Volume 20, Number 4
June 2003


ADULT LEARNING STYLES

By Storm Evans

In the business world we talk about "training" instead of "teaching." In order to be effective as trainers, we must remember first that our job is to teach. In order to teach we must set objectives. What do we want our students to be able to do when the class ends? In order to teach we must ask for feedback from our students so we can assess whether they're learning. We talk to them individually and look into our students' eyes. In order to teach we must repeat, repeat, repeat. Everyone needs repetition to learn. In order to teach we must be sensitive to our students' needs, not rush them, and exercise patience. Even though they are, in some cases, powerful well-educated professionals, we must encourage them.

Learning about Learning
People have different learning styles. Some individuals learn in a holistic way, wanting to know the whole process before they press the first key. During training, the holistic student often will want to discuss the process as well as practice it. Other people learn in a very "serialistic" way. These people want to know which keys to press to do a particular task-they'll put together as much of the big picture as they need as they go along. Some people learn best by doing, and others don't want to touch the keyboard until they've digested the information and are on their own. Lawyers for the most part are pragmatic, left-brain thinkers; they don't want to engage in bonding, touchy-feely warm-ups, nor do they want their information presented in fancifully creative ways. In general they want to learn what they need to know in the shortest possible amount of time, understand how the new skills will help them, and get good at it fast.

Teachers in the business world must write materials, develop training methods, and utilize a measure of control during sessions to ensure that the needs of all types of learners are met. Unfortunately, no one sorts the students into neat groups for us before the training session. Only by working with people can we understand how they learn.
People must be sold on the benefit of the changes that new software or hardware, new skills, and procedures will require. Written materials can better anticipate the needs of all types of learners if each how-to section is preceded by an explanation of what the course will accomplish and how the results will benefit the attendees. You can't tell adult learners that learning is "for their own good," as you can sometimes get away with telling your children.
One major difference between teaching five-year-olds to ride a bicycle and teaching adults to code cites for a table of authorities is that children have all the time in the world to learn to ride that bike-they want to learn that skill more than anything else and will stick with it until they get it down. A busy secretary or associate has other pressures and may find that stopping to learn a new system slows the process down. An adult must be able to put the new skill to work immediately. A degree of fine-tuning and improvement can be worked in, but in general adults will never take the time a child would.

I once read of an experiment on learning in which a group of people was taught to tie a knot. There were two sets of instructions, one easy, one hard; the group was taught the hard way first. The students practiced, were timed, and perfected their skill. The group then was taught to tie the knot the easier way. They were relieved to learn it and used the easier way whenever they could. The students next were put in high-pressure situations in which they were asked to tie the knot; all resorted to doing it the hard way, the way they learned first.

What this means for teachers in the business world is that we never "untrain" our students. What we must do is train them to do their jobs efficiently and effectively most of the time, which will require periodically updating skills and procedures. Here are some dos and don'ts for teaching in the business setting. Keep the following points in mind, and you'll find your students do most of your work for you.

Dos
-Set learning objectives: When my students leave this training session, they will be able to __________________. The first word in the blank should be a strong action verb. Good example: "will be able to underline a word." Bad example: "will be able to understand how to enter time." Better example: "will be able to create and save a time entry."

-Plan training to meet the needs of the individual. For some, training demonstrations for an entire law office or a department held in a conference room with a projector can be effective. For others, classroom-based, hands-on training will be most effective. For many people (i.e., attorneys who did not grow up with their hands permanently affixed to a keyboard), one-on-one training is best. A good training program includes all of the above.

-Make learning as simple a process as you can. Build flexible training schedules with evening and weekend classes if that best meets your students' needs.

-Prepare written materials. Customize the training with screen shots for your particular implementation. Keep the training materials brief and include step-by-step instructions. Written materials do not look like a brief-they must have white space and must be organized so students can tell where the logical breaks are. Further, written materials tell students not only what to do but what to expect. If the computer moves from one screen to another, tell the student when that happens.

-Fine-tune the written materials. Before you use them with your students, have someone who does not know how to use the software use the materials. Fine-tune the materials based on the user's feedback.

-Train in two-hour segments. The most effective training is task-based, so students learn to accomplish one or two new things each hour. The remainder of the two-hour session is devoted to overview, review, and discussion. If you must train for four hours or longer, break the training into two segments, with a definite beginning and end.

-Conduct lunch-hour seminars. Select a manageable topic, schedule the lunch, and present an overview session on the topic. Be sure to include a handout showing what you discussed.

-Plan for "just-in-time" training. For example, a training session on generating tables of authorities is important to prepare a secretary for the task, but the student will probably not remember how to do it by the time the need arises. Have the written materials ready and, when the appropriate project arrives, spend time with the secretary as he creates his first table or two.

-Put all training materials on the server. As you create the training materials, put them in a logical place on the server, with the file path of the folder and specific training document in the footer. Make sure everyone knows where the materials are.

-Laminate brightly colored crib sheets for important tasks the student may use only rarely.

-Take control in the classroom. You are training at the instruction of the firm-do your job. Bring the students back to the topic whenever needed. The people in the room are no longer "partners," they are students. This will be easier if you are well organized, knowledgeable, firm, and humble.

-Learn from your students. If someone asks a questions for which you have no answer, write it down, figure it out on break or after class, and inform the students. You may realize further sessions are now in order, or you may revamp training for subsequent classes in order to cover the subject.

-Use evaluation materials or follow up with students after an appropriate period of time to ensure they can use the information conveyed during the training.

Don'ts
-Avoid making assumptions. A good legal secretary or good IS tech may not necessarily be a good teacher. If that person is required to train others, work with her to develop basic training skills, and follow up on how the training went.

-Watch your level of expectation. Few people learn from reading a manual, for example-whether you or the vendor wrote it. Never hand someone a manual and expect him to figure it out for himself, unless the person specifically requests this format.

-Match material to the job. Don't train a lawyer to edit text the same way you would a secretary. Your students come with different skills and responsibilities; tailor your training to suit needs.

-Don't rely on razzle-dazzle. Training must be results-oriented, not just sales hype. The fact that someone in the office knows the software well or that the vendor offers "free" training doesn't mean people will learn. In fact, people are often intimidated by others who make a new skill look too easy.

-Resist the urge to write the definitive training tome. Short training handouts with step-by-step instructions are effective; a two-inch three-ring binder of information is not. In fact many people return large binders of training materials, saying they just take up too much space.

-Don't assume that because you had a training session and handed out instruction outlines, your staff knows exactly how to do what they were taught. Plan to hold review sessions and/or readjust your training until you're certain that people do know what they're doing.

Storm Evans is a practice support consultant specializing in assisting lawyers in the Philadelphia area.

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