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 learn

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 or pictures.

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 learn

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 skills.

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 miss?"

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 week.

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 them.

How adults use their prior experience to learn

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 conventions.

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 already know.

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 learn

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 training:

  • 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 learn

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 day-to-day responsibilities.

Adults use authentic experiences in three ways. They apply what they learned

  • 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.

Instructional design implications

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 mistakes.

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 the question.

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.

Bottom line

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 recommendations:

  • 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.