The model presented in "A
Model for Self-Paced Technology-Based Training" specifies that
adult learning begins with and is sustained by self-assessment and
self-correction (metacognition). The model also indicates that in
addition to metacognition, adults consistently use the following
learning strategies: reflection, prior experiences, conversations,
and authentic experiences. Here are specific techniques adults use
when they apply these five learning strategies.
How adults use metacognition to
Metacognition is the process of self-assessment and
self-correction. It includes evaluating progress, correcting
errors, and implementing and perhaps changing learning strategies.
Learners engaged in metacognition think about
- implementing their preferred learning strategies
- assessing their progress by answering self-assessment questions or practice questions, and determining the degree to which the instruction meets their needs or expectations
- implementing remedial learning strategies such as re-reading instructional information.
A quintessential metacognitive statement is, "I got it!" or its
converse, "I'm lost."
Preferred learning strategies. Adult learners
typically have a set of strategies for how they learn. For example,
some learners believe that repetition is critical but others
believe that they learn best when they just dive in and try a task
or a procedure. Meanwhile, other learners rely heavily on visuals
Assess progress. Adult learners are continuously
evaluating their performance and their progress. They want to be
able to answer the question, "Am I getting this?" To come up with
an answer, learners typically ask themselves questions and use
whatever practice questions are available.
- Self-assessment questions: Adult learners have many prior assessment experiences so they know how to create their own self-assessments. Some learners are very methodical about their self assessments. For example, some learners write down their questions or new acronyms and then try to answer those questions or define the acronyms. Some learners are less structured about their self-assessments but their goal is the same, which is to feel confident that they understand and can apply the new information.
- Practice questions: The practice questions that are sometimes available in self-paced, technology-based training are valuable and useful to adult learners. These practice questions reduce the amount of time learners spend creating their own self-assessments and, assuming the questions include the correct answer, practice questions help learners either feel confident that they understand the content or indicate that they need to re-read the content or employ other remedial strategies.
- Need or expectation questions: Another aspect of self-assessment is when learners consider whether or not the training meets their needs or expectations. Typically, adult learners choose self-paced, technology-based training because they need to know something to complete a specific task or assignment in the near future. As they read the instruction, adult learners frequently ask themselves if this information is going to help them perform that task or complete that assignment. Learners are frustrated if they perceive that the training is not going to help them with their immediate needs or if they are not in a situation where they can immediately apply what they are learning.
Remedial learning strategies. Adult learners want
to succeed. They want to feel confident in their understanding of
and ability to use their new skills. If they don't feel confident,
adult learners often re-read confusing information, question the
degree to which the confusing content meets their needs and/or look
for familiar terminology. They also talk to colleagues and
supervisors or try to apply or use the confusing content.
- Re-read information: Adult learners re-read instructional content either to clarify an area of confusion or to look for specific information. Either way, learners assess their understanding and decide that something is missing or confusing.
- Look for familiar terminology: When learners are confused, they sometimes find a term or acronym that's familiar and helps them put the content into a realistic setting. That is, learners link the familiar term or acronym to one or more of their prior experiences and that enables them to create an example of how they might use the confusing content.
Self-assessment and self-correction assumes the ability to easily
navigate a self-paced, technology-based course. If the navigation
is difficult or confusing, a learner's self-assessment is "I'm
lost!" Even when the content is interesting, accurate, and relevant
to the learner, if the interface or navigation is confusing, the
learner can't get to the content. It's like having a box lunch but
the food is sealed inside a locked box and you don't have the key!
How adults use reflection to
Reflection is an interpretive process. Learners use reflection to
- visualize using what they learned by solving a problem or improving something with their new skills
- understand the big picture
- compare their use of the information with how others use the same information
- recall a section in the course.
Visualize using the new information. Learners
often visualize or hypothesize how they will apply their new
skills. This is particularly true when learners plan to use their
new skills to solve a problem or improve an existing situation. As
they read the instruction, they stop and visualize how their new
skills will enable them to handle that situation in the future. For
example, one learner I spoke with said, "I thought back to a few of
the attributes that the lesson went through, such as location of
the item, and tried to think how those would relate to a course
entered as an item." Another learner said that after she read the
examples in a section of a course, she stopped and tried to create
her own examples.
Adult learners often take a self-paced, technology-based course to
learn skills that will enable them to move into another position.
