As an adult basic education instructor, Sarah Roberts was familiar with the need to build self-confidence in her learners. She recalled how many came to the learning center with low self-esteem, but a sincere desire to improve themselves. The learners were not always realistic about their personal goals nor the time needed to accomplish them, so Sarah strived to set a tone of encouragement tempered with realistic expectations. She believed that small, incremental gains coupled with lots of positive feedback, lead to later success.

Sarah's views about the educational process were consistent with most other teachers at the learning center where she worked. She and her colleagues believed that the best way to instruct adults was through an individualizing process. This meant that learners were helped to assume more responsibility for their learning. Although many of the learners initially required a good deal of structure, the idea of individual control and accountability was constantly reinforced. As a result, most flowered under such conditions and Sarah felt the reason for this was related to the instructional process practiced at the center. Adult basic educators in other parts of the state must have agreed, since Sarah was in heavy demand as a consultant to help implement the individualizing approach in learning centers elsewhere.

The purpose of this material is to describe how the instruction of adults at any educational level can be individualized using the six steps of the Individualizing Instruction model. Various activities involved in preparing for and initiating individualized learning will be described, such as planning, securing resources, developing various learning materials, and analyzing the physical learning environment. In addition, various recommendations are shared regarding the instructor's role, types of learning activities that can be considered, and importance of certain types of organizational or institutional support.


As with any educational endeavor, in the individualizing process the instructor's activities do not begin during the initial contact with learners. An organizational structure for participatory planning must be developed, various materials need to be prepared, and considerable thinking about learner involvement must take place. In many respects, more advanced planning takes place in an individualized setting than in more structured ones. Thus, the following sections detail various actions that usually take place prior to the first contact with learners.

Overall Planning

The planning required for individualizing instruction has some similarities with traditional curricular development activities. In other words, a variety of activities must take place in preparation for any course or training session, such as ordering books or other materials, preparing a syllabus or learning guide, and planning for presentations. However, what differentiates the individualizing approach from some others is that we believe no course, training session, or workshop can be completely prepared for prior to meeting with the learners. Each group of learners will be different, new sets of needs will emerge, and the state of knowledge regarding the topics to be covered will constantly enlarge or change. The experience of facilitating such learning endeavors, especially if various evaluation steps are taken, also will provide considerable input for alterations during subsequent times.

1. An early activity in the planning phase is the determination of necessary competencies or requirements.

An instructor for most learning endeavors, e.g., a formal graduate course, training experience, or short-term workshop, invariably must put on an institutional hat of some sort. By that we mean as instructors we are responsible for ensuring that parameters of the educational experience are within the normal range of some sponsoring organization's catalog description, curricular guide, or work plan. Even if you are serving as a private consultant and offering some learning experience of your own design, you will, no doubt, have some particular end goals in mind. We realize that the above may be self-evident, but the point is that if people sign up for a certain course, training experience, or are sent to some workshop, they usually will anticipate the acquisition of certain knowledge and skill.

Obviously, if a training program syllabus has already been developed, a workshop has required lots of predesign work, or if departmental faculty have already determined required skills for a course area, then defining competencies may mean nothing more than refining earlier work based on an instructor's personal understanding and experience. If this is not the case, such as when a new learning experience is being developed, then the instructor must go through a process of determining competencies. We believe this necessitates working with a course or workshop area at least three times before all the necessary competencies are determined. In addition, it is likely that any learning endeavor will need ongoing refinement as new knowledge becomes available.

We determine any necessary learning requirements by anticipating learners' expected proficiencies, estimating the amount of learning activity required for mastery, and thinking about what kind of learning experiences can be blended together. This latter function is based on our instructional philosophy that stresses the blending of both theoretical and practical learnings.

Securing Learning Resources

2. Another early function is that of finding, building, designing, and developing various learning support materials.

This function actually is a continuous one, with new materials constantly being developed and old ones phased out as needed. However, as noted earlier, individualizing instruction is predicated on a philosophy that places the instructor in the role of learning facilitator, resource provider, and encourager of self-directed learning. Thus, an important part of the instructional process is providing to learners a wide variety of potential learning materials. During our years as facilitators we have pulled together a very large array of films, video tapes, slides, audio tapes, overhead transparency slides, and gaming and simulation devices, to name only a few of the possible types of materials.

