Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Adult Learning Styles in the Context of Meetings and Conferences

While this is not something that many meeting planners need to worry too much about, it is nonetheless an important piece of what we do. After all, one of the reasons people attend meetings is to learn something. In this post, I’d like to take a quick look at adult learning and what that means for training sessions.

There are, essentially, three styles of learning (for adults or children): Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Visual and Auditory learning styles are somewhat self-explanatory. These are learners who prefer to assimilate new information either with their eyes or their ears – they want to see or hear the material – and will process information best when it is presented in those formats. Kinesthetic learning is movement based. People who learn this way do best when they can physically interact with the information somehow, such as through discussion or exercises. Sometimes, a fourth style is included: Environmental. Environmental learners do best when they are in comfortable surroundings. How you present material to them is less important that the environment around them when receiving that information.

When I am asked to do a training, I try to make sure that I have, in addition to my lecture (for the auditory learners), handouts or a PowerPoint presentation of some kind (for the visual learners) and, when possible, samples of what is being discussed (for the kinesthetic learners). The environmental learners are harder to accommodate since they may not even be aware themselves of what factors they need to best learn. So I try to make sure that the space in which the training is happening is as comfortable as I can make it – which is tough to do when you may only have folding chairs and limited control of the room’s temperature…

Another piece in all of this that is often overlooked has to do with the differences between adults and children in how they approach learning. Adults typically have substantial experience that they bring with them. That experience shapes how they approach the material. Although they often come to a meeting or training with beliefs and attitudes already set, they can be a great resource for a trainer to tap into. This diversity of experience also allows adult learners to help each other – and not simply rely on the trainer to make it all make sense to them.

Adults also tend to be more outcome-oriented than children. Adults want the training to relate to and address their needs – whether those needs are personal or professional. They also want to see results quicker than children, who are often happy enough to accept the teacher’s word that the information will be useful later.

All of this means, as a trainer, you need to be more flexible in your teaching methods than you might think. Adults come to learning situations with so much more than children – more experience, more beliefs, more tools to learn with, more expectations – and a good trainer will be able to incorporate many of these things into their classes, making the experience more productive for all of the students. They need to be able to find different ways to present the same material since one size most certainly doesn’t fit all when it comes to adult learners. Having said that, keep in mind that everyone is capable of learning using each style. What we’re talking about here are preferences, so if the material is not suited to one style, you don’t have to force it. Prepare for as many styles as you can and be ready to use the knowledge base that your students already have. Your trainings will be more successful the more you can tailor them to the needs of the participants.

At any given conference, you will find each learning style represented. See if you can distinguish what people’s preferred learning styles are by how they approach the sessions, what they say and do, and what they take away. If you can figure out what styles your attendees have, you can help your speakers, presenters, and trainers do a better job of reaching them with the information they have come to the meeting to get.

~ Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises