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How do adults learn?

TAILOR LESSONS: Understanding the characteristics of mature learners makes teaching more effective

PART of being an effective teacher at institutions of higher learning is the understanding how adults learn best. Andragogy (adult learning) is a theory that is based on a set of assumptions about how adults learn.

Let us first understand what is learning. Wikipedia defines learning as acquiring new or modifying existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values or preferences and may involve synthesising different types of information.

Learning may be viewed as a lifelong process of transforming information and experiences into knowledge rather than collection of facts and procedural know-how.

It is the changes in behaviour, attitude and values (which are manifested by change in antiquates), improvement in efficiency and level of skills, and modified or entirely new approaches to deal with issues that show us that learning has taken place.

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, a famous American adult educator, identified the following characteristics of mature learners that form the basis for adult learning theory:

Adults are autonomous and self-directed

Dolores Fidishun in his article Andragogy And Technology: Integrating Adult Learning Theory As We Teach With Technology cited Knowles as follows: "Adults resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them." As a person matures, his self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality to that of a self-directed human being. "I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught," said Sir Winston Churchill.

In tertiary institutions, the teachers must actively involve their students in the learning process and serve as facilitators. They should allow students to assume responsibilities for giving presentations and leading a group.

Use of technology facilitates self-direction by providing capabilities such as branching and skipping sections that a student already understands. There are also multiple forms of presentation of learning material which suit students with various learning styles.

Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge

Learning is not compulsory, it is contextual. It does not happen all at once, but builds upon and is shaped by what we already know (constructivism).

Adults need to connect new learning to an existing knowledge and experience base. To help them do so, teachers should link lessons to students' experiences and knowledge relevant to the topic.

Adults are goal-oriented

They learn what they need to learn. They are focused on achieving their goals. For example, they will consult literature when:

They have to answer an unfamiliar question or solve a novel problem.

They have to give a presentation about a new/unfamiliar topic or update their previous presentations.

They want to conduct research.

They find a topic interesting and relevant to their field.

To fulfil this requirement, teachers have to relate teaching sessions and topics to students' future careers and goals. Adult learners appreciate an educational programme that is organised and has clearly defined learning outcomes.

Adults are oriented towards relevance

Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities. There must be a relevant reason for learning something.

This need can be fulfilled by letting students choose projects (for example an elective) that reflect their own interests.

This objective can also be achieved by asking students to reflect on the teaching sessions.

For example, at the end of a class, students may be asked what else they would like to learn in relation to a particular area. An article entitled "Adult learning theory and principles" (http://www.qotfc.edu.au/resource/index.html?page>65375) states : "They (adults) understand more about a topic when it is directly relevant to the work context."

Adults are practical

They concentrate on the aspects of learning most useful to their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake.

Teachers must tell students explicitly how the particular learning will help them in their job.

Adult students prefer learning in real life situations. They want to move from classroom and textbook mode to hands-on problem-solving where they can see how the learning applies to life and work context. Arranging field trips, visiting workplaces and using realistic examples will engage them.

Adult like to be respected

Teachers must acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult learners bring to the classroom. These students must be treated as equals in experience and knowledge, and should be allowed to voice their opinions freely.

By applying these principles to their teaching, lecturers can improve their skills.


By ALAM SHER MALIK Source: New Straits Times Learning Curve July 1, 2012 
Tags: andragogy, learning
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