Engaging Instruction for Adult Learners of All Ages | Maher & Maher
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Engaging Instruction for Adult Learners of All Ages

After a discussion with team members about current trends in our industry, I began to reflect on how learning has changed over the years for me. I grew up without learning on-demand -- no online courses or how-to videos. Learning something new typically required going to a class of some sort or visiting the library. Learning to paint was my first out-of-the-classroom experience. Bob Ross with his Joy of Painting show on PBS in the ‘80s intrigued me. I bought a small art set and practiced until I perfected his technique for creating “happy little trees.”

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. Many times, our team works with subject matter experts (SMEs) who are experts in their craft, but not necessarily in teaching others about it.  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 desired performance objectives.  Microlearning is the way to go for Millennials, Generations X and Y, and yes… even Baby Boomers, like me! Most people are balancing busy personal and professional lives. We embrace technology as a tool for simplifying our world. Using Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube to quickly receive information we need, just when we need it to complete tasks has become our norm in life, including at work. Microlearning can be used in different ways, stacked to create courses, or independently as just-in-time learning tools.

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 and most importantly add value to the message. Stay away from matching screen text to the narration or using images to just fill space or that are too literal.  For instance, using an image that includes the word Objectives on a screen that’s already titled Course Objectives. 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 retry steps 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. Incorporate online discussion or design huddles in the workplace to facilitate this form of collaborative sharing as part of the overall learning experience.

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, for old times sake, I watched a couple of Bob’s videos on YouTube. His instruction is timeless.

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 our website or call us at 1-888-90-MAHER.


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