Adult Training and Learning Style

How do adults learn? On their own mostly, or so suggests Alien Tough, professor of adult education, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto. In an adult learning research review that appeared in a recent issue of Adult Education, Tough suggests that most adults are a) continually involved in some sort of a major learning project and b) involved alone.

According to Tough, “Adults spend a remarkable amount of time each year at major efforts to learn. In fact, a typical learning effort requires 100 hours. The typical adult conducts five such efforts a year; 500 hours altogether. Some of these learning projects rely on instructors and classes, but over 70% are self-planned and others rely on friends and peer groups.”

The 20-plus studies Tough reviewed were conducted within the last 10 years, tended to be survey or semi-structured interview in nature, and used the same general definition of an adult learning project. “A learning project,” says Tough, “is a highly de-liberate effort to gain and retain certain definite knowledge and skill, or to change in some other way. To be included, a series of related learning sessions (episodes in which the per-son’s primary intention was to learn) must all add up to at least seven hours.” Tough suggests that this definition includes all media and methods— reading, listening, observing, attending class, reflecting, practicing, getting answers to questions.

The term “knowledge and skill” includes such matters as changed awareness, competence, habits, attitudes, sensitivity and confidence. Self-planned learning, classroom learning, learning guided by a friend or a group of peers and learning guided by programmed instruction are all included. Non-credit learning as well as degree or certification-aimed learning are included, as are learning for practical reasons and learning motivated by curiosity, interest, puzzlement and enjoyment.


Some of Tough’s other conclusions based on his literature review are:

1. Probably 90% of all adults en¬gage in at least one major learning effort a year, though the range of studies is from 70% to 100%.

2. About 20% of all adult learning projects are planned by a “professional”— someone trained, paid or institutionally designated to facilitate the learning. The other 80% is planned by an “amateur”—the learner (73%), a friend (3%) or a group of peers (4%).

3. The most common motivation for a learning project is some anticipated use or application. The person has a task— raising a child, writing a report, handling a case, teaching a class, fixing or improving something around the home, sewing a dress— and acquires certain knowledge and skill to perform successfully. The least common motivation (5%) is learning for credit for some sort of certification— degree, certificate, driver’s license. An only slightly more common motivator is curiosity, or knowledge for knowledge sake.

4. Surprisingly, studies in Jamaica, Ghana and New Zealand revealed the same general pattern of results as did studies in the U.S. and Canada; that is, 70% of all adults participate in at least one major learning project per year.

5. Males, professionals and the more highly educated tend to need more help in setting goals, locating expert assistance, finding information and materials, dealing with difficult parts of their projects, and finding sources to assist in evaluation. Blacks tend to be more involved in formal courses and whites in self-planned learning.

Tough emphasizes, however, that demographic variables, such as age, race, sex, income and occupation, tend not to account for much of the difference between the “life-long learners” and the “non-learners.” The learners seem to represent every imaginable demographic set. While professionals tended to do more projects per year (11) than others, they were by no means dominant in the studies. One study showed that 86 of 100 unemployed adults interviewed had engaged in at least one learning activity. Learning efforts of the latter group ranged from coping skills to preparation for a new job.

6. People who prefer learning on their own to learning in courses do so for the following reasons: a) desire to set own learning pace, b) desire to keep learning style flexible and easy to change, c) desire to use own style of learning, d) desire to put own struture on learning, e) didn’t know of an available course, f) wanted to learn immediately, g) lack of time to engage in group learning programs, h) not enough money for a course or a class, i) transportation to a class is too hard to obtain or too expensive.

In the same vein, one study suggested that group projects were the preferred method for those attempting a religious learning project (47% of all religious projects) and academic learn¬ing: one to one was most common for self-development (29%); self-planned for current events (96%); and vocational learning (79%).

7. The number of vocational oriented learning projects varied by vocational group. Eighty-four percent of learning projects by college and university administrators were job related; 62% of learning projects by parish ministers were job related. (Specifically, ministers reported en¬gaging in learning projects that would lead to Sunday sermon grist.) A general professional group—managers to engineers— reported 55% of all projects to be job related. A study of At¬lanta pharmacists found that 30% of the group’s learning projects were vocationally related.

8. Self-learners tend to follow a general pattern in planning and organizing their learning projects: a) clarifying a general problem or issue; b) becoming aware of the need to learn or deciding to begin a learning project; c) generating long-term objectives and identifying resources. Self-learners report the most difficulty in “knowing how to start their learning projects (setting objectives); finding or making time to learn (set¬ting objectives and scheduling); and knowing whether or not they were progressing or had accomplished what they had set out to do.”

9. And finally, one study reports that while the learner retains control of the project, he or she characteristically seeks help from a mean of 10.6 persons, largely acquaintances.

Tough ends his fascinating trip through the frontiers of adult learning by suggesting that we have much to learn about the adult learner and how the “professional” can be a better facilitator. Clearly, the pontifical in¬ formation giver is low on the list of resources sought by the adult learner. Perhaps Alvin Toffler was right when he suggested that the life-long learner, the future shock survivor, won’t be the person with a superior font of facts but the person who can learn, unlearn, and relearn effectively, efficiently and independently.

Source : Training Magazine, January 1979

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