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Teaching Adults is Easy, Right?
A teacher teaching a group of adults in a classroomHigh quality public health workforce is essential to achieving our HIV and STI prevention goals. Not only do you need the foundational knowledge and skills to do the job right in promoting community health, you also need to keep up with the development of testing technology, drugs, interventions, and languages used. At CCP, we train thousands of people each year to help advance the workforce capacity in prevention and clinical care. How do we make the adult learning experience as effective and enjoyable as possible? Our master trainer Julie Commisso has this reflection based on her 20 years of experience teaching adults in HIV prevention:

“I was naïve enough to believe this many years ago when I began my professional training career in the field of HIV Prevention. I am a visual learner, so everyone else must be too, right? Umm, no and it’s MUCH more than that!

Here’s what I learned:

Adult Learning has its own theory. Malcolm Knowles is one of the most notable researchers on this topic and his work was first published in the 1950s. Knowles once said adults were “neglected species”1 as most education-related research was done with and for children. He went on to become the Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A. where he continued his research on adult education theories “with the participation of large student communities.” 1

“Knowles recognized that adults cannot simply act as passive receptacles of others’ expertise as children often do. To fully comprehend and use new information in the future, they must have a different level of engagement than what is required by youths.”1

In order to achieve different levels of engagement, different styles of teaching must be used, including visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.
  • Visual learners prefer to have a demonstration of what they need to know. In my field, that could be a slide depicting how Truvada prevents HIV infection, or a flow chart that shows incoming and outgoing referrals.
  • Auditory learners, on the other hand, thrive when a process is being explained through didactic lecture. Some prefer being able to ask questions, while others may record the lecture to have it available for future reference, perhaps when studying.
  • Kinesthetic learners want role plays and hands-on demonstrations. They can also benefit from visuals and didactic lecture, but learn best by ‘doing.’ Condom demonstration using condoms and anatomical models are a good example from my field.
My experience has taught me that a variety of these styles works best to be able to engage a diverse audience. Here’s what else I’ve found helpful when designing and delivering a training or course:
  • Describe the rationale for the course or presentation and make sure your learners understand how this relates to them and their work. If it’s not relevant, they’re not interested.
  • Have clear objectives for each module or section - and meet them!
  • Remember that some learners may be brand new to the field or area, while others are seasoned experts. Everyone brings a perspective that is of value.
  • Make sure to allow time for folks to share their experiences and network with others.
  • Keep presentations interactive by using open-ended questions to engage learners for didactic portions.
  • Sprinkle activities throughout to enhance learning for those who are kinesthetic learners. (Having fidget toys available on learners’ desks can also be beneficial for those who have difficulty sitting still. – I MIGHT be one of those people!) True Story: I once had a woman knitting through an entire 2-day training, which I honestly was first annoyed about, but then realized it was what she needed to do to be able to stay engaged in the learning process.
  • Process or debrief activities in real time to be sure the learners understood the purpose of the activity. If they didn’t, you have some explaining to do!
  • Don’t be the expert. Adult learners expect their teachers, facilitators and trainers to be more of a ‘tour guide’ who will lead them through the learning experience, not the one with all the answers. By using this ‘tour guide’ style, credit and validation are given to the learners’ life and career experiences which helps them feel more connected to the materials and lessons learned. It’s called empowerment, baby!
  • “Adults learn better in an informal environment.”2 This doesn’t mean you can’t have structure, just don’t be too formal.
  • Adults need feedback – Constructive, specific feedback. Don’t just say, you did great! Tell them WHAT was great – their connection with their participant, the way they explained the session, etc. Be energetic, passionate and genuine. Share your excitement for the topic and you’ll get others excited about it too, but only if you are genuine…people can smell a phony from a mile away!

  1. “The Principles of Adult Learning Theory”
  2. GEMENT_FOR_ADULT_CLASSES Effective Classroom Management for Adult Classes, Abubakar UMAR Obilan, Mount Kenya University
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