SECTION SIX Motivating adult learners

Training is an activity that strengthens an organization by increasing productivity of its human resources. Enterprises have various sorts of assets, such as physical properties like buildings, land, equipment, facilities and so on. There are financial assets that might include cash, stocks, partnership shares, and many other types of investments that can be converted into money. Human resources are an asset too; just as facilities and financial resources determine the capabilities of an organization, to an even greater extent so do human resources. An organization that has highly developed human resources can get more work accomplished, achieve its aims more efficiently, and do so at a lower cost than an organization with a poorly developed human resource.

However, training has positive consequences that go beyond making an organization more effective. It also produces significant benefits for individuals who make up the human resource. They become more valuable to the organization, but their value on the open labour market rises too. Since their worth is greater, they may command higher earnings, and the learning they gain should provide them better career prospects throughout their working lifetime. This is why staff members should be eager to accept training opportunities—they gain as much as does the organization. If they are not eager, further investigation is indicated, and the question ought to be asked, “why would anyone not wish to take advantage of something that has such clear benefits?” The answer to this question frequently is that staff members do not consider training offered them to be personally rewarding. Perhaps they believe that the training will not be worthwhile or would impose on them changes that they will not like. Other explanations are possible too. Maybe they’re simply not aware of the benefits.

Because a learner-centred approach to training guides the concepts laid out in this manual, a lack of acceptance for training poses serious problems. Learner oriented training assumes that people who participate in training are active partners in the instructional process, not disengaged or worse, opposed to training. It is an obligation of those who have training responsibilities to cultivate cooperation of participants not merely to accept training but to become actively involved in the process. Actively committed learners will not only put forth the effort needed to master material, but will work with the trainer in defining and achieving learning goals.

An important motivation for most learners should be that they are the chief beneficiaries of training. The organization naturally reaps a reward for good training, and this is the principal justification for organizing and funding it. But the learner actually gains more than any other party in the process. Trainers should find it possible to demonstrate that the cost-benefit ratio of training is heavily weighted in the favour of learners.

Motivation theories.
Without a doubt the most well-known of motivation theories was supplied by pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow. His enduring contribution to our understanding of motivation was the “Hierarchy of Needs” theory. According to Maslow, we can define five basic types of motivations—or needs—that guide human behaviour. These five are arranged in a hierarchy so that the lowest level needs take priority over higher level needs. Maslow’s model suggests that by understanding the priority of human needs, we as managers and trainers can tailor our planning responses to achieve the maximum impact.

At the most basic level, the need for survival takes precedence. Sometimes also called physiological needs, these include the need for food, water, oxygen, shelter, and procreation. Unlike other needs, these are innate; no one has to be educated to seek any of these. Unless these needs are satisfied, they remain in an individual’s consciousness to become the primary determinant of behaviour. When hunger, for instance, is a chronic or critical condition, it is highly unlikely than an individual (or a society for that matter) will be much concerned with higher order needs such as art, status, or grandeur.

At the next level are security needs. Most people in the world are relatively well fed, well clothed, and well housed, so that physiological needs are generally satisfied. According to Maslow’s theory, when a need is satisfied it ceases to influence behaviour; that is, it no longer acts as a motivation. But as one need is satisfied, new ones inevitably come into focus, directing the individual to new action. In the hierarchy of motivations, the need for safety and freedom from threat arises when only when the basic physiological needs have been met. Thus a person who is starving is likely to set aside concerns about security and take big risks in order to satisfy their needs for food.

As security and physiological needs are taken care of, needs arise of a social nature. Humans are gregarious. We want to feel accepted in society, to belong, to be included in groups of other humans. Yes, we even want to love and be loved. These are social needs, the desire for companionship, friendly relations with others, human contact, and so on.

Following satisfaction of social needs, there next arises the longing for esteem. The desire for a positive self image, for self-esteem, as well as respect and appreciation of others is found in the next higher stage of the hierarchy. The individual’s sense of self-respect the feeling of respect by peers is essential for mental health and well-being.

