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How To Meet the Needs of Adult Learning Styles

Training programs are one of the most effective ways to retain staff members and help them grow within your organization. But not all training programs are created equal. To effectively train your staff members, you need learning content that utilizes adult learning theory. Our brains function differently as we age. Tailoring your training to adult learning styles will provide greater motivation for your staff to learn and drive better results for your organization.

The basics of adult learning theory

While many theories exist as to how adults learn best, they all have their roots in the concept of andragogy. Originally introduced by education researcher Malcom Knowles in 1980, andragogy is the art and science of teaching adults. Using pedagogy, or the art and science of teaching children, as his launching point, Knowles created a system for adult education.

Aware that people learn differently as they age, Knowles’ andragogical system contains several characteristics of adult learners. These characteristics attempt to define both why adults engage in learning and how they best retain information. These learning characteristics include:

  • An internal drive to learn
  • The willingness, or even preference, to engage in self-directed learning
  • The ability to draw upon previous experiences to help contextualize new knowledge
  • The desire to learn due to a transfer into a new job
  • The ability to use new knowledge to solve a real-world problem

As a self-directed learning style that emphasizes establishing relationships with instructors, andragogy requires a cultural shift away from traditional approaches to education. This will prove more challenging for some members of your staff than others, so make sure to establish an inclusive training program, giving your staff members access to the resources they feel the most comfortable with.

The three adult learning styles

Adult learning theory does a lot to help us understand why adults want to learn, which is key to designing great training programs. But to make the most effective training possible, you also need to understand how adults learn. By understanding the learning styles of your staff members, you can work to create more personalized trainings that will improve learner engagement and overall training outcomes.

The three main adult learning styles are:

  • Auditory: Auditory learners take in and retain information best by listening, speaking, and hearing. They prefer lectures, taking part in discussions, and brainstorming sessions. You may also consider webinars, videos, or podcasts as effective means of training your auditory learners.
  • Kinesthetic: Kinesthetic learners prefer to engage in hands-on learning. This means that they prefer to learn a concept by performing it, even if that means a trail-and-error approach. Kinesthetic learners may also find it difficult to remain engaged during long lectures, either online or in-person.
  • Visual: Visual learners find images, demonstrations, and videos most helpful. They retain information best when it is presented in some type of visual format. Due to this, they often put themselves in low-distraction situations while learning so they can read instructors’ facial cues and body language.

While each of us tends to have a preferred or dominate learning style, research has shown that a mixture of the three adult learning styles proved the most effective. In fact, adults retain around 10% of what they see, 30-40% of what they see and hear, and 90% of what they see, hear, and do.

How to assess your staffs’ adult learning styles

Adult learning styles are diverse and unique to the individual. Self-assessment can be a great way to encourage learners to better understand how they learn best. “A number of online learning style assessments can be used and you could even ask your learners to share their results,” said Rebecca McDougall, VP of Customer Success at Cognota.

Asking for feedback and observing how your staff members are retaining the content is also a great start!

Use a Learning Management Platform to cater to adult learning styles

The three main adult learning styles and how organizations can leverage them in training.

The three main adult learning styles and how organizations can leverage them in training.

Learning management platforms make a wonderful tool for enhancing organizational learning for many reasons, one of which is their ability to address every adult learning style. A good learning management platform will come with several different learning modalities that allow you to address the various learning needs of your staff.

Tools like Course Creator can give teams the ability to create easy to build, easy to launch, training content that can combine a variety of asset types into a simple learning element or training plan.

You can incorporate text, visual, audio and video components into a single course, giving your learner the flexibility to review the content in many different ways.

Auditory learners

Auditory learners in your organization can take advantage of blended learning modules.

Blended learning is a concept that incorporates the benefits of both in-person and online learning. In a blended learning environment, students can interact with their instructors, create and participate in peer discussion groups, have consistent access to learning materials, and get real-time feedback on their progress through online assessments.

This will allow auditory learners the opportunity they need to both receive lectures from trainers and discuss their new learnings with their cohorts.

Kinesthetic learners

For kinesthetic learners, look for a learning management platform that allows for simulation-based training.

These modules walk learners through real-life scenarios, giving them the ability to make choices that will affect the outcome of the module. This approach will give the kinesthetic learners in your organization a simulated, life-like environment in which to practice so they can hone their skills without solely relying on in-person experience.

Not only will this approach provide the hands-on practice these learners prefer, but the virtual nature of these modules means learners can use them any time, anywhere.

Visual learners

Visual learners among your staff will find the video-based learning that comes with live virtual training and microlearning modules helpful. Live virtual training allows learners to attend traditional training sessions and lectures via the learning management platform, giving visual learners the distraction-free environment they prefer.

While microlearning is well known for its ability to deliver effective training in small, five- to-30-minute blocks, it’s also great for visual learners. To deliver effective training in such a small amount of time, microlearning modules often come in video or other visual formats. This gives visual learners another means of accessing information in their preferred way.

Combine adult learning styles

Research has shown that not only do adults learn best when all three adult learning styles are employed, many actually prefer it.

When designing training programs for your staff members, make sure to incorporate a variety of training modalities. This will not only help to engage more of them in these trainings but will also increase information retention. Ultimately, this will lead to higher levels of both staff satisfaction and client care.

You can do this by using a variety of content types. According to McDougall, providing recordings, job-aids and handouts, and ensuring that any audio or video content is supplemented by captions or visuals can be a great start.

The Magic Triangle

The Magic Triangle is a framework that can help visualize ways to combine different types of training. It represents the relationship between three key areas of learning:

  • Learning objectives: What learners will be taught.
  • Learning activities: How learners will be taught.
  • Learning assessment: How to measure the efficacy of the training.

When developing training content, it’s important that these three elements are built so that they all feed into each other. This can improve the instructional design of the content and ensure that the desired learning outcomes are achieved by allowing learners to make connections between objectives, activities, and assessments or outcomes.

“When one or more of these elements is not aligned, then learners can become disengaged or confused, and not achieve the desired learning outcomes.” – Rebecca McDougall

Once you’ve drafted your learning objectives, consider what activities would help the learner achieve that outcome. Then, think how you would measure whether they’ve learned the specific objective or not.

It seems simple, but taking a step back and considering if the objectives, activities, and assessments are in support of each other is highly valuable.


Choosing the Right Learning Management Platform: The Ultimate Guide for Human Services Professionals

Leveraging the power of a learning management platform is instrumental in sustaining a culture of learning. In doing so, you can streamline the learning and development of your staff, standardize learning and development activities across different departments or professions, and keep your organization flexible and agile. Download the e-book to learn how to select the right learning management platform for your organization.

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