When you begin to think of yourself as a facilitator of learning, the need to obtain a variety of resources for learners increases. We can usually provide information and resources related to many aspects of any learning endeavor for which we are responsible, but will not necessarily be highly knowledgeable about every area of need that is identified. Obviously, advance planning always is quite useful and may ensure that certain materials and special resource people are available.

Workbook of Supplemental Materials

3. It is important to prepare a workbook or study guide of supplemental materials related to the learning experience.

A workbook or study guide includes syllabus information, organizational or workshop requirements, learning activity descriptions, bibliographic citations, learning contract forms, and any special readings or other material. In most instances, we also will provide material specific or supplemental to certain learning activities. For example, in a mini-workshop on time management the workbook contains numerous Gantt chart models and critical path analysis problems for learners to practice time estimations and calculations. In a graduate course on adult learning, the workbook contains the material necessary for conducting required interviews of adults. For a training session via on-line computer conferencing, the study guide participants receive ahead of time contains information necessary for communicating with the university's main frame computer.

There is an important advantage to creating your own workbook or study guide. Such an endeavor facilitates a certain amount of advance planning and preparation related to the learning experiences. Obviously not everything can be prepared in advance if you plan to use a needs assessment activity and direct some of the subsequent learnings related to the needs specific for each group of learners.

However, it is important to note that developing a workbook or study guide is actually an ongoing and iterative process. We have found that it requires teaching a course or workshop two or three times before we begin to feel comfortable or satisfied with the majority of the material included. In addition, we have found it necessary to constantly change, delete, or add to the material as our own knowledge of the subject matter evolves and as the literature of the field grows. Thus, although the workbook or study guide is a helpful instructional tool, like the other activities described in this section it will require constant attention and evaluation.


Once the learning experience is underway, there are several activities that are important relative to establishing a good learning climate. The purpose of this section is to describe these activities, step two in the six-step model, and provide a picture of what typically happens the first few hours together.

Initial Contact with Learners

In many learning experiences the actual content acquisition begins literally within the first session's initial minutes. It appears to us that in these instances many instructors assume each person is there with textbooks in hand, an appropriate mental attitude in place, and pencil poised to receive the gospel. Subsequently, what often happens is the "gospel" given via rapidly delivered lectures that continue throughout the entire first session. Any mention of goals, expectations, and learning activities is made almost incidentally in between lecturing breaths of air. Very often a learner actually may be discouraged from or denied opportunities to dialogue, seek understanding of any learning goals, or ask questions.

We realize that a somewhat negative picture of instruction is painted in the above paragraph. Obviously, there are points related to educational philosophy, approaches to instruction, and personal feelings underlying the values inherent in these comments. However, many of the learners we work with report that they frequently experience something similar to that described in most of the workshops or courses they attend. Both authors also have experienced many training experiences as participants where we were subjected to primarily a "fill in the empty reservoir" approach.

In addition, the typical graduate student or training workshop participant with whom we work is a 35 to 45 year old person with considerable life and work experiences. Thus, based on our instructional experiences we contend that the independent, self-directed learner, what we believe most adult learners are or can become, deserves and desires a different approach. This is especially true the first few hours together as personal attitudes about the subject, instructor, instructional process, and learning expectations are formed.

4. We believe that a proper room arrangement is an important ingredient in a successful mixture of instruction and learning.

A resources section in the latter part of the book provides considerable information about the importance of the physical environment in promoting adult learning. In essence, we attempt to provide the best possible physical setting for any learning experience. For example, in the formal classroom, in a training site, or in an adult basic education learning center like the one in which Sarah worked, a comfortable and appropriate setting for adults limits annoying distractions, takes into account special physical needs of the learners, and even serves to enhance learners' abilities to participate fully.

This may entail insisting on certain rooms for your course or training session prior to when it starts or finding a different setting once the experience has begun if there are obvious comfort problems. It also occasionally may be necessary to request an extra room for break out purposes, especially if you have large numbers in attendance. If another room is not available, the hallway, a personal office, a lounge, or a nearby restaurant table are all possibilities for small group discussions.

Frequently, there may be nothing that can be done regarding the space assigned for a course or workshop. You then have to think about ways of making the most of the situation. If possible, for example, we move the chairs in a circle so that people can see each other. We also recommend that the instructor sit as part of that circle to create a less formal situation. If chairs are too uncomfortable, learners may need to be encouraged to bring in their own chairs or to at least bring cushions or other means for making a chair more suitable.