As described by Maslow, the first four of the levels of need are called “deficit needs,” that is, they arise from something lacking in life. The fifth and last level calls for a special kind of personal “growth” that has been given the name “self-actualization.” This is perhaps the most difficult need to explain adequately. It is at this level of need that training can play a significant role.

Self actualization is a complicated concept, referring to human desire to grow and to develop to one’s fullest potential. What it means, basically, is to attain a sense of fulfilment through development of one’s abilities to the maximum extent possible, and to realize the satisfactions that come with that achievement. As people advance in their careers, they gradually shift their attention from issues such as their salaries and opportunities for promotion, to gaining a sense that they have done well in their work and in their lives by “doing good” for the larger causes of their society. Training can positively contribute to a greater sense of fulfilment through development of individuals’ potentials. Training programs therefore should take into account trainees’ striving to realize their individual potentials and use this as a motivating factor in the design of programs. The person who is motivated by self-actualization is always in the process of finding new goals, new challenges, or new means of self-expression—the search for the “complete” human being.

Another important theoretical concept is the distinction between what are called “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivators. Extrinsic rewards are ones that are given by an organization or its management as an inducement for good performance. Among these are salaries (including salary bonuses and raises) and promotions. Organizations customarily use these as the primary tools for rewarding achievement among staff. These rewards are external to the individual and are therefore not within his or her direct control. Intrinsic rewards are ones that arise purely from one’s activities in an organization. A journalist might get enormous satisfaction just from writing a well-crafted story or a producer might find great pleasure in sharing his productions as creative self-expressions. Rewards like these are inherent in the work we do and are not in the control of external agencies such as our boss or our organization. Recognizing both types of motivators can be important in training.

Using motivational techniques in training.
Some factors affecting the motivation of participants in training programs may be beyond your control. For example trainees who have been instructed to attend will probably have a very different perspective than those who have actively chosen to participate. Indeed, creating a situation wherein trainees actively elect to participate in a training program could be seen as an important first step in ensuring a strong motivation to succeed.

Sometimes extrinsic forms of motivation can be used. Among the most common is the potential for future promotions or salary increases if a particular training program, or series of programs, is completed successfully. It undoubtedly has its place, but there are limits to the power of extrinsic motivation. Many researchers, most notably Vroom, found that once motivators like these have been awarded, they cease to be important motivations. The person who receives a raise quickly begins to take the reward for granted and is no longer motivated by it. In most cases intrinsic motivation will prove to be a more powerful force.

When adults can see that what they are learning makes sense and is important according to their values and perspectives, their motivation emerges. Like a cork rising through water, intrinsic motivation surfaces because the environment elicits it. Intrinsic motivation is an evocation, an energy called forth by circumstances that connect with what is culturally significant to the person. (Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 7)

This section of the manual is concerned with techniques through which you can create learning environments that will elicit intrinsic motivation among the participants in your training programs. It builds on our earlier observation in the first section of this manual that adults learn differently from children and adolescents. You will also be able to make connections with some of the ideas we introduced in Section Three on theories of training.

In this section we will be presenting broad suggestions about ways to increase motivation, rather than specific recipes for success. The context of each training program is different and the skill required of the trainer rests in finding what will work in specific situations with those trainees. The remainder of this section is divided into two parts. In the first we note that the way you sequence the material being presented is crucial. You must take into account the expectations and prior experiences of the participants and help each trainee recognize the value of that training program for them. This involves recognizing at all stages, from design through presentation, that adults are active learners. You need to involve them in the learning process by adopting a learner-centred approach. Finally, in the final section, we argue that you need to work hard to create a safe and supportive learning environment that frees trainees to experiment, question, and reflect on what they have seen and heard without fear of failure or embarrassment.

Encouraging motivation through a
learner-centred structure.

Prior experiences. The idea that “personal experience is the key learning tool” comes as the first in a list of six “Principles for Training and Design” created by Milano and Ullius (1998, pp. 24-25). This conforms with our earlier observation that adults bring a wealth of personal experiences to any learning situation. Whatever you present in a training session will be filtered through those prior individual understandings. You have no choice in this. It will happen. Even in those situations where it is not evident during the session it will still be happening silently within each participant. And after the session, when the trainer is safely out of earshot, the participants will compare their assessments, perhaps during coffee breaks.

