Learn About Learning

by  Scott Mautz  |  Resources
Learn About Learning

Scholars have long held that when we see ourselves learning and growing, it creates an increased sense of competence, which in turn provides a great sense of meaning in one’s work.

What a great gift to be able to provide for your team – an ecosystem that nurtures learning and growth.

But not all learning is created equal – at least not when it comes to how adults learn.

Facilitating a meaning-rich environment of learning and growth in the workplace starts with being mindful of what adult learning principles have taught us about how adults learn.

Follow these principles to turn your conference room into a classroom:

  1. Draw On Their Experience & What They Know – When adults receive new information, they will compare and contrast that new information with what they know; this process of reconciliation helps them to learn. You can help the adult worker draw similarities and differences between old and new experiences to help cement learning. Likewise, you can provide context on the bigger picture to further facilitate the connection to what the adult learner already knows.
  2. Attend To Attention Spans – There is a known data point that says the adult mind can maintain rapt attention for about 20 minutes of time. In today’s fast paced digital reality, however, that span has plummeted to about 8 seconds. For any classroom or training program that relies on a speaker/audience approach, it is important to be mindful of this reality to maximize the power of the learning experience. Breaking up lectures or presentations with visuals, videos, audio, discussions, and stories can substantially expand the mind’s ability to stay engaged. Great content and context can further expand attention spans.
  3. Provide Opportunities For Immediate Practice – Adults want to put what they’ve learned to use, fast. Creating opportunities for adults to practice and play with what they’ve learned at work makes the learning stick and is more likely to create a feeling of increased competence.
  4. Make Clear The Personal Relevance/Value Of The Learning Opportunity – While children will most often simply accept the process of being taught, adults need to understand why they are engaged in a learning process and how it benefits them. This is especially true in a work environment, where many priorities press at the would-be learning adult each and every day.
  5. Ensure Self-Directed Learning – Adults want to be more self-directed and active in the learning process, whereas children are more passive in the process and dependent on an adult instructor to feed them the requisite learning. Adults don’t need or want a lot of supervision. For you, this means facilitating the learning process versus overdoing oversight of the process. Micromanaging the learning experience will drain the potential fulfillment and meaning to be derived.
  6. Leverage Mistakes As Learning Opportunities – Adults view learning from mistakes as one of the most valuable, potent learning experiences of all. That is, as long as the fear of being reprimanded for those mistakes is completely absent from the potential learning environment.
  7. Take Into Account Different Learning Styles – Here are a few of them…

    • Divergers learn by watching and looking at things from differing perspectives
    • Accommodators are hands-on, relying on intuition rather than logic
    • Assimilators prefer a logical, precise approach to learning that includes explanations and logical theories
    • Convergers first think through a problem and then use their learning to resolve that problem.

Go to Sierra Training for more information on the source of these principles. You can create a learning and growth environment in your place of work. Just be mindful of the lesson plan outlined in this article and go ahead and open up those classes.

Are there specific approaches that have worked for you as an adult learner? Tell me about them in the comments!
Photo Credit: Fotolia enterlinedesign

About The Author

Articles By scott-mautz
Scott Mautz is author of Make It Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning , which was just named a “Best Book of 2015” by Soundview BusinessBooks. He’s also an award winning keynote speaker, and a 20+ year veteran of Procter & Gamble, having run several thriving, multi-billion dollar divisions along the way. Connect with Scott at www.makeitmatterbook.com.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Jane  |  07 Jan 2016  |  Reply

This is an impressive list and every one of them true. I used to do training, but even without that role, I can see how these principles work to create an optimum learning experience. Item 6, though, can be a challenge. Some adults are not mature enough or lack the ability to see mistakes as learning opportunities.

Scott Mautz  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Jane, thx so much for taking the time to engage in this article! Indeed you are correct, #6 on the list is the trickiest by far. Many adults first instinct is to hide their mistakes, not embrace them head on! As leaders, we can at least remove fear from being reprimanded unjustly for one’s mistakes.

Alan Derek Utley  |  07 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Scott, great list. Related to #4, I find that focusing the learning on solving existing problems is a favorable way to ensure that learning is happening. The act of problem-solving helps build relevance and show value. For example, I try to ask something like, “what challenges are you facing in your workplace that we can address using what we’re learning today?” I find this useful to ask at the beginning, middle and end of a learning event. If done well, this can also help keep the learner engaged and provide an opportunity for immediate practice.


Scott Mautz  |  08 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Thx so much for taking the time to read and respond to this post. You make a great point. Indeed, adult learners almost instinctively understand and appreciate the value of learning that comes from problem solving. Your advice is good – Lead Change Readers: as Alan says, build direct problem solving opportunities into your portfolio of learning for your team!

John Smith  |  12 Jan 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Scott – great review of adult learning principles:)

I was struck most by number 2, since I still see a fairly large amount of presentations or classes where the lead instructor talks for an extended period of time, before (if ever) breaking into groups, engaging in discussion, or doing anything else different.

One thing I have noticed is that some folks have developed a conversational style of presenting information. This style is based on asking questions to evoke responses and managing the resulting discussion, rather than simply providing information in some logical sequence. Those who use questioning most effectively often come from either an educational or therapeutic background, as opposed to a business framework.

Have you noticed this?

I also have to throw in a comment regarding learning styles. Much of what I read tends to put learning styles into the “myth” category, indicating that research does not support the existence of such clear-cut styles.

I believe that varying one’s approach using “learning style” frames, such as you noted, is a very useful learning strategy. Not so much because we are addressing individual learning styles, but that we are varying our approach – it’s the change-up that keeps folks engaged.

Any thoughts re this?

Enjoyed this post quite a bit – thanks for sharing:)


Scott Mautz  |  12 Jan 2016  |  Reply

John – thx as always for the engagement. Regarding your point on a conversational style of presenting: Indeed I have seen this and have even engaged in it myself when presenting. One good twist on this I’ve tried is when people ask questions of me during my presentation. Before answering I often turn it back to them and ask others in the audience for their points of view on the question being asked. Quite often you uncover the latent expertise that sits in the room, amongst the very people you are presenting to. Everyone gets involved and is eager to share what they’ve learned. It further enriches the overall learning process.
Regarding your question on varying learning styles – you are 1000% right. Some scholars refer to this as situational learning – similar to the situational leadership style definition made famous by Drucker. I find that if you switch up the approach to learning, it definitely keeps folks more engaged. And you need every trick in the bag because multiple studies have now confirmed that the average attention span of an adult is, are you ready for this, 8 seconds!
Thx John,

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