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Applying Adult Learning Theories in Training Programs

written by: N. Plowman•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 1/23/2010

There are many types of in-house training programs; however, only those that utilize the concepts of adult learning theories are truly successful by enhancing the transfer of learning from the classroom to the job. This article discusses these theories and the traits of effective training programs.

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    How to Apply Adult Learning Theories

    When developing training programs, there are many things to consider. However, the most important decision a business can make is what type of training method(s) will be used. Regardless of how much a company invests in a program or who delivers the training, if employees do not successfully transfer what they have learned to their job, the training program has been unsuccessful. Therefore, the goal of this article is to provide small business owners and managers the necessary resources to develop an effective and efficient in-house training program by introducing common adult learning theories and traits/exercises that enhance transfer of learning.

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    Adult Learning Theories

    There are many adult learning theories that influence whether employees will successfully transfer what they have learned to their job, which produces positive rates of return on a company’s investment. The most popular and effective theories are discussed below.

    Probably the most common adult learning theory is the Social Learning Theory. This theory states that people learn best by interacting with and observing others. Training programs that implement this theory would provide numerous opportunities for learners to observe and imitate the behavior of a skilled professional. This skilled professional, also called a model, provides positive reinforcements for successfully imitating a desired behavior, which elicits the learner to continue performing well throughout the training and while on the job.

    The next prevalent adult learning theory is the Experiential Learning Theory, which is also very similar to the Theory of Constructivism. These two theories state that adults learn best when training material is presented in the context in which it is to be used. In order for adult learners to retain new information, it must be continually associated with other information or experiences to which they can easily relate. Therefore, experiential and constructivism training methods often include the use of on-the-job training, where learners are taught new information in the context of their current working environment.

    The final two theories are also commonly implemented together because they often go hand-in-hand. The Cognitive Learning Theory states that people learn best through critical thinking, reasoning, intuition, and perception. This theory suggests that training be delivered with the intention of providing the learner with the insight and understanding necessary to apply the information to real-world working environments. Furthermore, the Humanistic Learning Theory states that people learn best when they have immediate control over their learning environment, which suggests that facilitators should be utilized to provide guidance for the adult learner while molding his or her own training environment.

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    Effective Training Program Characteristics

    These theories are not meant to be used independently of one another. Instead, since people learn differently and come from different educational and experiential backgrounds, the best training programs utilize aspects from all of Untitled2 these theories to ensure that the greatest numbers of learners are given the opportunity to learn in their most effective way.

    The following lists detail which characteristics are present in effective training programs. The first list specifies which characteristics must be present for effective training. The second provides a list of characteristics that enhance the likelihood of transfer of learning, but are not necessary in every training program. The last list provides sample exercises that facilitate the transfer of learning.

    Training Program – Must Haves

    • The program specifies why the material is important to the learner, and how it will directly benefit him or her.
    • The goals and objectives must be realistic.
    • The information must be immediately applicable to the real-world.
    • The program includes a variety of methods and exercises to address the diversity that comes with the wide range of experiences, knowledge, interests, skills, and competencies brought by adult learners.
    • Exercises provide direct and concrete links to the learner’s real working environment.

    Training Program – Should Haves

    • Small groups provide an opportunity for learners to share and reflect upon general learning experiences.
    • An appointed person facilitates, rather than teaches, the program.
    • Learners are given opportunities to mold their training environment to better suit individual needs and development goals.
    • Observation and imitation are used in conjunction with positive and consistent reinforcement.
    • Learners are given ample opportunity to individually process information to further understanding, critical thinking, and application.

    Exercises that Facilitate Transfer of Learning

    • Role-Playing
    • Interactive Demonstrations
    • Case Studies
    • On-The-Job Activities
    • Brainstorming