adult learning at back to school time

Back to School: Adults Crave new Learning Experiences, too

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As mid-summer nears, that familiar back-to-school feeling comes to mind for many of us. We don’t have to be teachers, students, or parents to recognize that sense of “returning” that comes with the end of summer heat and the onset of cooler nights. It stays with us throughout our lives, and fall often brings on an urge to learn something new. As professionals and leaders, we can capitalize on that “back to school” feeling by incorporating learning experiences into our work with teams, employees, and other adult learners. But we also have to think about what it means to design adult learning experience that actually work, and meet that craving to learn and grow.

The fact that adults crave learning isn’t just a “sense” that I have as an educator and trainer. In fact, in 2016 more than 90% of adults surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that they consider themselves “lifelong learners.” In that same survey, 58% of respondents agreed that the statement “I often find myself looking for new opportunities to grow as a person” fit them very well, and another 31% said the statement fit them “somewhat well.” That’s over 80% of adults stating that they crave learning experiences and new opportunities to grow.

And what better time to fulfill that desire to seek new opportunities and learn new things than the time of year we were all trained to expect school to start?

But “school” isn’t exactly what adults are looking for. Half of adults in the study cited above also agreed with the statement “I am really glad I am no longer in school.” What that means to me is that adults crave learning experiences of their own choice – experiences that help them grow in the ways that they desire, rather than what others might expect them to learn.

Sure, for some that desire to learn and grow might mean returning to graduate school to get an advanced mathematics degree. But for most adults, learning is going to come in the form of professional or recreational courses that meet an short-term, practical or enjoyable learning goal.

So what should we offer to our adult learners this fall?

In most cases, we should design adult learning experiences that are:

  • Specific – focused on a particular skillset or knowledge area;
  • Measurable – providing clear and concrete outcomes;
  • Attainable – able to completed in a reasonable amount of time on a schedule that works;
  • Relevant – connected to their real-life needs, interests, and goals;
  • Timely – offered when needed, at an appropriate time and for an appropriate length of time.

Ah, see what I did there? I applied what are commonly known as “SMART” goals in organizational development to the learning environment for adults. I have said it before, I’m a learning nerd.

Here are some examples of the types of courses I have helped design that meet these criteria:

  • A six-month online certification program in Nonprofit Management (with Common Good Vermont);
  • A six-month online Fundraising and Development Certificate Program (with Jenn Hayslett);
  • A six-week mindfulness at work course that can be offered in-person or online (my own course);
  • A 9-month course for sales people and CEO’s that illustrates how understanding the psychology of communication can help you improve business practices (with Visceral Communications);
  • A two-hour workshop on strengths-based leadership to help leaders understand their own strengths and draw out the strengths of their teams (my own workshop);
  • One-day learning and planning retreats with organizations like The Vermont Community Foundation, the UVM Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Virginia Tech Student Success Center that focus equally on collaborative learning and accomplishing joint tasks.

What do all of these programs have in common?

These adult learning experiences set out meaningful goals and objectives, making it clear to participants what they will get out of the experience. They deliver relevant and purposeful content that can be immediately applied by adult learners. Some of them are just a few hours, some a full-day, and some multiple weeks and years. The timing is designed to be appropriate for the learning goals and the learners’ capacity and attention span, based on what they get out of the experience.

In short, these programs all meet the “SMART” standards but in their own appropriate ways.

So what will you offer to your team, staff, or professional network this fall that is a SMART learning opportunity? What course will you design to offer to your clients that meets these goals?

How will you capitalize on that “back to school” motivation that more than 80% of adults are likely open to embracing this fall?

Have an idea you want to work through? Need a partner to design or implement your learning experience? I’d love to work with you! Let’s chat!

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