Adult Learning Techniques to Design Engaging Training Programs

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Businesses around the world spend over $300 billion a year on training programs. But does this number truly reflect the level of learning these programs are supposed to develop in their participants?

Today, a host of complexities problematize the process of learning as an adult. Some of these are intrinsic factors that have to do with how adults absorb and filter information, while others are more external and founded on the accessibility of knowledge in a digitized world.

The goal of a training program is to change behavior. In order to do this, learners need to be interested and engaged in the program to fully absorb the types of changes it hopes to effect. For adult learners, that requires thinking about how to package and present new information that motivates them to click through and finish the course and translate those insights into productive change and retainable results.

Below, learn how to utilize adult learning techniques that equip training programs to be memorable, engaging, and immediately actionable.

Adult Learning in the Modern Sales Landscape

The current age of digital consumerism means that information is always readily available, a few keystrokes or screen swipes away. Learners have been conditioned to rapidly digestible bytes of information, so translating that kind of learning style into a training program will require non-traditional approaches.

“I believe we all learn differently today,” said Cristinia Patranoiu, partner enablement training specialist at RingCentral. “You have to really know what makes [adult learners] tick, what they need, and give that to them the way they need. It needs to be very simple…extremely efficient like a cube that has all the nutrients but none of the fluff.”

Meanwhile, it can be hard as an adult learner to admit to having skill deficits or moments of struggle, particularly now in a time of economic instability and perhaps a lack of confidence in job security. In leadership positions, strive to encourage and reciprocate vulnerability to create a company culture that promotes continuous learning rather than perpetual perfection. In a work environment welcoming open communication between leaders and employees, people will not be wary of admitting areas where they may need more work.

“If I look around me at the people we look up to within my organization and the people that generally have been very approachable, we can tell that the happiness in their teams is at the highest level and people are generally thriving in that environment,” said Patranoiu. “The leaders that empower their teams–they’re the kind of leaders that are vulnerable and human.”

Techniques for Engaging Training Content for Adult Learners

Adult learners have a tendency to filter the knowledge and information they are taking in, whether that means thinking about it in relation to their work or position or weighing the significance and usefulness of that information before they decide to apply themselves to it. They may be comparing the new information against what they already know.

April Terry, learning and development specialist for Planview, distinguishes the mind of a child learner and that of an adult learner with a bookshelf analogy, saying that while the mind of a child learner is like that of an empty bookshelf and therefore is willing to absorb information readily with little question, the mind of an adult learner can be compared to a filled bookshelf, one that will be more fastidious in choosing what to take in.

“With adults, the synapses in your brain don’t care as much about authority as they care about connecting information,” said Terry. “Adults, we’ve got a lot already in our heads, and so it’s almost as if you have to make it worth [their] time to take in this new information.”

When designing training programs for adult learners, it can be helpful to assume there will be a certain amount of healthy skepticism in the early stages of the learning process because the learners come from diverse learning backgrounds and have their own individual ways of going about things. Create a training program that conveys conviction in its own value by leveraging some of the following techniques:

Structure with storytelling. A compelling method for impactful training is to frame the content with storytelling. Using this technique can increase retention rates and keep learners engaged simply because learning content as a story allows them to remember and absorb it as their own through the connections between the self and the content that storytelling introduces.

“We generally recall stories six or seven times easier and for longer periods of time than we do stats or hard facts,” said Patranoiu. “It’s this native human connection that we have to stories that have been inherited through our genes, and every single time I try this, it helps the audiences really pragmatically live with the messaging needed in their heads, and it actually sticks with them longer.”

Align the program to an ultimate goal. By setting up the materials of a training program to follow an end goal, learners will be headed toward the desired result from the beginning of their training rather than being led by scattered components of the new information. Think of the big picture, not the small-scale skill, because different goals will require different training strategies.

“What I see in my role sometimes and in businesses is we get so caught up with just the transfer of information and just the fact that it’s brand new, and everybody has to know it,” said Terry. “In enablement, it’s important for us to remember that if we’ve got a new product launch, it’s very easy for us to just dive right into: here’s the feature and the value and the pricing and the upcoming marketing campaigns…We really have to take a step back and think about the goal first. At the end of this presentation or when this information is distributed, what should a rep be able to do?”

Follow-up with practice. Training courses can often be an activity that is hurried through for a couple of hours in the work day. Upon completion, the learners may hastily return to their regular work without having fully absorbed the new information or skills they just went through, so it is important to stimulate engagement post-training by facilitating practice sessions on that new knowledge.

“There’s always time built into my sessions for sales to practice what I have just preached, so to say, be it the methodology we are using or the new features we’re launching,” said Patranoiu. “Whatever it is that we’re doing, we always reserve time for them to practice what they’ve just learned. I always make it engaging, so I interact a lot with the participants and ensure that everyone is participating.”

Cement with coaching. Incorporating coaching into the learning journey allows for the additional level of personalization that adult learners may need. Because they already come with their own unique sets of pre-knowledge, coaching can fill the gaps that a training session may not have entirely covered. It also allows learners to take initiative in their learning journey and identify those gaps.

“Adults come with experience and various degrees of awareness, and generally, they already have the capacity to be a lot more creative and find extra motivation when given the chance,” said Patranoiu. “I’m a big advocate for professional coaching to enable people to take ownership of their success.”

Get excited. In order to see or inspire excitement in learners, leaders have to emit the same kind of enthusiasm. Getting excited about the training creates a trickle-down effect, one where learners pick up and emulate that enthusiasm to translate that from their training to their work.

“There is so much value in just being excited about what you’re presenting,” said Terry. “We’re all kind of zoomed out, fatigued and this, that, and the other. But really being excited about what it is that we’re presenting and bringing that enthusiasm and passion into everything that we’re explaining is a small thing that goes a very long way.”

Evaluate effectiveness. No training program will be perfect on the first try, so evaluating how well learners have been understanding and implementing the new concepts is important. These results should also be corroborated with the initial goals that were set when the training was being designed. Terry recommends using the four aspects of the Kirkpatrick training model to measure effectiveness.

  1. Reaction: Find out if people found this training enjoyable or relevant because it is incredibly difficult to retain something that is neither.
  2. Learning: Assess the degree to which learners understood and are confident in their comprehension of the material. This can be done with self-assessments, both before and after completion of the training.
  3. Behavior: Behavior change is key to the effectiveness of the training. Ask how well learners are applying the knowledge they’ve learned to their work through situational assessments.
  4. Results: This is the end goal that the training program began with. Look at the impact of training within the context of the business to see if the changed behavior is being reflected in the metrics.

Ultimately, it is the level of thought, rather than the number of resources, that can determine the success of a training program. Challenging traditional approaches to learning by incorporating adult learning techniques and creative methods of training to reflect modern learning processes allows allocated resources to be used in the best and most compelling way, equipping people to learn to their highest potential.

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