Friday, July 8, 2022
How and Why Adults Learn- Pt 1.
We need to be honest. Most of our students aren't learning or retaining the information we teach them. If you're not in academia, you've likely attended a a required training or taken a course on your own and you probably can't fully articulate what you've learned or how it applies to what you do daily in your profession. Over the past few months, I've been spending time with neuroscientists learning about learning. I'll pass on some pointers over the next posts to translate how and what we want to teach to how our students or employees actually learn. For example, we all know about the "gunners" in our classrooms or those who beg for the extra point on the exam so that they can maintain their stellar GPAs. But for the most part, adults don't get motivated through gold stars and report cards in the same way that younger learners do.
I'll start with an overview of ten things we need to know about how adults learn. I'll expand on them in future posts.
1) Many professors focus on pedagogy, which is based on how children learn and still stick to the teacher-centered approach of learning. The science of adult learning is called andragagy, and neuroandragogy adds the overlay of neuroscience and neurophysiology.
2) The myth of learning styles has been debunked for years, but we still continue to focus on visual, auditory, and kinesthetic approaches when we teach. Although people have preferences, when we try to teach to a specific style, we actually perpetuate a fixed mindset rather than encouraging a growth mindset. By the way, for those who have read Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset, please remember that it's like the appetizer and without sound teaching and instruction (the main course), it won't matter what kind of mindset the students have.
3) Most of our law students and employees have been digital natives since birth. They've been playing on tablets and on smartphones before they could read. They learn via YouTube, TikTok, and social media with algorithms that cater to what they want and need. Many of them are also content creators with their own social media accounts. They understand how algorithms change and thus change their content to get more views and likes. Like it or not, they expect the same from professors or corporate trainers.
4) Adult learners are task-oriented and would rather solve a problem than passively receive content from a professor. Similarly, adults need much more self-directed learning than younger learners and want to apply the knowledge immediately. This may be why clinics are so popular in law school and why the best corporate training leaves attendees with tangible, actionable learnings.
5) Children listen to teachers because they don't have much context and have been raised to listen to and respect adults (whether that always happens is a different story). Adult learners have years of lived experience and are typically taking a course for a specific purpose. When we teach them something new, it may be harder for them to absorb or retain because they filter it through their working memory first, and this slows them down. They also determine very quickly whether they "need to know" this information. This may explain why so few students retain information after an exam. It doesn't relate to what they believe they need to know for their careers after graduation, particularly if we teach theory and don't connect it to practice.
6) The average adult attention span in a lecture is 15-20 minutes. Some argue that it's shorter. In addition, adult learners tend to learn more by doing than by merely listening. This makes the standard lecture format the least effective way for adults to learn.
7) The brain understands the world through emotion, metaphors, and symbols, but we spend time most of our time using words. We need to go to experiences that speak to the brain. Adult learning experts want us to forget the Descartes quote, "I think therefore I am," and instead reframe it to "I feel, therefore I know."
8) Movement and play are particularly helpful for adult learning, just like with children. Sometimes we need to have students get up and move around in class and develop activities that can anchor the learning.
9) The best way to reach adult learners is to provide a choice of topics, real world problems, and relevance to current or future positions. Adult learners need to know the why behind the what we are teaching. They won't accept it blindly just because we are in the front of the classroom as younger learners will.
10) Scaffolding and formative assessment are critical for metacognition, reflection, and reapplying what adults have learned. According to cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jared Cooney Horvath, we forget about 60-70% of what we learn within 48 hours. This means we need to change how we teach so students can change how they learn and retain information.
I'll dive in more deeply to these topics in the future. How do you "play" in a professional education setting? Do you have to dance like a TikTok video star to reach students? What do I mean the students have to have a choice of topics? What is the "curve of forgetting" and how can we use those insights to maximize learning outcomes? What is heutagogy and how can we help students with self-directed learning? How will these students make it in the real world if we cater to them this way?
You may miss the "good old days" where students sat in a two-hour lecture, had one final exam at the end of the semester, and we could dust off our notes the next semester to do it all over again. Those days are gone forever. Corporate trainers use microlearning and short 3-7 minute videos to convey key concepts to workers. That's what's happening in "the real world." We don't have to change everything we do, but we need to re-think how WE think so that the next generation of lawyers can learn what they need to learn.
What tips or best practices do you have to share about teaching and learning?