How do we successfully teach adults? Or more precisely, how do we facilitate their learning? There are some who would argue that there is no difference when it comes to education, that everyone learns the same way. By answering this question, I will demonstrate, however, that we need to address the differences to provide the best possible educational environment for adult learners.

It is first necessary to examine how adults are defined. Malcolm Knowles, the father of adult educational theory, applies the following criteria: First, a person is an adult to the extent that the individual is performing social roles typically assigned by a culture to those it considers adults, such as employee, spouse, parent, responsible citizen, soldier, etc. Second, a person is adult to the extent that the individual perceives himself or herself to be essentially responsible for her or his own life.

As a trainer, I have facilitated adult educational sessions with varied success. Why does training that worked with one group fall flat with another group? By improving our preparation and teaching techniques, trainers can create better retention for those trained. Knowing our audience, their background and discovering their expectations are the first steps in improving training. By reviewing general learning theories, teaching techniques and the motivation to learn, we will discover how to better set the environment for learning to occur and increase the benefit to our learners.

Learning Theories

Following are several learning theories that apply to adults as well as children but which were primarily developed based upon research with children.

Pedagogy and Andragogy

Pedagogy is the science of educating children. It is often used as a synonym for teaching. Pedagogy embodies teacher-focused education. Andragogy, originally defined as the science of educating adults, has evolved and now refers to learner-focused education not exclusive to adults.

Sensory Stimulation Theory stems from the idea that to learn, people must use their senses. Sight is the best sense for learning, followed by hearing. Most adults retain more information from sight education (75%) than through any other senses. Hearing comes in a poor second with 13%. Retention of information follows the same lines. After 72 hours, we retain 30% of what we saw and 10% of what we heard. If we are taught in a situation with both visual and audio stimuli, our retention is increased to 70%.

Reinforcement Theory, based upon B.F. Skinner's research, follows the idea of positive and negative reinforcement. People learn based upon rewards (positive) for correct behavior or from punishment (negative) for inappropriate behavior. When a learner achieves the desired result, the teacher provides positive reinforcement or removes a negative reinforcement.

Facilitation Theory focuses on the learner's involvement in the education process. Facilitation invites the learner to explore and share their ideas in an atmosphere where they feel safe from external factors. Teachers, as facilitators, should be open to others' beliefs, be able to listen to students and their feelings, and be able to accept innovative, creative ideas.

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