Department of Communication


How Adults Learn

Chapter 2

General Laws of Learning—the authors use this definition of learning: “a change in individuals due to the interaction of the individuals and their environment, which fills a need and makes them more capable of dealing with adequately with their environment.” If training is successful, the trainer should be able to see a change in the trainees’ performance/behavior. And we need to train only if the need is evident; that a problem exist. We don’t train just for the sake of training. Ultimately, you should remember that your objective is to increase performance through a change in behavior. There are three general laws of training:


Law of Effect—people learn best under pleasant and rewarding conditions.
Create a pleasant physical environment—good lighting, comfortable seating, clean surroundings, etc. The Maslow & Mintz “beautiful room” study supports this general premise.
Accommodate Trainees’ Work Schedules—try to be flexible (more than one time) and let them choose the times. The more control we feel we have over issues in our lives, the better our attitude.
Schedule Appropriate Breaks—generally 90 minutes is as long as any trainer wants to go without a break. Often less than that. Do whatever you need to keep them fresh and interested.

Law of Frequency—the more often you practice a trained behavior, the more likely you’ll continue doing it accurately in the future. Classic examples are with musicians and athletes. When performing this law, be sure to do the following:
Have the trainees practice the correct skill—you will suffer consequences if you practice and learn the wrong way to do something.
Use the “plus-one” mastery technique—you learn the process one step at a time while adding a new step to the preceding steps. Once you learn step one, then move on to step two, going back and repeating as needed.
Have trainees train the trainer—turn the table and have them tell you how to do something or show another. A good “hands-on” approach that helps ensure the message actually got through.

Law of Association—this suggests that for every new fact, idea, or concept we learn, if we can relate it to something we already know, all the better. The process of associating something new with something we already know. For example, someone who was good at organizing a persuasive speech, would be able to see many similarities with making a sales call in a professional selling environment. Effective ways to do this are via:
Use of analogies—the principle of comparing something we don’t know with something we do and showing how strong the similarities are between the two.
Compare and contrast with other familiar processes—adults often learn between by comparing and contrasting things.

Workplace Motivation for Training—The effectiveness of workplace training is not just a factor of the learning style of the employee (to come later in the chapter), but of the organization as a whole. In other words, the attitude or culture of the company will influence the kind of training conducted. It may or may not be conducive to the individual learning styles of its workers. Psychologist Fredrick Herzberg proposed a two-factor theory on job satisfaction. The first set of factors are called satisfiers/motivators—those things that make for stimulating and challenging work. The second set is called dissatisfiers/hygiene factors and are elements that contribute to the environment, rather than the work itself. Motivators are thinks like advancement, growth, recognition, interesting work, etc. While hygiene factors are things like job security, salary, supervision, etc. Herzberg says by enhancing the motivators, employees’ motivation should improve and so will their productivity.


Andragogy versus Pedagogy—the science and art of teaching adults and children. The andragogy approach (adults) is more self-directed than teacher-directed (pedagogy). When it comes to learning, the difference between an adult and a child is more about the maturity level than with their chronological age. With maturity we should think of the degree of experience the trainee brings to the classroom. So you may have a 25-year-old employee who brings a great deal of experience to the classroom, while a 45 year old employee may not. Some assumptions seem to hold true when we are training adults:

Adults Need Relevant Training—Repetition for repetition’s sake does not produce a substantial learning effect on adults. They need to see how this training relates to their jobs and how it can help them be more effective. To ensure this is met, a needs assessment is vital. You’ve got to know what they already know, what they need to know, and be able to show them how to do it. Rather than have trainees work in textbook drills, they benefit more by practicing work-related tasks in the learning environment. This assumption is supported by a variety of adult trainers, so consequently carries a great deal of weight.


Adults Bring Experience to the Classroom—many adult trainees have been around; and are seasoned employees. They already know the basic skills so the focus must be on how to use these skills to make their jobs better or more productive. Sometimes the experiences they have had are less than positive and a good trainer should take such “bad examples” and make them positive. (Some suggestions are noted on page 30)


Adults are Internally Motivated to Learn—They usually want to learn because they see this as the route to promotions, pay raises, job security and satisfaction, etc. They want to learn to better themselves, not so much to please another. They want a learning outcome they can put to use in concrete, practical, and self-benefiting terms. When you can show anyone how they can apply what you are teaching to their lives and/or jobs, they are much more likely to become and stay motivated.

