Evidence-Based Adult Learning With an Innovation Mindset

By Michelle Nolin, CPLP; President and Chief Learning Geek, Learn Ethos LLC

The more I discover about adult learning as an instructional designer, the more I wonder how I retained anything as an undergrad studying another field 30 years ago. It seems that all of the rules and best practices we follow today are in contrast to the never-ending lectures and cramming for high stakes final exams, with few chances to remediate learning along the way. My own learner’s journey to become an instructional designer showcases in many ways how and why adults actually learn.

I became an instructional designer early in my career as a medical writer — not in a classroom or graduate school, but in a fast-paced, results-driven pharmaceutical sales training company with a forward-thinking boss who saw something in me and assigned me a mentor who was an instructional designer. I learned the basics by doing, starting with how to write a learning objective that was specific and measurable. The first lesson was powerful, stuck with me, and formed the basis for one of the truths my staff and clients hear me say often: “there are no surprises in adult learning.”

It may sound like a basic thing to start a module lesson with an instructionally sound learning objective, but it is critical to get that precisely right. There is the promise to the learner as well, on which we have to make good. If we say the learner will be able to describe bronchodilation of the lungs, we will effectively teach the concept and then test on it in a standardized way. One of three central theories, behaviorism, tells us that learning is a change in behavior. Learning is objective and/or competency-based, the learning environments that facilitate the attainment of the intended learning outcomes matter, and we measure that attainment in a criterion-referenced manner. These assertions were echoed in the work of Malcolm Knowles, which also resonated with me and emphasizes the internal motivation of adults and their need for the WIIFM (what’s in it for me?).

My relentlessly pragmatic brain latched on early to another concept, which is that learning is about searching for meaning, underpinned by another of the learning theories, constructivism, which posits that learners construct knowledge from experiences (not by our pouring it into their brains, as if they were vessels). In many ways, this is the antithesis of behaviorism, in which we (the trainer) define the learning experience and learners remain passive. This theory teaches that active learners collaborate and “construct” their acquisition of knowledge, so how do we facilitate that? With role plays and problem-based learning, and creating environments for collaboration in which learners tuck new knowledge and skills into what they already know about their world.

I assimilated aspects of this theory into my practice as an instructional designer as the “filter of relevancy,” another phrase my team and clients hear me say often. Going back to our asthma learning program for pharma sales reps… we had to have a solid reason why our learners need to understand the normal physiology of the lungs. Such understanding was critical to learners being able to grasp and discuss the mechanism of action of the new asthma drug with healthcare providers.

A constructivist approach brings learning close to task. What does that particular learner, with their educational background and level of experience, need to be able to do to successfully discuss that product in the room with a pulmonologist? We designed several role plays, but not before we front-loaded the learning by building a solid foundational knowledge of normal respiratory anatomy and physiology, the pathophysiology of asthma, and the how the drug worked. A thorough needs analysis helps us sift through a filter of relevance based on the desired outcomes.

Before we sent newly trained pharmaceutical sales reps out into the field, we needed to take it one step further to ensure everything we taught them was not forgotten two weeks later.  We likewise had to ensure they would assimilate what they had learned and transfer it in the real world. We achieved that in part by employing numerous tactics based on the third of the three learning theories, cognitivism (among other theories and studies that branched off of that), including:

  • Chunking content appropriately, using what we know about cognitive load and the adult brain. In asynchronous eLearning, chunking translates to short lessons with a strong interplay of text, graphics, and interactivity. With the attention span of today’s working adult the span of a gnat, nuggets are the new chunks and microlearning has been born.
  • Facilitating a schema for the learner by presenting situations or challenges in which they then construct their own learning; hacking your own learning and DIY is here to stay, and not just for the self-taught like myself… look at the ubiquity of online learning programs such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on platforms such as Coursera and from major universities.
  • Using advanced organizers in text and eLearning to frame and set a context for the concepts that will follow.
  • Keep the distractions out of the way, with uncluttered, intuitive user interfaces, which has become increasingly important in a digitally noisy world.
  • Don’t “set it and forget it,” instead, maintain continuous touchpoints with learners with techniques like spaced education (based on Ebbinghuas’ work more than a century ago on the forgetting curve) and gamification.
  • Remediate, remediate, and then remediate again, with multiple opportunities to practice and internalize and assimilate knowledge, facilitating “a ha!” moments.

There are many learning theories in the world, many of which are contradictory, and I imagine more than a few of you reading this shook your head at the ones I mentioned. Indeed many feel Knowles’ work is unscientific and are critical of Bloom’s taxonomy, which I still think is a useful framework for constructing curricula and method for devising a reliable blueprint for an assessment-based certificate program. This article only begins to scratch the surface of the underlying principles of adult learning from an “evidence-driven” perspective (scare quotes intentional).

The point to be made is that adult learning requires us to take a relentless approach to evolving as instructional designers. It is a field which continues to challenge and excite me after more than 25 years, as we learn more about how we learn, and the world changes around us at a dizzying pace that requires us to anchor in learning theory but be willing to adapt and grow.

I will offer one final example of how I have seen new evidence impact instructional design in my career. Years ago, eLearning was called multimedia learning, which was very unglamorously but correctly called CBT or computer-based training before that … doesn’t that just harken the days of black screens and c prompts and clunky large computers that took up an entire room?  Early eLearning featured a lot of “click listen” learning, with voice of God narration that read the content to the learner, in sync with bullet builds on the screen (because that was a nifty programming trick). Learners were locked into linear, gated content that moved to the speed of the narrator and the text builds, which was a lot like someone feeding you peas one at a time, and you couldn’t see the plate or control how fast the peas came at you. Maddening. A lot of the context was in the audio while auditory senses are the weakest channel for learning. We no longer do that (thankfully!).

Turns out, learner control of text and graphics works better. The eLearning we instructionally design today is more akin to a website on steroids, allowing learners to control the speed and pace with which they read and explore the content, which has been shown to allow learners to finish faster with better retention and knowledge transfer (the Holy Grail of Adult Learning, especially in the workforce). We still use audio, but in different ways — to present first person narratives to emotionally engage and inspire the learner, or to narrate a complex animation, for example.

The evidence is there, and we mustn’t ignore it, but we must continue to innovate and be inspired by it, and by what our learners teach us.

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