The Key To Training Adults in the Workplace


“The mediocre teacher says. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” – William Arthur Ward

Recognizing the unique characteristics of adult learners is crucial for instructors seeking to deliver impactful workplace training. Malcolm Knowles, a prominent figure in adult education, introduced the concept of andragogy, the art and science of adult learning. He formulated four principles to guide instructors in effectively training adults: readiness, experience, autonomy, and action. By embracing these principles, instructors can optimize their teaching approach and create a meaningful learning experience for adult students, benefitting individuals and organizations. Let’s delve deeper into each principle:

  1. Readiness: Adult learners come to training with their own goals and priorities. Therefore, it is essential to tailor the training to address their specific needs. By answering the “What’s in it for me?” question, instructors can demonstrate how the training will solve problems, offer opportunities, or foster personal and professional growth. Reinforcing the benefits of the training helps engage adult students and demonstrates the value of the material being taught.
  2. Experience: Adult learners bring a wealth of experience to the table. While this experience can support learning, instructors must balance leveraging prior knowledge and avoiding overwhelming students. Using relatable examples and language that is neither condescending nor overly complex helps bridge the experience gap. Additionally, incorporating relevant experiences from the course enriches the training sessions, making them more relatable and impactful.
  3. Autonomy: Successful teaching involves empowering adult learners to take ownership of their learning journey. Adult students thrive when they can actively participate, contribute, and make decisions. Instructors should treat adult learners as independent and capable individuals, creating an environment where they feel comfortable making mistakes without fear of judgment or belittlement. Incorporating hands-on practice through exercises, case studies, and simulations or utilizing virtual training labs in online settings further reinforces autonomy and encourages active engagement.
  4. Action: Given the competing priorities adults face in the workplace, training must be action-oriented. Instructors should help adult learners understand the immediate application of their learning. If students cannot see how to apply the content quickly, their motivation and retention may suffer. Instructors can foster an action mindset by highlighting how the training content can be immediately applied in their roles. Providing on-the-job support mechanisms, such as post-class quizzes or end-of-course exams, reinforces learning and motivates students to apply newly acquired knowledge. Assigning homework that reinforces the day’s curriculum, focusing on practical application, is another effective strategy.

To deliver successful training, instructors must deeply understand their adult learners—their needs, desires, mindsets, and motivations. By tailoring training approaches to align with adult learners’ traits and characteristics, instructors can create a valuable and engaging learning experience for all participants.

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