John Deverone had a bad back caused by an injury he received while playing high school football. He always had to seek out a chair that provided a straight up and down position when he sat down or he would be miserable within minutes. This usually meant arriving early for meetings to hunt for such a chair.

When he finally reached the level of regional manager in his firm, he found it increasingly more necessary to attend period management training sessions or long organizational meetings. He finally purchased a back support device for fastening to chairs with a built-in lumbar support cushion that he carried with him to all subsequent meetings. Although he often received strange looks from instructors or others in the sessions and meetings, the device enabled him to participate fully without fear of discomfort.

As another example of adjustments that can be made, assume that one of your courses or workshops is assigned to an auditorium. In many such sites the seats are bolted down, in semi-circular or curved rows, and each row is on a level higher than the row in front of it. In such situations you should spend less time than usual standing up in front of the group and more time having learners turned in their chairs to work in small dyad or triad groups. You also could have learners frequently move to chairs in the hall, to break-out rooms, or to groups of chairs and throw rugs brought into the auditorium and placed in any available level area.

Arranging comfortable rooms or functional areas will take considerable time both before a learning experience begins and throughout the time it is underway. It often means arriving at a room some 30 minutes early, carting in extra chairs or even folding tables, and spending many hours in a year rearranging chairs and then putting them back in place at the end of a session so overworked custodians or an instructor following you will remain happy. However, the results are worth it in terms of both physical comfort and the positive learning attitudes developed by learners.

5. It is important to monitor the physical environment if learner involvement and responses are to be maximized.

There is much that you as the instructor can do to be attuned to learners' needs regarding the physical environment. For example, make sure that the temperature is within a normal comfort zone. In the summer this may mean opening windows or turning on air conditioning. In the winter this may mean demanding that a room have more heat or encouraging all participants to bring sweaters or jackets. It may even mean requesting a different room if the level of comfort is low enough to impede learning.

Lighting also is an important aspect of the physical environment. You should make sure that there is adequate lighting for normal activities and enough darkness or the absence of glare when various kinds of audio-visual aids are being used. Such attention is especially crucial when working with older learners who may have visual acuity problems and thus need increased illumination. The point is to pay attention to physical environment needs before a learning activity begins and during it as you encounter problems or special needs.

6. The personal comfort level of the learner needs to be monitored to foster participation.

A final point we would make here has to do with arranging for lavatory and refreshment breaks. For example, if you have a workshop that meets for more than an hour at one time, we suggest you plan a 10 - 15 minute break within approximately each 90 minutes of instruction. Some learners may even prefer more frequent breaks. During this period participants can grab a bite to eat, obtain a drink, go to the lavatory, have a smoke, or carry out brief but necessary discussions with the instructor or fellow learners.

Two sub points need to be made here. Smoking is an important issue for some people. There may be regulations preventing smoking in the room or certain individuals may be philosophically or medically opposed to such smoking. On the other hand, some people cannot go long periods without smoking or there is an effect on their ability to learn. Subsequently, you must be cognizant of all such views and be as accommodating as possible. In addition, some organizations have specific regulations regarding whether or not food or drinks can be brought into the room. There also will be instances where food or drink simply is not readily available. Therefore, we recommend working out arrangements with learners relative to where food is to be eaten, if drinks are to be made available, and how certain breaks are to be used. Our experience has been that making such arrangements on a mutual consent basis in the first session is the most useful procedure. Figure 1 presents a checklist of items regarding the physical environment that we recommend you use each time you enter a new learning setting to analyze its appropriateness for adult learners.

___ Adequate lighting                 ___ Adjustable seats or alternative choices
___ Absence of glare ___ Adequate cushioning if devices used for long periods
___ Lighting adequate for A/V ___ Can person's legs be and decorations crossed comfortably
___ Attractive/appropriate colors ___ Straight back and flat pan for people with back problems
___ Adequate acoustics ___ Adequate sturdiness/size
___ Adequate sound amplification ___ Easily moved around
___ Any noise to be reduced or eliminated ___ Seat height from floor
___ Temperature adequate for season of the year ___ Left handed learner provided for
___ Adequate ventilation or air adequate conditioning
___ Adequate table or writing space ___ Adequate access/egress to site for learners
___ Can furnishing be rearranged for group work ___ Adequate signage to direct learners to appropriate sites
___ Table space available for refreshments/resources ___ Lavatory/cafeteria/refreshment machines nearby
___ If sitting at tables can the learners cross their legs ___ Adequate parking nearby
___ Can tables be arranged in square, circle, or U ___ Adequate lighting in parking area and building hallways
___ Absence of ragged or sharp edges on furnishings ___ Adequate space shape and size in learning site
___ Adequate sturdiness for all furnishings ___ Breakout rooms/areas available if needed
___ Can learners see each other okay when seated ___ Does the learning site have flexibility

