How do you help adults develop a positive attitude towards learning?

Adult educators must stress the importance of lifelong learning and how to pursue it (Knowles, 1980). It is then essential we help learners develop a positive attitude towards learning (Wlodkowski, 2008). However, we cannot manage to change an attitude with conversation, we must be persuasive through our deeds as reflected through our instruction.

When adults attend a learning session, they rapidly take on a positive or negative attitude towards learning. It is up to us to set the tone for the lesson by making the lesson relevant to the learner.  Wlodkowski adds that a learner’s attitude is driven by one or more of these points:

  1. The instructor
  2. The subject
  3. The ability to learn
  4. The learning goal

For a learner to be successful, we want them to take a positive attitude towards these four points. If they take a negative stance towards any one of the points, their learning will start to diminish.  Because a lot of learners carry baggage with them from previous formal education courses, we must work to overcome these barriers to learning. This may be as simple as eliminating reminders of bad memories within the actual learning environment. How you set up your “classroom” can actually set the tone for the course.

In a previous post, “Are you including everyone in your instruction?” there were strategies listed that could help shape the learner’s attitude towards the instructor.

In his book, Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults*, Wlodkowski discusses a number of strategies to help develop a positive attitude towards the subject. As I have mentioned in previous posts, adults are not necessarily interested in subjects; instead, they are interested in solving problems. Learners with negative attitudes towards learning have previously struggled with subjects Recognizing this, the first strategy WLodkowski mentions is Eliminate or Minimize Any Negative Conditions That Surround the Subject. Have you ever had someone resistant to taking a course because there was math in it? Math is a subject, however, learning to calculate the yield for a field of grain is a problem-solving strategy.

In the chapter focusing on helping adults develop positive attitudes, Wlodkowski outlines 15 strategies. I am going to highlight a few that have recently been useful to me. If you are an adult educator, I recommend this book for your library.

Some learners come to a workshop with assumptions, as an adult educator you may have to dispel these assumptions or myths. For example, some older adults believe that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” however, research has shown that learners are capable to learn late into their twilight years, although, it may take them some additional time. We may have to address concerns that have nothing to do with the actual lesson just to put a learner at ease.

Another strategy for helping adults become successful is to provide multiple methods of support. This additional support may include supplemental learning guides, checklists, video clips, etc. It may also be as simple as providing additional time to complete tasks or assessments.

Some learners have doubts about their ability to learn. These are examples of strategies to help learners improve their attitude about their own capabilities. Perhaps the most successful strategy to help a learner is to create successful learning conditions. Successful conditions can be fostered by scaffolding learning tasks and controlling the pace of instructions so that learners can learn. We must also stress the importance of applying effort to the task and that not all tasks come easily; some require practice before proficiency develops. Another strategy, I thought was useful was including examples of success from learners who would be considered the learner’s peers.

Finally, we need to help learners develop a positive attitude about the learning goal. First of all, we need to ensure that the objectives are clear as well as the assessment. To reduce the level of anxiety, it is important to make the assessment as clear as possible. Also, the more opportunity a learner can have when establishing course goals and objectives, the greater chance the learner will have buy-in to the process, and the more success they will have with learning.  The last strategy I would like to highlight is the Use the K-W-L Strategy to Introduce New Topics and Concepts. It is a method to introduce new topics by asking three questions: “What do I already know? What do I want to know? and What have I learned?” (Wlodkowski, 2008, p. 222). With this strategy, you can tie into previous knowledge as well as have the learner recognize personal growth.

If we want learners to learn, it is important we help shape their attitude to learning. Last night, I had a rewarding experience. A friend of mine had recently completed the highest professional development level offered in Civil Air Patrol.  He mentioned that I had set him on this path of lifelong learning. I was both humbled and grateful for his comment, but more importantly, I was pleased to help him succeed.

Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy* (Rev. and Updated.). Chicago: Association Press.

Wlodkowski, R. (2008). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults* (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint.

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