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Basic Training Concepts for Adult Learners

Updated on June 17, 2012

This is the basic foundation for a series on how to provide truly effective training in the corporate environment. To be able to improve training, we need to first have a foundation to build on. The contents of this series will provide a solid understanding of Instructional Design in order that the classes you create and train will be more successful. This hub will provide the basics of these basic concepts. More details will be available in separate documents, but this overview will give us a common ground to start from.

In this hub, we will discuss how to gain the interest of the learners, ways to reinforce the material, methods to organize and group your content for easier retention, and how to connect the various parts of the class into a unified whole. Using some or all of these techniques will bring your training to a higher level opf comprehension and appreciation with your intended audience.

Adult Learning Concept 1

The first thing understand about adult learners is that they are not children. Children can be told something and accept it at face value. Children don’t question the whys and wherefores. But adults have to understand the reasons behind training and the purpose of objectives they’re supposed to meet. So, basic concept number 1 is:

  • Explain the reason the training is important.

An easy way to remember this is a radio channel named WII FM. Which stands for What’s In It For Me. If you explain why the students should care about what they are about to learn, they will be much more open to learning it. And that initial mental and emotional openness can have a HUGE impact on how well they retain the information you will be covering in the training class.

Would you rather learn how to correctly perform a series of weightlifting exercises or would you rather learn some new techniques to help improve your health and ability to have more endurance in your daily activities? In sales, this is called the benefit. Features are the specific things that exist, such as the steps you take to complete a specific process. Benefits are what someone receives from those features. So, for a specific process in a class, the benefit might be higher productivity, less stress, or even avoiding danger and potential injury. If you provide the benefit the class will receive from this class, they will be more interested in learning the new information or skill compared to just covering the basic facts.

Adult Learning Theory

Adult Learning Concept 2

Once you’ve got the buy in, you need to explain what the class is expected to learn. In other, much plainer, words tell them the objectives of the course. This might sound like it’s the same thing as the first concept, explaining the importance; but it’s not. The objectives are clear statements of exactly WHAT is expected to be learned. They are statements of what the learner will know, understand, or be able to perform once they have completed the training.

A very closely related concept is the summary, or review. Once the material has been covered, the content is summarized in a brief, clear statement that provides the learner with a reminder of what they learned. This can be beneficial because in classes, the discussions and interactions can easily muddy the waters during the lesson. Restating the key points again helps clarify any misunderstanding and crystalize them in the memory. These two points can be combined in the second basic training concept:

  • Tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

So the students hear the key point, or objective, three times; an initial introduction, an exposition, and a summary. This repetition is an important tool in developing retention of the information in the learner. But please don’t just repeat the same words each time. It’s boring, doesn’t do anything to help the learners, and makes you sound like you stutter. Each time you state the key point, say it a bit different. It hammers the point home from different angles. If a student just can’t wrap their mind around the objective because of a communication challenge, saying it a different way can sometimes help connect the dots and make the lesson “click” when it wouldn’t have with just a single phrasing.

Adult Learning Concept 3

The next basic concept is going to sound a little over simplistic for an adult learner. However, forgetting to do this makes the learning process exponentially harder. Everyone likes to focus on the big, flashy, most interesting points. These are the things that make people say ‘wow’ and sit up and take notice. Don’t start there. Start at the beginning. Begin with the basics and once you have a solid foundation, build the next level and so on moving from the simplest, most basic up to the most advanced and difficult. Let me give a simple example. If you are teaching someone how to drive, start with what the various pedals, knobs and switches do that are directly involved with driving. No one cares about the electric seat heaters if you can’t step on the brake in an emergency the first time the car is on the road. You also don’t have someone sit in the driver’s seat, start the engine and hop on the road without knowing how to read street signs and the basic rules of the road. Skipping those basics is a fast way to get someone killed. So the third basic concept to remember when training adults is:

  • Start with the basics and build up from a solid foundation.

It may seem easy to start a training class about communication skills by having the participants stand up and introduce themselves. Then you talk about ways to improve what you say and how you say it. But that would violate the principle about basics. Instead, have them meet the person next to them and introduce their partner. Next, cover the fact that communication must have 2 parts to be successful. Everyone knows the first, which is there must be a speaker. But the second part is there must be a listener. So, start the class with the basics by making sure the learners have a firm grasp of the importance of both speaking AND listening. Once you have that solid foundation, you can then build on how to be a better speaker, and how to be a better listener. Cover the basics to have a starting point to build up from.

