Two broad categories of human characteristics to consider when designing instruction are individual differences and similarities (Smith & Ragan, 2005). These individual differences result in adult learners having different learning styles, different attitudes and beliefs, and different educational backgrounds. Conversely, adult learners share similarities such as the capability to process information, sensory capabilities (hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling), and the capability to cogitate.
Learners and educators have characteristics that are stable or unaffected and characteristics that can be changed, or affected. Unaffected characteristics include personality type, culture, philosophy, experience, and life phase. Affected characteristics include learning style, autonomy, values, experience, and self-directedness.
It is important to consider learner characteristics when designing instruction and course development to assure that the majority of the target audience is receptive to the instruction. This assures that instruction is effective, efficient, and appealing. The most significant characteristic to consider when designing instruction is specific prior knowledge. This characteristic is indicative of where instruction should begin. Similarities and differences in learner characteristics of a target audience can be assessed through conducting a learning analysis. Techniques such as questionnaires, surveys, interviews, and observations can be used to gather information about the learners.
Andragogy, as defined by Malcolm Knowles (1984), is a theory based on the psychological definition of adult, which states that people become adults psychologically when they arrive at a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives, of being self-directing. Resulting from this Knowles’ theory are unique characteristics specific to adult learners as follows:
- Adults learn best in a participatory and Collaborative Environment.
- Adults have a problem-centered approach to learning.
- Adults need to feel self-directed.
Adults Learn Best in a Participatory and Collaborative Environment
Adults tend to learn best when they are actively involved in deciding how and what they will learn, and they thrive on active, hands-on, experiential learning activities in a friendly and communal environment. Organizing adult learners into groups provides active participation, encourages the exchange of ideas and perspectives, strengthens social and communication skills, develops teamwork and leadership skills, and allows students of mixed abilities to work side by side and draw on individual strengths to complete the task. The main purpose of a collaborative learning environment is to facilitate the power of synergy in a group situation. Synergy is the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effort is far greater than the sum of their individual efforts (Cannon and Griffith, 2007). Team (experiential) learning encourages communication and cooperation, leading to synergy and respect among members.
In a collaborative learning environment, facilitators and learners take an active role in the learning process, a sense of community is created, and knowledge is considered to lie within the group as a whole rather than individually. This type of learning environment allows learners to experience knowledge as something that is created rather than something that is transmitted from the facilitator or teacher to the learner (Sheridan, 1989).
Group management is important in this type of environment. Efficient group management includes giving the learners a clear explanation of the task, an overview of group dynamics with advice on how to work effectively within groups, and organizing smaller rather than larger group sizes to allow optimum participation by all group members.
Learners who are introverts are energized from within and may see a collaborative learning environment as threatening rather than friendly. The needs of introverts can be met by maintaining small group sizes and allowing breaks to allow learners of this personality type time away from the group situation to regain their inner energy.
Adults Have a Problem Centered Approach to Learning
Adults are problem-centered in their learning orientation. They are motivated to learn to the extent that learning will help them perform tasks or deal with real-life problems. Adult students usually know what they want to learn, and they like to see the program organized toward their personal goals (Knowles, 1989).
Instruction will be more effective if it uses real-life examples or situations that adult learners may encounter in their life or on the job. If students can bring real-life examples into a learning situation, they will be eager to participate and gain the practical experience which will help them perform better in their life or on the job.
Problem based learning (PBL) is a strategy that encourages learners to discover solutions to real life problems. It allows learners to draw on their prior knowledge (an assumption underlying andragogy is that an adult accumulates a wealth of experience) and build new knowledge.
PBL presents learners with a problem that replicates a real life or job situation. Learners are given guiding principles on how to arrive at a solution to the problem. The PBL strategy is usually conducted with learners working in groups (another assumption underlying andragogy is that adults learn best in a participatory and collaborative environment) as set forth in the above discussion.
The goal of PBL is actively engage learners in the analysis of a problem so that factual knowledge is acquired, learners develop research skills, and learners become self-directed (an assumption underlying andragogy that is discussed in the following paragraphs). The skills gained from the PBL approach form a foundation for future learning contexts and learners are motivated by the real life application of what they have learned.
Adults Need to Feel Self-Directed
Once adults have arrived at the stage where they take responsibility for their own lives, they develop a deep psychological need to be seen and treated by others as being capable of self-direction.
Self-directed learning includes the learner initiating the learning, making the decisions about what, where, when, and how learning will occur. The learner selects and carries out their own learning goals, objectives, methods and means to verify that the goals and objectives of the self-directed learning experience were met.
Self-directed learning becomes even more powerful when the learner uses a systematic approach to determine what areas of knowledge and skills are needed in order to accomplish a task (learning needs and goals), how the areas of knowledge and skills will be acquired (learning objectives and activities), and how the learner will know that skill or knowledge sought has been acquired (learning evaluation).
Designing instruction to consider the self-directed adult learner characteristic would include engaging students in designing the learning process. Instructional designers should include more than one medium for learning. Because self-directed adult learners often want control over the pace of the learning, the instructional designer must make sure that the time allocated to the training session is sufficient so that the learners do not feel rushed. The instructor should serve as a guide to allow the learners to be self-directed and, at the same time, provide support to encourage active, self-directed learning.
The assessment of learner characteristics is an important aspect of the instructional design process. Assessing who your learners are and what their specific prior knowledge is helps to assure that instruction is not designed to teach at a level not yet reached by learners or so basic that it doesn’t engage advanced learners. It also reveals the preferred learning style of the target audience to incorporate the best instructional medium to meet that style. It is important that the instructional designer realizes that everyone does not learn the way he or she does so as not to impose his or her own preferred learning style on others (Dick, Carey, and Carey, 2005).
Taking adult learner characteristics into consideration when designing instruction assures the instructional goal of delivering training that is efficient, effective, and appealing is met. When instruction responds to the needs and interests of adult learners, adult learners play an active and participatory role in the learning process, which contributes to successfully meeting the goals of the learning objective.
Cannon, M. & Griffith, B. (2007). Effective Groups: Concepts and Skills to Meet Leadership Challenges. Boston: Pearson Publishing
Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J. (2005). The Systematic Design of Instruction (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon Publishers
Knowles, M. S. & Associates. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Knowles, M. S. (1989). The making of an adult educator: An autobiographical journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Sheridan, J. “Rethinking Andragogy: The Case for Collaborative Learning in Continuing Higher Education.” Journal of Continuing Higher Education 37, no. 2 (Spring 1989): pp. 2-6.
Smith, P. L. & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional Design (3rd ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Jossey-Bass Education
By Shirley J. Caruso, M.A. Human Resource Development