Thus, when they're taking the course, and immediately after
completion, they have few opportunities to practice their new
skills. In lieu of authentic experiences, learners create vicarious
experiences and hypothesize how they expect to use their new
Look for the big picture. Most adult learners
constantly look for the big picture. They often reflect on how the
instructional content fits into a bigger whole, and they may take a
course simply because it discusses the big picture. Learners also
are concerned when the pieces don't seem to fit together. One
learner I worked with said, "When there's a piece missing or
there's something that doesn't fit, I'm confused. I have to go back
and say, "Okay, I'm going to start at the beginning now. What did I
As part of reflecting on the big picture, adult learners often
visualize the content in terms of building blocks and how learning
is similar to stacking blocks one on top of another. Perhaps this
is a type of preferred learning strategy, but the emphasis isn't on
how they learn but rather on the organization of the instructional
content and how it consists of related pieces that fit together to
create the big picture.
Compare themselves to others. Adult learners
compare how they use their new skills, or how they anticipate using
their skills, with how their colleagues use those same skills. For
example, while examining the examples in an MS Project course, one
learner reflected on how her colleagues used MS Project differently
than the training examples. She said that reflecting on these
comparisons helped her learn alternative ways to use the product.
Recall a section in the course. Adult learners
frequently think about the implications and practical applications
of what they learned. Generally, they think about these
implications and practical applications when they're performing a
task that's related to the course content. Sometimes, though, adult
learners will be in a completely unrelated situation when something
triggers their recall of the instruction. For example, one learner
related that seeing a telecommunications service truck caused him
to think about the telecommunications course he took the previous
Sometimes learners feel confused about something they think they
learned in the course. Perhaps they're trying to apply a procedure
or concept from the course or they're discussing the course content
with colleagues. When an experience or conversation confuses adult
learners, they often return to the course or their job aid to
resolve their confusion. They may also ask a colleague to help
How adults use their prior experience to
Adults frequently compare and contrast the content in a self-paced,
technology-based course with their prior experiences. These
comparisons result in learners feeling
- confused because the content is inconsistent with their prior experiences
- confident because the content is consistent with their prior experiences
- lost because they have no prior experiences with the content.
Prior experiences cause confusion. Sometimes,
learners' prior experiences contradict or are inconsistent with
training, which can cause confusion. These contradictions may focus
on the content or on the navigation. For example, learners have
experience performing a specific procedure covered in training, but
the steps are significantly different in the course. Similarly,
learners are confused if they're familiar with the standard
Microsoft interface but the interface of the self-paced,
technology-based training doesn't use a similar format or set of
Prior experiences validate new information. Prior
experiences also are a source of confidence. When the new
information in the course is consistent with learners' prior
experiences, learners feel a sense of validation and often think,
"Yes, that makes sense." Sometimes, an example or discussion during
training answers a question or resolves a problem that learners
have struggled with in the past. The result is that learners
suddenly feel a sense of confidence because they have answers to
their question or resolutions to a problem. It's a good feeling
when you see how new information extends or builds on what you
Lack of prior experiences. If learners have no
prior experience with the instructional content, they usually find
the course difficult. With no relevant prior experiences, learners
lose one of their five learning strategies and may find that their
remaining four strategies aren't as effective.
How adults use conversations to
Learning through discussions and conversations is an important
learning strategy for adult learners. Critics of self-paced,
technology-based training often say the weak link in this type of
training is the lack of person-to-person interaction. Looking at
the big picture, however, discussions and conversations seem to be
a definite part self-paced learning. Adults who take self-paced,
technology-based training consistently discuss their training,
their reactions to the training, and their use of the training
content with others.
Specifically, adults use conversations in the following three ways
to help them learn the content of self-paced, technology-based
- ask or answer questions about the course content
- discuss problems the course content helped them solve
- teach a colleague or subordinate something they learned in the course.
Questions about the course content. Adult learners
frequently ask their colleagues questions about courses because
they're confused about a concept, term, or acronym in the course or
because they suspect there's an error in the course. Conversely,
co-workers may ask a colleague who is taking a course a question
about what he or she is learning. Regardless of who asked the
question, the ensuing discussion helps learners review and extend
their understanding of the content.
Problems solved by using the course content. Adult
learners gain confidence when they can prevent or solve a problem
using the information they learned in a course. For example, the
learner I worked with who took the MS Project course said that
during a meeting with her colleagues, she explained how they could
use MS Project to prevent some problems on an upcoming project.
Teach the course content. As most instructors will
attest, teaching a subject helps a person learn the subject.
Regardless of whether the instruction is a formal course or an
informal discussion, adult learners extend their understanding of a
topic when they have to teach it to someone else. These
instructional discussions are also authentic experiences, where
learners apply their new skills and knowledge.
How adults use authentic experiences to
Adult learners' authentic experiences frequently involve
conversations or discussions. When learners return to their jobs
after completing some or all of a self-paced, technology-based
course, they're anxious to talk about and use what they've learned.
