Have you ever been in a class or a training session and thought to yourself, “Why doesn’t that woman stop talking?” Last week I thought that, and then realized I was the one talking. I teach in four hour chunks of time. That’s a lot of words… Research has shown that adults don’t learn well in the lecture format of most undergraduate programs. In fact, where I teach we are encouraged to find more interesting alternatives to learning through lecture. I find that even in myself, as I grow older, I learn better when I can engage the information. I want to touch it, walk all the way around it, try it out in different situations. Kind of like buying a pair of shoes. When I was 18, I would buy anything that looked cute. Now I’m much more selective. I think about how they will feel after standing in them for 2 hours, can I run up the stairs in them, will the heel get caught in the sidewalk…

So how can we engage our audiences to learn effectively at whatever level of education we operate?

I’m working with an ethics class this term. It’s a fun adventure into the gray area between right and wrong. The traditional approach to this class is to present a handful of theories of morality and let the students select ones they find most comfortable. Some have criticized this method, because it gives little practical experience in expressing ethics in the workplace.

So I can’t just lecture about this, I have to encourage the students to interact with the ideas and material. Recently, I began looking for some practical experiences for the students. We took on real life cases, allowing them to think seriously about problems such as how to communicate to a boss that you won’t have your department work overtime to correct his continual mistakes. Talk about a sticky situation. How do you navigate that one without getting yourself fired?

We role-played occasionally to get down to the details of what to say. It’s easy to talk ethical situations in a clinical third person way, it’s an entirely different experience to sit down face to face and play it out like it really would happen. After one role-playing session, a student remarked on how hard it actually was to practice this. I could see he was fully engaged in the learning process. (YAY!)

Here is a list of some characteristics of adult learners:

• Adult learners are generally independent and self-directed in learning (they take charge of their own learning experience).

• Adult learners have life experiences to bring into the learning environment. These experiences must be integrated into the current topic being studied.

• Adult learners are most interested in learning about topics that solve problems in their immediate work or personal situations.

• Adults are self-motivated-no rewards needed here.

• Most adult learners are interested in applied learning- things they can apply immediately.

So thinking about these characteristics, what sorts of alternative methods do you use in teaching? Which have been most successful?