While working as an NTEN Digital Inclusion Fellow and later as a program manager at an adult education nonprofit, I trained dozens of staff and volunteers and hundreds of students on how to access various technologies. Over the course of those trainings, by using the same adult learning principles I was using in the classroom, I learned a few key lessons about how to (and how not to) train adults.
Adult learners draw on past experience
The organization I worked with in my fellowship and as a program manager made much progress integrating technology very quickly. In two years, we grew from barely using an outdated computer lab to equipping every classroom with projectors and laptops carts as well as integrating digital learning tools into the curriculum. We accomplished this through many professional development opportunities, in-house trainings, and hands-on classroom support.
When it came to training our teachers, drawing from their previous knowledge was vital as a starting point to learning anything new. Whether I was training teachers on how to effectively use the projector to incorporate digital supplements in their class or teaching them how to recreate their curriculum digitally in Google Classroom, I always started with a KWL.
KWL is a warm up/wrap up activity where you begin the session by asking “What do you already know about [topic]?” followed by “What do you want to know about [topic]?” You end the session by asking “What did you learn about [topic]?” This exercise allows learners to draw on their previous knowledge and consider how they can connect it to the new content. And as a trainer, it helps you understand where your learners are starting so you can effectively deliver the content and check for comprehension.
Adult learners are goal-oriented
Adults are often primarily focused on how what they are learning will help them reach their goals. I saw a great model of this principle at NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference: If you go into a session and it is not what you thought it would be, you can leave and find something else, no hard feelings.
Unfortunately, I initially failed at using this principle when we started using an adult learning software called Aztec. The software is designed to be used outside of class so I was tasked with orienting every student on the software and equipping them to use it independently.
I went to all the classes and showed students the website on the projector, reviewing basic digital literacy concepts and independent study skills. I gave everyone a handout with their username and password and said, “Okay, starting next week every student needs to get on for two hours every week.” A week later, less than 10% of the students had even logged in. No one hit the two hour goal; in fact, few students lasted more than five minutes!
I realized I had missed the most crucial part—showing the students why they would want to use this software. I assumed they would use it because it was part of our curriculum, but I overlooked a key barrier: they are adults with families and jobs and little free time.
I revised the orientation to mirror what the students would be doing independently. I brought them out of the classroom, took them to the lab, and had them work on the things they were doing in class using the online software. Once students saw the software was aligned with what they were learning in class, online hours increased dramatically. Our data showed students who logged in regularly began to show better performance in class and during assessments.
Adult learners value relevance
For the sake of time, we often try to kill two birds with one stone and have everyone attend the same training. However, in a similar vein as being goal-oriented, if learners don’t believe the information they’re hearing is relevant to them, they get distracted: They check their email, text their spouse, or tweet about the pointless training they have to attend. I find that it’s better to break up long sessions or alter your agenda so people can leave early after the content relevant to them has been covered.
We used this strategy when transitioning from a paper testing system to a digital version. Teachers and staff members both needed to be trained, but in different ways. Everyone attended the first part of the training which covered information everyone needed. Then teachers who wouldn’t be using the system extensively were free to leave. The second half of the training, concentrated on in-depth content for staff members who would need to maintain and troubleshoot the software.
Bonus tip: Keep your training focused on the topic at hand. We typically kept some extra space on a whiteboard for a “weeds” list. Any question or concern that took us “in the weeds” was put on the list and discussed in a follow-up email.
Adult learners learn by practicing and doing
One of the biggest mistakes I see in technical trainings is not providing some sort of practice. Adults learn by doing, and it’s ideal if you can provide real content to practice with. I’m sure many of you have tried showing someone how to do something, but when the time comes to use the information (a week or a month later) it has to be retaught. A good rule of thumb is to spend twice as much time practicing a concept as you did teaching it.
I put this into practice when training staff on a new online testing system. We started by looking at an example test session, but the majority of the training was spent creating real test sessions and adding the students who would be tested. It can be disengaging to input fake data or work with pretend scenarios in technical trainings.
Having people work with real content means trainees focus on the task rather than half-heartedly practicing with fake content. It also avoids wasting time creating fake data and pretend scenarios. Whenever possible, use real-life examples and content.
Adult learners are self-directed
Adult learners want to be involved in their learning plan. Be sure to include your learners in the planning process. This can be as simple as sending everyone the agenda ahead of time and asking for feedback. You can also ask participants how much time they’d like to spend covering each topic. The KWL method can be useful here, too.
I put this strategy into practice when I had to fit fifteen weeks of material into eight for a summer MS Office class. I had an idea of which topics would need to be cut, but I wanted to include the students in the decision. On the first day of class we looked at the different topics together and discussed each student's priorities. I adjusted our course outline to reflect the topics they wanted to spend the most time on.
This meant we never got to using formulas in Excel but the students were able to create full PowerPoint presentations with pictures, themes, and transitions by the end of the course. They were much more satisfied gaining deeper knowledge in one area than shallow understanding over many.
Using these principles and tactics, you can stop dreading tech trainings and make your next training more engaging and effective, setting your adult learners on the path to success.