But we are not suggesting you structure your training programs to use their personal experiences to reflect on what is being presented simply because it will happen anyway. Inviting adult participants to engage in this way also encourages them to be active learners who take responsibility for their own growth. It also demonstrates that you value their experiences and respect them. Vella (1994, p. 13) terms this a “dialog of learning” between two adults; the teacher and the student.

What happens if the prior experiences of participants conflict with the new way of doing things that the training program promotes? Milano and Ullius note that this is not at all unusual in training situations, but they argue that you cannot sidestep this. Here again you must acknowledge it and deal with it within the training session.

If your design encourages people to compare their previous experience with what is being presented, then the comparison can be processed in the training room—where other participants, as well as the trainer, can influence the learning. If the design does not call for the dissonance or resistance to be processed as part of the learning event, then it will come out in some other way or time—when there is much less chance to influence the processing. (Milano & Ullius, 1998, p. 28)

How can we create a safe learning environment in which these kinds of comparisons with previous experiences can occur without challenging the self-esteem of the learners? Milano and Ullius have suggested one approach. “By asking participants to talk about ‘ways it is done’ rather than ‘ways you do it’ we engage participants’ experiences while also making it safe for them to talk” (p. 30).

Prior expectations. In addition to a broad range of experiences participants will also bring a set of expectations to the training program. Again, this is something you must take into account both in the design of your training program and the way you structure each session. During the needs assessment, and in the early phases of program design, it can be very helpful to investigate what kinds of training expectations are likely to be found among the future participants.

Sometimes these expectations are a result of previous training programs, but they can also be based on school experiences that were much more passive than the learner-centred approach we are suggesting here. Therefore, the first session is very important. It sets the tone and should include a clear explanation of what is to be done, how it will be achieved, and the roles of all involved. But avoid the first session simply being a one-way transmission of information from you to the group. When you invite their contributions, you create opportunities to show that this will be a regular part of the program. This brings us back to the idea of the “dialog of learning” described by Vella (1994). She notes that “. . . if the learner sees the teacher as ‘the professor’ with whom there is no disagreement, no questioning, no challenge, the dialog is dead in the water” (p. 17). She continues by observing that the question of role “is a delicate cultural issue” (p. 18). In some cultures prior experiences, and the expectations they have created, will require taking a different path towards dialog, and it will take different forms. However, we would argue that its value in adult training makes striving toward this goal worthwhile.

One of the authors of this manual was reminded of something that happened during a graduate training program in which he was a student. Part of that program involved learning some statistical methods to analyse data. A highly qualified person was provided and he began to present his standard undergraduate course. After several classes it became clear to him that, while we were obviously listening to what he said and studiously taking notes, there was little enthusiasm for the class. The passage of time clouds why it happened but he stayed after class one day and ate lunch with us in the organization’s cafeteria. Over lunch we talked about our backgrounds and found aspects of his fascinating. He had worked on several major statistical projects that several of us had knowledge of. But he was amazed when he found that collectively members of the class had taught virtually every age group of students in a variety of settings on four continents. In future weeks he sometimes stayed for lunch and the classroom discussions frequently included exchanges about how a particular statistical test might, or might not, be relevant in the work we did. Everyone involved enjoyed the remainder of the course much more, and we certainly learned more.

Creating a safe and supportive learning environment.
A learner-centred environment is one in which trainees feel safe to question what is being presented them, yet encouraged to consider new ways of doing things. Most of all, it is an environment that kindles an eagerness to learn. As a first step in building the kind of supportive environment that creates this climate for learning, trainers should accept that most people who enrol in a training program see it as a means to an end. There are other times when the pleasure of learning may be an end in itself, but that is not usually the case with training programs. As a result, it is important that to demonstrate at the very first session how successful completion of the program will lead them to that end. It is also important to understand why trainees are taking the course. This information might be collected through a telephone call to some of the trainees before the program begins, asking those who are registered what they hope to learn and how they will use that knowledge. If appropriate, the objectives you have set can then be adapted to satisfy as much as possible those aspirations. Less personal, but more practical with larger numbers of trainees, would be a brief questionnaire asking them similar questions and inviting them to contact you if they need further information. The early sessions of the training program should also be structured to demonstrate the usefulness and value of the material they will be covering.

