Remember this when planning for great adult educational programs

Focus on simple concepts to make a real difference in adult learning.

Interactive educational meeting with adults.

Imagine yourself intently trying to teach, and then seeing someone staring away focusing on nothing and perhaps thinking, “I’m interested and I want to learn this. But it is so boring; I'm not a kid anymore.” It is simple to make a few changes that will bring the energy needed to make this a dynamite learning experience.

We plan many educational programs with detailed agendas, listing great objectives to make sure of success. But we may be surprised to read evaluation comments saying something else; the program didn’t hit the mark. In that case, we failed our audience because we did not connect with them in a way that would make certain they could learn.

So, what could make this a richer learning experience? In Facilitating Adult Learning, May 2012, Lela Vandenberg suggests focusing on five simple concepts within any program:

  1. Personal benefit: Adult learners want to know how they will benefit from what they are learning. It is great if this knowledge solves or avoids some defined problem, or will lead to a long-term benefit, e.g., better job opportunity.
  2. Experience: Adult learners have credible life experiences and will be more involved if asked to share some unique aspect with others. Connect learning ideas to participants on a personal level to build broad-based understanding.
  3. Self-direction: Adult learners want to be treated like adults; this means “forget the dictates; let’s work together and it’ll work better”. Is it possible to share some decisions concerning the overall learning process, including how the program is structured? Is self-directed learning part of the plan? Are small group discussions used to review concepts for increased depth of understanding?
  4. Application and action: Benjamin Franklin said: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” Adult learners typically prefer to learn by doing, and like actual practice in a safe (small group) session. “And now would be a fine time to practice this, because I need to know more about this very topic!”
  5. Learning styles: Adult learners learn in multiple ways with multiple inputs. We see, we hear, we touch and manipulate, we test our knowledge to see if it’s still valid. How does our intellectual knowledge shape our practical knowledge – how do we test our internal theories? What do we learn from practical knowledge?

Think of totally different ways to share various elements of the subject of the hour. Mix it up! Share readings and group discussions, role-play, volunteer demonstrations, talking circles, individual brainstorming, brainstorming drawbacks and advantages, what sort of learning framework might work for any particular topic? The key is to keep it moving yet organized. If something doesn’t work so well, what could be improved? Connect the dots and reinforce the central message, whatever it may be. We get what we focus on.

And remember to add some fun along the way; a recommendation based on years of research in adult learning!

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership and Community Engagement team offers professional development training, including volunteer board development, communicating through conflict, meeting management and facilitation. To contact an expert in your area, visit the website or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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