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How Should Adult Learners Learn – 6 Tips for Learning Better!

This post isn’t for trainers, or instructional designers, or content developers; or any such individuals who are worried about making others learn. This post is for the adult learner. The adult, who for some reason becomes a learner, is the audience for this post.

Before I begin with the tips, I want to say that an adult might be in a training program for a variety of reasons. These reasons could vary from “having a genuine learning need” to “having been asked to go.” Irrespective of your reason, once you find yourself in a training, you have committed to spend the most precious of all your resources, your time, for the program. So, it’s now in your interest to get the best from it – even though at times, you might find yourself in a program that has no “immediate need/application” (ref: Knowles’ Andragogy) for you.

With that settled, let us now review the six steps you should take to make your experience happy and fruitful.

  1. Use your Prior Learning Smartly
  2. Strip your Mind of Preconceived Notions
  3. Share what you “Understand” and not what you “Know”!
  4. Peel the Jargon Away before your Share
  5. Delegate the Driving Activity to the Trainer
  6. Focus on the Training Goal and not your Personal Goal

Let us quickly look at each of the above six guidelines in some more detail.

Use your Prior Learning Smartly

We adults are burdened with tons of prior learning on almost half the things under the sun. This is a good thing for us only when we know how to use our learning – if we don’t, we have a tendency to spill it all over the place, in a random pattern. This may work when we are trying to impress an impressionable audience, who’s a blank slate when it comes to your esoteric knowledge area. Unfortunately it doesn’t work in a program that’s laid out to achieve a predefined learning objective, for a specific group of learners, within a given time-frame.

However, when we filter our prior learning and share only what is relevant, we initiate productive discussions. We also form a strong bond of learning with the trainer and the other participants.

So, use your prior learning smartly instead of shooting random arrows from the hip!

Strip your Mind of Preconceived Notions

  1. So you didn’t want to come for the training?
  2. You also don’t think that trainings help?
  3. You feel that the trainer is a moron – and that if anyone was worthy of doing a training program on the subject – you were?

Let’s see what you should be doing for each of the three points above.

  1. Cool off! Let us reflect upon it. You didn’t want to come, but for some arcane reason, you’ve ended up in the training. Now accept it.
  2. You don’t think trainings help – right? So why are you in the training then. You didn’t have the nerve to speak up and give your boss a piece of your mind…and so you find yourself in the program. Good. Now accept it.
  3. The trainer is a moron and you could do a better job? Great. Next time, apply for being the trainer not the trainee. Now…accept it.

Accept it, go ahead, and make the best use of the training by becoming more generous and more pliable. Remember, a dry and rigid stick breaks, the soft and the flexible one doesn’t – it dances and smiles, and it has loads of fun!

Get rid of your preconceived notions. Once you’ve crossed the threshold and entered the training hall, they can only hurt your learning and image. Leave them behind.

Share what you “Understand” and not what you “Know”!

We, the adult learners often act before we think. We are often driven by “esteem needs” and we try to put our best foot forward even before the party begins.

Don’t share every little speck of information that you had squirreled away, once upon a time. Weigh its relevance to the training content, decide if it could help others in some way, and then share it! But of course, for such mature decision-making, you’d need to have some understanding of what you want to share – just recalling a term wouldn’t help!

So if you are sitting in a training program on motivation, and the trainer has not yet begun to explain the MBTI personality types, don’t just point your finger at the trainer and shout, “you are the INTJ type!” Reflect upon your action. It was probably triggered by the need to let everyone know that you “knew already.” Nevertheless, had you understood MBTI personality types and not just remembered one of the 16 types, you could have waited until the topic was introduced. It would have helped you come up with a more useful contribution, which made the participants and the trainer respect you.

Peel the Jargon Away before your Share

As we all know, shop jargon is a very useful thing in shop. Unfortunately jargon doesn’t make a lot of sense in training programs that draw the audience from different backgrounds. Don’t use jargon when you discuss something in a training program. Yes, there could be some terminology that is introduced in the training program, or, that you are sure everyone in the training program would know – such terminology could be used with care.
Also be ready to explain any term that you use in your queries or discussions. If the use of such a term is unavoidable, preempt confusion  by explaining the term to everyone’s benefit.

Delegate the Driving Activity to the Trainer

We all like to be in command. We all like to be in the driver’s seat – especially if we think that we were better drivers. However, in training programs, it’s better to take a back seat and delegate the driving function to the trainer or the instructor.

Stretching the analogy a little further – you might be an excellent driver who driven for 20 the American roads. However, when in India, I’d recommend that you hire a local driver who knows how to navigate through the Indian city traffic and who’s conversant with the Indian traffic rules and guidelines. It would be a definite (and rather foolish) suicide attempt to take the steering wheel from this driver.

Let the trainer steer the training. He or she probably knows the subject terrain better than you do. You sit back and enjoy your learning ride.

Focus on the Training Goal and not your Personal Goal

We all have our personal goals. These goals are usually driven either by “safety/security needs” or by “esteem needs.” (Refer: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) Sometimes the personal goal becomes too distant (Ex: My supervisor needed to send 4 people of this training – and because one of the originally selected team-members became sick, I was asked to go,” In such cases, we often yield to supervisor-pressure and agree to participate despite the training goal having no direct personal relevance. But look again, you agreed because you thought that it could help you forge a stronger relationship with your boss, or on the other extreme, not to face his wrath at the time of your appraisal, thus fulfilling your “safety/security needs,” or more precisely your “job security need”:-)

Thus the fact that you “elected” to go through the training program “proves” that you found a match between your personal goals and the training goal. After all, theoretically speaking, you can’t bulldoze adult learners into doing something that they don’t want to do.  So, “practically” speaking, if you didn’t have the gumption to stand up for your right to say No to the training program before you came into the program, there’s no point standing up after you’ve committed three days of your precious time.

The training goal is put in place beforehand and the trainer’s goal is to ensure that the training goal is met. Like it or not, your best bet is to accept this fact and try to achieve the training goal. That’s the only mature way of handling such a situation once it has arisen. Of course, the most reasonable course of action would be to not attend such programs where the training goal doesn’t match your personal goals.

Sometimes however, we have no choice in the matter. I understand. Yet, do remember, you have the choice of either making the best use of your time or of rolling it up and smoking it away!


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