How to Train Adults Effectively

You may have heard the term ANDRAGOGY. No, it’s not something you need to treat and there’s no need to be scary if you find out your husband is into it. It’s simply the word we use for “pedagogy” when the learners are not children.

Although there are many overlaps between the processes of teaching adults and children – they both love learning through playing, for example – there are some differences too. And those differences must be taken into consideration, if you are designing a course or training session for your employees, or other adult participants.

Some of the differences, established by Malcolm Knowles, an American Adult Educator of the XX century, are, for example, adults need to know why they are learning; adults wish to take responsibility for their learning, so they should contribute and take active part in the process; they have already a wealth of experience to build on and the new items to be learned (knowledge, skills, or attitude) will add to their baggage; the purpose of learning must be objective and perceived as relevant, which is, to help them with their lives or give them pleasure; they are more willing to learn things that meet a specific need or desire; they are more likely to be moved by intrinsic motivation (self-steem, for example) than extrinsic (rise in salary, promotion, relocation, etc).

Having established these basic differences, we must also add that both kids and adults have, individually, different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), and some are more likely to use either the more analytical (left) or the more creative (right) side of the brain. These individual differences must also be taken into account when you design and develop a training course. I know, you must be thinking by now that, unless you are a teaching on a one-to-one basis, you can’t possibly cater for all these needs and idiosyncrasies. The good news is yes, you can. Let’s list here the basic steps you should take in putting together an effective training course for a group of adults. I will be using examples from a very successful course I created while I ran a consultancy service called Tutor in the mid-nineties, The course Pronunciation for Brazilian Teachers of English attracted hundreds of teachers every time it was offered at different venues and times all over the country. Sometimes these were open events, for which any teacher could sign up. Other times, these were tailor-made or adapted modules for specific schools as a service for their teachers.

Training adults effectively

Training adults effectively

Obviously, it’s not possible to cover all the details of a well-designed and implemented training course in the space of a blog post. This is not my intention. But I promise to come back to the topic periodically as you ask questions and comments on this overview of the mains steps I give you below:

1. Needs analysis: being a Brazilian teacher myself, I identified very early on that most teachers in the country had a huge gap in the knowledge and practice of pronunciation. They spoke English – some better than others – but very few had actually learned or knew explicitly about the different phonemes of the language or the mechanics of pronunciation. Many were not familiar with concepts such as stress and intonation either. Therefore, most of them, in their classes, tended to skip teaching the coursebook sections that dealt with these areas of the language. The famous English phonemic chart you can find on a number of websites, DVDs, or apps today was not so easy to access back then. So this was a big opportunity for me to start a business and help the teachers. On the other hand, when I gave tailor-made courses at specific schools, I had to unearth the real needs of the teachers and how much they already knew about the subject, so I could adapt the off-the-shelf course I’d already put together. In these cases, you do your research through oral interviews with prospective participants and supervisors, through written questionnaires, through focus groups or by watching some of the teachers at work.

2. Design: now that you know the participants’ needs, you must define how the course is going to be delivered: is it going to be presential, done via a webinar or blended? In addition to that, you need to determine and write down the learning objectives of the course. What is expected from the participants in terms of performance as they finish the training session? What is going to change?  Of course, the clearer you state these objectives, the more effectively you will create and apply the materials you are planning for the course. A typical objective would be, for example, by the time the teachers finish this first module of the course they should be able to recognize and reproduce (orally and in writing) all the individual symbols that represent the phonemes of the English language and use them in clear contexts (as in specific words). You will notice that the objective follows the popular formula S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound).

3.  Development: this is the hands-on phase of the process, when you are going to create all the different materials that will compose the course and help you impart the content of the sessions (deductive approach: lectures), or lead the students to discover parts of it by themselves (inductive approach, discovery), and finally practice and discuss the learning points. Remember you are creating a course for a number of individuals with different types of learning styles, tastes and ways to use the brain. So variety is the key. Always start with a relevant icebreaker or energizer to create an atmosphere conducive to learning and give the participants a chance to get to know each other from the beginning. Believe me: these warm-ups will make your job a lot easier later on. Especially if they are thematically linked to the topic of the course. Keep the pace fast (that’s the rhythm most participants are used to in today’s hectic world and keep alternating and using diversified activities: short lectures with the help of visuals such as slides (note: even during these lectures, make the process learner-centered by getting them to participate actively, through questions, for example, or comments); games;  guided note-taking (students fill in the gaps of sentences previously written in the handouts;  physical activities (involving movement), pair work, group work, debates, etc. I know, it can sound a bit overwhelming. But it’s doable. Remember: the longer the course the more variety it requires and you will have more time to apply different activities to suit as many different learning styles as possible. If the course is short, or broken down into modules, you will have to prioritize.

4. Implementation: this is the great moment you and your trainees have been expecting. You are putting all your preparation in practice. if you have the chance to run a small pilot with a group of volunteers before that, fine, but most trainers cannot afford the time to do that. Try and include during the ice-breaker, or before that,  a moment when the participants will be able to express their expectations regarding the training. Of course if you did the needs analysis well, there will be no surprises here. But maybe you’ll have to make small adjustments to fit their unexpected hopes. Flexibility is an important characteristic of good trainers. Try to exercise it. As the session progresses and you get more comfortable with he group, allow for more participation,  become more of a facilitator to the process, call them by their names (name tags or desk tents with their names written on them are a must), and carry on making adjustments whenever needed, especially regarding the time each activity lasts. You may have to shorten an upcoming task if the current one drags for too long. Create a detailed schedule for yourself so you can keep track of how much time each activity should take. In long courses, things may get out of hand if you don’t stick to this timetable. Do not forget to have breaks throughout the course. Most people are fueled by caffeine these days or they need to stretch their legs  and walk around after long hours sitting down.

5.  Closing: at the end, allow time for feedback and final questions. You can devise interesting activities for that too. Ask questions about what they think should be done as a follow-up to the session. Or explain the follow-up plan you have already designed: job aids, individual couching, accompanied visits to clients, lesson-monitoring for feedback, etc.

You will not have to start from scratch every time you design a course. I used some of the materials and activities I created for my initial course for years, with small adaptations now and then, to suit different contexts or to update them. But it’s good to understand and go through the whole creation process a few times to make it fresh.

Training is a field that is growing and more professionals will be needed. If you are interested in it, start educating yourself: read as much as you can on the topic, follow blogs, enroll in training sessions as a learner, and participate in conferences. It’s a very hard and demanding job, yet very exciting and varied. Good luck.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

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