When adult learners have an opportunity to apply what they learned,
they're usually testing their new skills and knowledge and the
accuracy of the course content. They also are assessing the degree
to which they can actually integrate what they learned into their
Adults use authentic experiences in three ways. They apply what
- exactly as they were taught
- differently than they were taught
- to improve their efficiency on the job.
Apply content the way it was taught. Adult
learners seem reassured, and perhaps relieved, when they can apply
what they've learned exactly as it was taught. A learner who took
an advanced PowerPoint course that covered how to use tables
successfully used that skill when she created a new presentation
immediately after completing the course.
Apply content differently than it was taught.
Sometimes when learners try to apply what they've learned, they
discover that they need to modify or alter their new skills or
knowledge because their specific environment requires a different
strategy or procedure. Another surprise that adult learners
experience is that the training was accurate but incomplete. For
example, training explained one procedure or approach but failed to
mention that there's more than one way to perform the task. When
this occurs, learners feel confused, or even angry. Two of the
learners I worked with experienced that frustration. One learner
took the MS Project course and the other learner took the advanced
PowerPoint course. Both courses taught only one way to perform each
type of procedure, and both learners found that very frustrating.
As expected, learners are disappointed if they find the course they
completed didn't meet their needs. According to one learner, "I was
slightly disappointed that the course I took really didn't help me
understand that (the distribution process) better."
Apply knowledge to improve job performance.
Ideally, all learners who complete training use what they learned
to improve their job performance. Frequently, learners use the job
aid they created while taking the course to help them perform on
the job. A learner I worked with used his paper copy of the course
glossary to answer the questions in a quiz given by his manager.
This manager gave periodic quizzes, to help employees stay abreast
of frequent changes in the industry, and the winners won movie
tickets or gift certificates to local restaurants.
Adult learners have generally taught themselves how to use these
learning strategies. As an instructional designer, I think we can
help adults be more effective learners if we design self-paced,
technology-based training to support these five strategies.
Techniques to help learners effectively self-assess and
self-correct. Because adult learning begins with and is
sustained by self-assessment and self-correction, it's critical for
instructional designers to provide frequent embedded questions or
self-checks, practice exercises, and/or hands-on simulations.
Similarly, it's important to provide correct or incorrect feedback,
as well as the correct answer, to enable learners to correct their
While it's rarely feasible to develop different versions of the
same course to accommodate different learning styles, it's possible
to develop one course that supports the learning strategies
typically used by the target audience. If designers know the types
of learning strategies used by many of the learners likely to take
the training, they can include support for those learning
strategies in the course. How do you get that information? During
the analysis step of the ISD process, designers should identify the
personal learning strategies typically used by the target audience.
For example, if many learners say they prefer to dive in and just
try to do something, then the course might contain simulations that
learners can access anytime or be structured as a job aid so
learners can access the information when they're ready to perform
the task on the job.
Another self-assessment activity that learners use is to ask
whether training met their needs or expectations. Designers can
help learners quickly answer this type of question by clearly
describing the goals or objectives in the course description and at
the beginning of the course. This introductory information helps
learners decide, before taking a course, if the course will likely
meet their needs.
Re-reading content is a common remedial strategy that adult
learners use as part of their self-correction activities.
Re-reading and reviewing content is easy to accomplish in
paper-based instruction, but in self-paced, technology-based
training, navigation can make it difficult for learners to back-up
or review. This is unacceptable. Designers of self-paced,
technology-based training must ensure that learners can easily
re-read content whenever they're confused or need to search for
specific information. Techniques that support reviewing and
re-reading include a table of contents, a searchable index, a site
or content map, and a navigation design that enables learners to go
to any section or sub-section. A glossary, a search capability, and
section headings and summaries also support reviewing and
re-reading. Finally, a print feature allows learners to create a
job aid they can use to review the course content offline.
Techniques to help learners effectively use
reflection. Designers can help adult learners effectively
use reflection by providing numerous examples that exemplify how
the learner might use the content, how the content fits into a
larger framework, and alternative ways to apply the content.
Examples also help learners understand the range of situations to
which the content applies.
Examples can take the form of case studies, simulations, or
hands-on exercises. They should range from simple to complex to
enable learners to progressively improve their skills and
knowledge. Some learners may choose to start with the most
difficult examples to assess their skills and some students may
start with the easiest examples to build their confidence.
When teaching concepts and theory rather than hard skills,
designers can help learners reflect on the critical attributes of
those concepts by including both examples and non-examples. The
non-examples should have many attributes similar to the examples
and differ from them only in terms of a few critical attributes.
Another technique for facilitating reflection is to ask learners to
create their own examples. Most adult learners do this without
being prompted, but designing these reflective experiences into the
instruction can help learners create personalized examples at
particularly relevant points in the course. It also motivates
learners that normally don't create their own examples.