Adults Know They Need to Learn—This is no mystery to them, they know what they don’t know and how it impedes their progress in the job. As a result, good trainers ensure their training is need-based, and encourages self-directed learning in that it allows the adults to target areas they to improve up and work on them. Ideally, training should be timely---when needed and in regular intervals. One-shot training that is not followed-up on regularly greatly limits the chances of the trainee actually taking the lesson and making changes to their behavior. Recognize the adults learners may take errors/mistakes personally and let it impact their self-esteem. Play the role of coach by encouraging them when needed and reassuring when necessary. You are not an army drill sergeant and you do not need to coerce or cajole trainees to learn.


Adult Learning is Problem-Oriented—show them how to hand specific problems and group together by skill and/or skill levels.


Learning Styles—Not everyone learns things the same way. In fact, it would be a big mistake to assume as much. We all have our preferences; our learning style—how we perceive, organize, process, and remember information. What works best for one may or may not work for another. A wise trainer is aware of such innate differences in the audience.


Perceptual Learning Differences—some of us learn differently. Such as:
Visual learners—these are viewing and reading learners who like to see things and do things when learning. This may include such items as colorful posters, neon sticky notes, or anything like this to enhance the environment. Long lecture, abstract material and a lack of visual support will make learning a real struggle for this person. They often will model themselves after another who is successful. If using this modeling concept, make the models realistic or real, use models that are similar to the trainees, and set realistic expectations.
Aural learners—These people learn through hearing and speaking. Clarity comes from expressing their thinking. Lectures, audiocassettes, and sound tracks can be useful learning tools.

Kinesthetic learners—These people learn by touching and doing. These are the “hands-on” learners. In some cases trainers will supply such items as Play-Doh™, tactile toys, or even crayons for trainees to work with. Additionally, case studies and role-play scenarios are effective for this group.

Learning Time Differences—This refers to the time it takes for some people to learn. Kinds of learners are:
Reflective learners—take time to learn, focus on details and precision in their actions; want all the evidence before proceeding, known as the “plodders” who will not be rushed into their behavior.
Impulsive learners—they work quickly and not likely to go back and work out the rough spots before presenting the final product; likely to work off a rough outline than a detailed one; known as “sweepers” as they quickly move through material. The reality of training in business is that time is often not allocated for the reflective learners; the impulsive ones are likely accommodated by trainers to a greater extent.

Information Processing Differences—this focuses on how we process information; how we learn to grasp concepts. Some people are “big picture” folks while others like to see the small part first.
Whole-part learners—these people like to see the big picture first and then learn the details later. Show the trainees what the finished product will look like, then go back and add the details. A good approach is to give a handout or outline of what is to be covered or the end product.
Part-whole learners—these people like to learn the small parts or details first and then see how they fit together to complete the big picture. Take them through the training stage by stage.

Kolb Learning Style Inventory—this is a diagnostic tool that identifies learning styles and methods for effectively teaching them. They are as follows:
Divergers—learn by observing; learn from other’s experiences. Work with them by using buzz groups, brainstorming sessions, and mentor/mentee relationships.
Assimilators—prefer to learn by listening to experts; learn in sequential order and ordering things in a logical fashion. Work with them via traditional lectures, expert presentations and individual research projects.
Convergers—they approach learning from a very logical problem-solving perspective; like to analyze things, test solutions, and find solutions to problems. Best to use problem-solving processes to teach this group. For example, the Reflective-Thinking Problem-Solving sequence is ideal for solving problems and would be effective for a this type of learner.
Accommodaters—they like to learn via hands-on experiences and by trial and error. More likely to trust their “gut instinct”; will seek out other people for their input and ideas; may be accused of lacking a logical basis for their actions. Work with this group via field experiments, on-the-job training, and organized internships.


Recommendations for the Training Practitioner—
Don’t assume everyone learns as you do
Don’t always train in the manner you were trained
Use a variety of training methods to tap into all learning styles
Matching—trainees are instructed in a method that matches what they are comfortable with. This seems logical but is very hard to do since your group will have a variety of styles and you would have to design training to accommodate each style.
Bridging—the trainees style of learning are accommodated only if they are struggling with the method or style being taught.
Style-flexing—trainee styles are accommodated but also pushed to learn new ways to increase their confidence in new settings and with net methods.