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Learn More About Learning Styles

Would you like to know more about how your adult students learn and interact with the learning environment, whether they are on-ground or online? A theory that addresses how adults learn is collectively called learning styles. Every adult has a unique approach or preferred method of learning, which can include one particular learning style or a combination of more than one. Learning styles, or descriptions of the way that adults learn, provide an explanation of how they interact with their classroom environment and process information. This offers another perspective of the process of learning, which will help you gain a better understanding of your students and is likely to increase your effectiveness as an instructor and in the process, teaching will become more effective. When instructors gain insight into the different ways that adult students interact with their environment they can adapt their instructional strategies to engage students in the process of learning through a variety of techniques and activities.

There are four primary measures of adult learning styles that have been developed and they remind instructors that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching is not effective. It is possible that adult students will not only have a primary or distinct approach to learning, they may have a combination of one or more. These assessments help students and instructors identify elements related to the process of adult learning, which students may not be able to presently identify or understand. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator utilizes a set of questions that focus on perceptions and the results produce one of 16 possible personality types. This measurement can relate an adult student’s personality characteristics to the process of learning from a perceptual perspective.

Another similar measurement is called VARK. It is based upon the senses and is comprised of Visual (seeing), Aural (hearing), Read/Write, and Kinesthetic (bodily/physical). The Multiple Intelligences inventory developed by Dr. Howard Gardner lists eight types of learning styles and includes verbal, musical, logical, interpersonal, visual, intrapersonal, bodily, and naturalistic. The fourth common theory is the Kolb Learning Style Inventory, which is based upon a circular process of learning that considers the adult student’s experiences, reflections, thoughts, and consequent actions. Kolb’s theory developed four learning styles that are based upon various combinations of these components of the learning cycle: feeling, thinking, watching, and doing.

Knowledge of adult learning styles provides the most benefit for classroom instructors. When a course is developed by a curriculum designer their primary focus is typically on the creation of learning outcomes for the purpose of meeting accreditation guidelines and standards. Activities are designed as a means of helping students meet the expected course outcomes. This means that the curriculum designer may not include activities that address every learning style. What often meets the needs of each learning style is the approach that an instructor takes with their lectures or presentations and the strategies they implement for facilitation of the class. As an example, by knowing that adult students interact with information and process it in a variety of ways, an instructor can add interactive elements to their class presentations and lectures. In addition, instructors can identify their own personal learning style and recognize how it can impact the way that their adult students learn.

The process of learning often requires an adaptive approach by instructors and students. For example, students that are primarily visual learners will likely enjoy reading the course materials. For auditory learners, instructors may add videos or audio clips to enhance the process of learning. For students that prefer a hands-on approach to learning it may be beneficial to offer additional options that allow those students’ needs to be met. The purpose of adding interactive, supplemental resources and activities, while modifying teaching and instructional techniques, is to make the process of learning more accessible to students of all learning styles and abilities. By offering options, such as visual, auditory, and hands-on features, it becomes possible for an instructor to stimulate students’ interests and increase their cognitive abilities, while leading to their overall intellectual development.

Learn About Andragogy and Teaching the Self-Directed Online Learner

Teaching adults can be rewarding for any educator. Adult students, especially those who are taking online classes, have a specific reason for the classes they choose – even if a class only meets an elective requirement. For online instructors, they know the process of managing a class involves being assigned a predetermined curriculum where all learning activities have been established. What can enhance the work of an educator is to know more than the facilitation requirements for teaching a course – they also need to know how to teach adults and understand how adults learn. As to the question regarding how adults learn, the answer lies within a learning theory known as andragogy. This is translated to mean the art of teaching adults. By learning more about this theory it can help to inform your work as an educator and allow you to better address the developmental needs of your students who want to become self-directed learners.

What is Pedagogy?

Before you learn about andragogy it is of benefit to discover the meaning of a contrasting theory known as pedagogy. This is translated to mean the art of teaching children. Pedagogy has been well established within the educational system and is set in place during a child’s developmental years. Pedagogy as a teaching style becomes an approach that is teacher-centered. The teacher makes all of the decisions about the learning process and children are taught to be dependent upon their teacher. It further emphasizes that children must be told what they need to know and never to question this established practice. The use of a pedagogical teaching style continues all the way through high school, with teachers leading the class and students being involved as passive participants.

What is Andragogy?

Once students graduate from high school it has been established by society that they are now adults. If they go on to college and attend a traditional classroom setting they will likely find that a teacher-centered pedagogical approach is still in use. But the theory of teaching adults known as andragogy seeks to make a distinction between the needs of children and that of adults. Malcolm Knowles is credited with the development of four principles that indicate what characteristics adults have and the needs they generally possess. Adults have experience where as children lack having the context of life experience. Adults expect to be involved in the learning process and want to be responsible to some degree. In other words, adults want the knowledge gained to be relevant to their lives, meet career goals or provide professional development, and be a result of what they have done in their role as a student. Adults want the classroom to be student-led.

Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

It may be difficult to translate andragogy as an instructional strategy as there are not many related teaching models. What makes it even more challenging is the use of teacher-led classes that is still prevalent in traditional colleges. There are changes within the field of education that are acknowledging the need for a new approach and a flipped classroom is one of those growing trends. However, one of the most important aspects of andragogy is the characterization of adults as self-directed learners. Self-directed refers to adult students being in charge of their education and making decisions about their involvement in the process.

The field of online learning has been responsive to meeting the needs of adults and there are many programs that have been developed specifically to address their needs. The challenge involves making a determination of how much control should be given to students. To some extent an instructor must always be involved to guide and coach students through an established curriculum. Even though an instructor may not be able to change the setting or established curriculum for their course, there are steps that can be used to acknowledge and address adult students as self-directed learners.

Teaching Self-Directed Learners

My experience as an educator has involved teaching students in a traditional and online environment. My professional preference is online learning since there is an automatic shift from being teacher-led to teacher-guided, and to me that sets the stage for applying the theory of andragogy to my work. Here are some steps you can use to teach adults students and acknowledge their need to be self-directed.

#1. Make Learning Relevant – Encourage students to connect what they have learned to their career, career aspirations, or professional development. This connection promotes retention of the information they have acquired.

#2. Make Learning Engaging – Discussions provide instructors with an ability to interact one-on-one with each student. This is an opportunity to guide them as they come to understand and work with the course concepts. This is also a way to help correct any misunderstanding they may have about any of the topics.

#3. Make Feedback Meaningful – When students submit their papers it allows instructors to follow their progress and understanding of the course concepts. As you evaluate the content of what was written provide insightful comments to help continue their learning. For the mechanics of the paper, provide corrective feedback as needed to help continue their development of critical skill sets.

#4. Give Choices When Possible – This could be a matter of allowing students to choose a discussion topic to address or offer topics for them to choose from with an assignment. The more your students believe they are involved, the more likely you will gain their buy-in and participation.

Accountability and Responsibility

There are other challenges associated with utilizing andragogy and the self-directed principles – and it involves the nature of adults. As children, they are required to attend school and follow a specified program. When they turn 18 they are presumed to be adults. The question is, does every new adult know how to be responsible and become a self-directed learner. They’ve been taught in a certain pedagogical manner since the first grade, which means as children they have learned to be dependent upon their teacher – and becoming independent may take time for them to learn.

For online students their initial classes are difficult at times because it is expected that they are able to be responsible and accountable for their work. They must manage their time and make certain that deadlines are met. And while there are students who are more than ready and prepared for the task, many are not. Part of the indoctrination of students to online classes is the change in their locus of control. Now they are in charge of their education, not their teachers. All of this aligns with the principles established by Knowles. Applying it in a uniform manner to all adult students is challenging because of their varying characteristics and predisposition to a teacher-led class. If you take the essence of andragogy and decide to make your class meaningful, you will be able to address your adults as students and create an environment promotes learning.

What Does It Mean to Create Knowledge?

The process of adult learning in any classroom environment involves the acquisition of information, interaction with that information through assigned activities, and the creation of new knowledge. One of the primary purposes of adult education programs is to establish classroom conditions that are necessary for learning to take place. Throughout the process of learning knowledge creation is likely to occur as a product of this environment.

Adults acquire knowledge through informal and formal processes. Informal learning occurs through everyday activities, experiences, and also trial and error. An adult may acquire knowledge as they perform job-related tasks. Knowledge may also be developed through the process of critical thinking, which utilizes logic and reasoning. When adults seek specific knowledge that they believe they cannot acquire on their own they may choose a formal classroom learning environment.

Formal learning involves a structured process with established learning objectives and goals. A common goal of many classes is the completion of learning activities that demonstrate the learner’s progress in meeting specific course outcomes. An adult also does not automatically create knowledge by receiving and reviewing information that has been presented within the class assignments and course materials or by participating in assigned activities. The creation of knowledge is most likely to occur when the adult has taken information and interacted with it in a meaningful way.

Adults are self-directed learners by nature and come to the classroom with expectations about the learning process, along with prior experiences and existing knowledge. Adults also seek knowledge that is relevant to their lives and their particular needs and they will only work towards meeting those objectives if it is determined that the learning goals are aligned with their needs. Most colleges and universities acknowledge the adult’s need for relevant and meaningful knowledge and design courses and programs that will meet the needs and professional goals of working adults.

Knowledge creation within a formal classroom learning environment is the product of adults interacting with information. The information adults work with typically includes textbook reading, literature and scholarly articles, knowledge that they already possess, or any other sources that the adults seek throughout the duration of the class. Adult learners also interact with their instructors, other learners, and the classroom environment. These interactions include an exchange of ideas, experiences, and knowledge. An adult’s active involvement in the class forms the basis of adult learning and the process of knowledge creation.