Rhetorical questions are another method for facilitating
reflection. At the end of a section or the end of the course,
designers can ask learners to think about the implications or
consequences of the course content or how they might use the
content on the job.
To help learners understand the big picture, designers can use a
building block analogy to describe how the various pieces of
content fit together. They can create visuals to show the
relationship between all the pieces and how they fit together to
create the whole. This visual aid can then be used as part of
section and course summaries, part of a job aid, and part of
self-assessment practice exercises.
To help learners reflect on a course after completing it, designers
should provide support and encouragement for learners to create
personalized job aids. They should also encourage learners, at the
end of a course, to return to the course if they need to refresh
their memories or they experience a problem while applying
something discussed in the course.
Techniques to help learners effectively use their prior
experiences. Self-paced, technology-based training should
help learners create links between the course content and the
experiences they have had in the past, or it should answer a
question or resolve a problem learners have experienced in the
past. During the analysis step of the ISD process, designers need
to identify the range and type of prior experiences the target
audience brings to this training. Designers can use this learner
analysis information to develop examples and analogies that are
relevant to their learners.
Similarly, designers can use learner analysis information to create
definitions of new terms. When defining a term, designers can
include references or comparisons and contrasts to experiences
learners are likely to have had in the past.
Designers can also use information about learners' prior
experiences to develop practice questions and feedback. For
example, they can create a practice question that's based on a
common prior experience. If the question is a multiple-choice
question, they can use common mistakes as distracters. If they
allow learners more than one attempt on the practice question, they
can use a common prior experience as a hint for learners who
answered the question incorrectly and are trying again to answer
Another useful design technique is to include historical
information about the course content with timelines showing other
relevant historical events.
Techniques to help learners effectively use
conversations. Given the importance of group discussions
and conversations as effective adult learning strategies, I suggest
that designers begin and end all self-paced, technology-based
training with a suggestion to learners that they discuss the course
content with anyone and everyone who will listen. Conversations
with friends, colleagues, spouses, children, parents, tennis
partners, or neighbors will help learners retain the information
they've covered during a course. Discussions with people who know
nothing about the content require learners to simplify the content
and make it accessible to novices. Discussions with co-workers help
learners consider how others interpret and use the content, and
discussions with experts help learners understand where to improve
their new skills and knowledge.
Techniques to help learners effectively use authentic
experiences. As noted above, when learners finish a
course, they're primed to use their new skills. A technique to
capitalize on this motivation is to provide learners with a list of
situations in which they can apply what they learned--and are
likely to encounter. Alternatively, ask learners to create this
list for themselves.
Another end-of-course strategy to help learners practice what they
learned is to conclude training with a few reflection questions,
such as "Which of the concepts or procedures in this course can you
use in the next few days?" or "Which concept or procedure will
improve your efficiency in the next week?" Another idea is to begin
a course with a few suggestions, such as "As you take this course,
think about your current responsibilities and how you can use a
concept or procedure taught in this course to improve your
efficiency or effectiveness."
Another design technique to help learners effectively use authentic
experiences is to include descriptions, examples, or at least notes
in the instruction about different approaches or procedures that
achieve the same end-result. For example, if there are three
different procedures for replacing a part in a machine, make sure
the instruction explains that there's more than one effective
procedure. Perhaps there's a preferred procedure, but be sure to
explain or describe the other two so learners aren't surprised or
confused when they talk to colleagues or peers about this task.
Finally, managers can help learners have authentic experiences by
talking with them before and after they take a self-paced,
technology-based course. Before the course, the discussion should
focus on how the learner is expected to use the new information.
After the course, this discussion should focus on what the employee
learned. This debriefing discussion could be part of a staff
meeting, where employees share with the team new, relevant, and
interesting information from a course.
Adult learners have taught themselves how to use metacognition,
reflection, prior experiences, conversations, and authentic
experiences as learning strategies. Instructional designers can
support these learning strategies by combining the following design
- support the preferred learning strategies typically used by the target audience
- clearly describe the course goals or objectives in the course description and at the beginning of the course
- identify the range and type of prior experiences the target audience brings to the training and then use this information to develop examples, analogies, practice questions, and definitions that are relevant to the learners
- include historical information about the course content with timelines showing other relevant historical events
- include rhetorical questions, asking learners to think about the implications or consequences of the course content and examples of how they might use the content on the job
- acknowledge different approaches to a process or different opinions about a topic
- create a visual to show how all of the pieces of the content fit together to create a whole. Use this visual as part of section and course summaries, a printable job aid, and practice exercises.
- strongly encourage learners to discuss the course content with anyone who will listen to them. It's particularly important for learners to discuss the course with their managers before and after they take a self-paced, technology-based course.