Adult Learning Concept 4

The next basic we’ll cover at this time is chunking. The human mind is designed to process and recall information based on sets, groups, or patterns. If you have 21 things to cover in a class, don’t start at one and end at 21. The human mind can only remember around 7 things at a time. But we prefer to operate in groups of 3 to 5. That’s also why this will only have 5 concepts in it. If you have 21 things to cover, group them. Look for common factors if you can rearrange. If they need to stay in a specific order, look for a higher level term you can cluster them into. Break the list into 4 groups of 4 and 1 group of 5. Or maybe three groups with sub-groups within them. If you group the 21 items into three major groups, with two minor groups within each, the grouping might look like this

Group A [(1,2,3,4)(5,6,7)]

Group B [(8,9,10,11)(12,13,14)]

Group C [(15,16,17,18)(19,20,21)]

Then, train the groups one at a time. So the fourth basic concept is:

  • Chuck contents, think 3 to 5

Practice concept #2 (tell, tell, tell) for each smaller group before moving to the next. For example, cleaning a car can be grouped into 3 main areas; Engine bay, Exterior, Interior. Each of those has multiple steps and multiple activities. But first cover only ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ for under the hood, then do the same for the exterior, and then finally for the interior. Making all the activities chuck or cluster into three sets makes it easier to cover and simpler to recall.

Adult Learning Concept 5

Lastly, the human brain doesn’t learn independent facts. The brain learns connections. The better and more connections there is for a given piece of information, the better the learner will retain and be able to recall the information. Imagine having a history class where the teacher handed out a number of pages, full of single sentences. Each sentence starts with a date and ends with what happened on that date. Now Imagine the teacher wrote the sentences down in random order as they thought of them. How hard would that page be to learn? If that single page was the syllabus, and as long as you knew each item and could write a paragraph on each, you were guaranteed an “A,” would you feel confident you would pass?

Now imagine a class where you were given a book covering the history for the class. For this example we’ll say U.S. history from the war of independence to present day. The book is in chronological order. It has 4 sections that break up the years based on significant events that affected a given set of years. Each chapter covers the term of a single president. This book might contain MUCH more material than just a dry class syllabus, but how much easier would it to be to learn from?

The difference is that the book is chunked, as we mentioned before, but also it has connections. Instead of a dry list of facts, there is information that fills in details about each event, and also how each event set up or impacted the next. Instead of simply stating the month the stock market crash happened, it explained the events that led up to the situation that caused the crash to be a catastrophe. The events of World War 2, including the mobilization of the female workforce and the streamlining of assembly lines for war materials, explained the industrial boom that happened afterwards. The connections are provided by the book, making it much easier to learn and retain the information. Now, truthfully, I never got a textbook like that. But I stumbled onto a book about the history of America from 1900 to the present (around 1985 back then). It was written by someone who had a passion for identifying how actions and events drove the wheel of history. I read that book in a couple of weeks and learned more than months and months in history class. To this day I remember facts and details I never learned in school. It was the connections the book made that are engraved into my brain. I may forget the exact date Black Friday happened. But I’ll never forget the reasons it happened or the results it caused.

So the last Basic concept is:

  • Provide connections and transitions between different learning points.

These connections, or transitions, walk the participant smoothly from the first key idea to the next. Just like a bridge connects two sides of a road, providing a smooth, seamless trip from point A to point B, your connections help the student smoothly move from one new concept to the other. If there is no logical connection, then provide a transitional statement that helps the learner shift gears and prepare for a new topic. The last thing you want is the learner to be so busy trying to figure out how this new item fits with the old, that they miss the actual content!

Summary and Application

So here are the 5 basic adult learner concepts I’m going to start with.

  1. Explain the reason the training is important.
  2. Tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them.
  3. Start with the basics and build up from a solid foundation.
  4. Chuck contents, think 3 to 5
  5. Provide connections and transitions between different learning points.

I’ll add additional ones when they fit as we cover more advanced topics. But these give us a simple, easy to remember foundation to start learning how to improve training for Adult Learners. Once we have this common ground, we can begin incorporating Instructional Design to improve corporate training and increase the performance of the audience.


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