A safe and supportive learning environment also means one that permits a variety of learning preferences. In a relatively brief training program you can encourage the type of active learning that we have described throughout this manual, but you must also recognize that adults will have formed preferred learning styles that are deeply rooted and cannot easily be modified quickly. As adults, the trainees will have had many educational experiences before they enter your` training program. They know which learning styles have worked for them in the past and, in most cases, remember only too vividly those that failed. While trainers can invite changes in learning patterns, it is preferable to structure training programs to accommodate a wide range of preferred learning styles.

For example, some people prefer to leap straight into a discussion and work through their beliefs by exchanging ideas with others. You will also encounter trainees who prefer to withdraw and observe the exchange of ideas. Do not necessarily assume that these trainees are disengaged. Sometimes that might be the case, but with others it is simply a preference for a different learning style. Working in learning exercises structured around teams might provide a context in which both preferences can be accommodated.

Similarly, some people like to receive new information by the printed word or the spoken word—while others prefer to learn visually. Learners in the latter group sometimes create lists, and when something puzzles them they may map it out on a sheet of paper looking for the relationships among the various elements. It might seem that a lecture by you would inevitably ignore the learning preferences of those with a bias towards the visual. But you can accommodate both types—and the vast majority whose preferences lie somewhere between the two extremes—by using a combination of techniques, incorporating visual aids, perhaps a PowerPoint presentation or video, and distributing a printed summary of the points you will be making.

The strength of these learning preferences should not be underestimated. An example may illustrate the importance of this point: Undergraduate students working in honours programs are among the most academically gifted in United States’ universities. To complete their studies they are normally required to complete an honours thesis. This is an extended piece of writing that also usually involves substantial research. As supremely successful students, both previously at their secondary schools and now as undergraduates at university, they have learned how to succeed. They know that for most assignments the ‘trick’ is to get it right the first time. One submits an assignment and later receives a grade for it. There is rarely an opportunity to receive comments on an assignment, revise it, and then submit it again. They are stars at this “game.”

But the honours thesis is a much larger piece of work than any student had previously known. Consequently, the thesis will almost certainly have to rewritten several times. This experience is often profoundly unsettling for these students; the methods that have brought them great success in the past no longer seem to be working. If they continue on to post-graduate studies, as many of them do, this honours thesis experience will prove invaluable. However, changing their deeply engrained patterns of working, ones that had previously been handsomely rewarded, is inevitably a painfully slow process.

We will end this section by emphasizing again the value of having trainees work in teams.

Teamwork is itself both a process and a principle. Teams provide, in the adult learning experience, a quality of safety that is effective and helpful. The assurance of safety and shared responsibility available in teams has always proved welcome, no matter what the cultural setting. (Vella, 1994, pp. 18-19)

Offering alternative perspectives or challenging ideas the trainer is presenting in a session will no doubt seem safer when the challenge is not attributable to any single individual, but to a team of learners. And, as we noted earlier, those challenges will occur anyway, either inside or outside the session. It is much better that such ideas be offered in a context where they can be discussed openly. It may seem that life for you as the trainer would be easier if you simply avoided these awkward and sometimes uncomfortable potential challenges. But in the end, training is only successful if those who have participated in a program choose to accept the ideas that were presented or to make use of skills that were learned, adapting them to the particular circumstances of their own work. This is more likely to happen if trainees’ doubts and uncertainties about the proposed new way of doing things have been fully addressed during the training program.

Milano, M. & Ullius, D. (1998). Designing Powerful Training: The Sequential-Iterative Model. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Vella, J. (1994). Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach: The Power of Dialogue in Educating Adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wlodkowski, R. J. (1999). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn. Rev. Ed.. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.