity come from, and create, the same chemicals in the brain. People are much more open to learning when they’re having a good time.

How to ensure the learning process is fun? Part of the answer is to have a good time yourself. If you consistently don’t enjoy what’s happening in the classroom, something’s wrong. When you provide engaging, relevant learning activities (NOT “fluff”) students have more fun. You will, too.

Organize chunks of material into one larger chunk. Research shows that people’s brains can only hold on to a maximum of nine items at a time. So trainers need to create meaningful chunks of training that condense several pieces of information into one. In their excellent book, “Telling Ain’t Training,” Stolovitch and Keeps provide this example:

  • The four cardinal points of a compass are north (N), east (E), west, (W), and south (S). (four items to store in memory.)
  • Remember this acronym: NEWS (one item to store in memory, so it’s easier to retain.)

Identify which parts of your training your can “clump together” to make easily-managed, larger chunks.

Helping adult learners successfully stretch directly correlates to the amount of preparation we do. How willing are you to truly think things out, develop helpful metaphors, and ensure your own thinking is clear and logical? If you experience any “fog” about any portion of your topic, your learners will, too. One of Malcolm Knowles’s essential principles for adult learning is “Respect.” We trainers respect learners by truly being prepared–not only to “cover the material,” but also to help them stretch their limits.


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