Designing Instruction for All Generations of Adult Learners | Maher & Maher
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Designing Instruction for All Generations of Adult Learners

There have been major changes for my husband and me this year as we moved from our residence of 33 years to a new location and struggled to downsize our “stuff.” As you can imagine, there was a lot of it! During the purge, I came across a set of encyclopedias, Better Homes and Gardens how-to books, and Speak & Read/Math/Spell learning toys. When my 9-year-old grandson looked at me puzzled while holding the Speak & Math, I began to reflect on how learning has changed over the years as I explained that his mom used it to learn math.

As a designer of eLearning and virtual instructor-led training at Maher & Maher, I am constantly challenged with developing instruction that keeps every learner engaged. We know all too well that dumping the “kitchen sink” into a PowerPoint, adding some narration, and waving your magic wand over it does not create a course, let alone an effective performance outcome.   

So, what’s key to enticing your audience to learn something new?

Relevance – First and foremost, learners want to know, “what’s in it for me?”  When people relate to the importance of the content, you are more likely to retain their interest. Show them why the content is meaningful to their daily work or how they can apply it to solve a problem. Perhaps use a scenario or tell a story to capture (and keep) their attention. If they know why they are spending precious time learning something, half the battle is won.

Small chunks – There’s no need to overload your audience with more information than is needed to achieve the objectives of a course or tutorial.  Microlearning is the way to go for Millennials, Generations X and Y, and yes… even Baby Boomers, like me! Many people are balancing busy personal and professional lives, and they have embraced technology as a tool for simplifying their world. Using Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube to quickly receive the information we need to complete tasks has become the norm. Did I even think about bringing those encyclopedias and how-to books with me to my new house? Definitely not! They went straight to the recycling bin.

Open navigation – Do not force learners down a set path through the instruction. Let them roam and offer them multiple ways of accessing content. Adults want to have a sense of control over their learning and do not need to have it dictated to them.

Audio, visual, and kinesthetic delivery – Blend the media to appeal to a mix of learning styles. Explain the information while using visuals that speak for themselves and convey meaning on their own. Stay away from matching screen text to the narration or using images that are too literal (using an image that includes the word Objectives on a screen that’s already titled Course Objectives, for instance. It drives me crazy when I see that!)

Incorporate activities that require real thought and learner interaction. If your audience is learning a new software process, will they want to learn it by looking at a list of steps or by actually performing the process? A solid approach might be to give the learner a hands-on opportunity to practice procedures while supplementing their learning with a step-by-step job aid or an infographic.

Likewise, simulations give learners an opportunity to step through procedures at their own pace. No memorization is necessary and they can step through procedures as many times as they wish. The result is greater retention as the process becomes stored in long-term memory.

Social/peer learning – All generations want to be able to ask a subject matter expert questions when they need insights into their work. They also want to have peer-to-peer discussions to exchange ideas and share best practices. The Millennial audience is used to communicating this way. Set up activities within the course that facilitate a blended approach that incorporates online discussion or huddles in the workplace with traditional strategies.

Mobile-ready access – Today’s learning content should be consumable seamlessly on any device. That’s what learners expect. Ensure that courses function on all platforms. If a learner cannot see part of the content on the screen, or if items are too small and cannot be enlarged, you will lose the attention of your learners quickly.

What does it all mean?

When it all comes down to it, technology has changed a lot, but the way we learn has not. Theories of adult learning behavior still hold true. If it is built right, instruction designed for a specific generation will meet the needs of all generations of adult learners.

By the way, we put batteries in the Speak & Read and it still worked. I wonder how much we can get for it on eBay?

Maher & Maher is a specialized change management and talent development consulting firm based in Neptune, NJ and in Washington, D.C. The Firm’s Private Sector Practice specializes in customized learning design and delivery for the Deathcare, Financial Services, Life Sciences, and Media & Communications industries, and partners with our peers to do the same for government clientele. For more information about our services, visit us at or call us at 1-888-90-MAHER.


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