Figure 1. Analyzing the Physical Environment

7. It is crucial to help participants become acquainted with each other in building an informal learning situation.

There are a number of techniques that we typically use in helping people become acquainted and begin to feel comfortable in the learning setting. If there is to be more than one session together, one of the first tasks is to ask all participants to fill out one side of a 5" x 7" (or larger) index card (often we do this as people are seating themselves and waiting for others to arrive). We ask for such information as full name, address (both home and business if appropriate), phone numbers, and other useful information such as past educational experiences, number of years of working experience, learning expectations, and even user identification codes (userids) if they frequently use electronic mail. We ask that the card be turned in after the session is completed and if there are no objections a group roster listing participants' addresses, telephone numbers, and userids can be provided at the next session. We explain that there may be occasions when they will want to contact each other outside of group meeting times for purposes of raising questions, studying together, or working jointly on learning activities.

We then ask them to turn the card over, fold it in half so that the above information is inside, and make in essence a tent card that will stand up by itself. Then they are asked to print in large block letters with a felt pen (several are circulated around the room) their first name, a nickname, or whatever name they would like to be called by colleagues during the workshop or course. The name should be put on both "tent" sides so that not only the person across the room but also each person seated on either side in a circle formation can see the name. The instructor should make a tent card, too (we prefer to use our first names rather than titles or last names to help in the creation of an informal climate). Such name cards are used for at least the first several group sessions to facilitate the learning of each others' names.

An alternative technique we use for small seminars or training sessions where we will be together only one time is to have people make out a stick-on or pin-on name tag as they enter the room. However, there are disadvantages to such devices: they can be difficult to read at any distance, have a tendency to fall off, and usually are good for only that session.

The next activity is to have learners introduce themselves. There are two techniques we especially like (information on other introduction techniques is provided in the resources section later in the book). The first is to have participants turn to their closest partner or count off in twos and work in dyads. We describe some questions that could be asked and then have them spend approximately 15 minutes becoming acquainted with each other so they can introduce their dyad partner to the rest of the group. This provides a chance for two people to quickly become familiar with each other and for others in the group to learn something about all group members through the subsequent introductions.

If the group isn't too large (perhaps not exceeding 12 to 16 people), if we feel a real ice-breaker is needed, or if several people in the group already know each other quite well, we ask partners to find out something rather unusual or special about each other to also report in the introductions. If there are uneven numbers, people can work in groups of three and simply take turns introducing one of the other three or the instructor can join a person in a dyad. The technique seems to be successful in breaking the ice, setting a tone of informality, helping to initiate that process of learning names, and in promoting one of our three "R's," relationships with others (the other two are relationship between learner and facilitator and relationships the learner has with the contents of the learning experience).

8. It is important to describe the instructional process to learners.

We have found it very important during the first hour or so together to spend some time talking about the instructional process that will be used during the course or workshop. The workbook of supplemental materials mentioned earlier contains a write-up that both describes the process and our personal instructional philosophies. Various examples can be given relative to how the process will be employed, how self-directed learning will be encouraged, and how the instructor's role as facilitator will evolve during the experience. Dialogue with participants and answering questions about individualizing the instruction and learning or about any learning requirements can continue until you feel participants appear to have an understanding of your role as well as theirs.

It is important to stress here that what the instructor is doing is investing initial time that will pay big dividends later in the learning experience. In essence, an instructor needs to spend most of the first two to three hours together with learners in simply initiating the instructional process and building relationships. Thus, it may appear that these first few hours are taken up mainly by activities outside the content parameters. However, if the process is employed early and correctly, learners and the instructor will be able to focus more directly on those topics most needed during subsequent hours together.

Creating the Informal Learning Environment

In most traditional learning settings, the instructor typically is located at the front of the room wearing an invisible cloak of authority and learners as receptacles of any imparted knowledge are kept a good "arms" length away in rows of chairs. Obviously, this is somewhat overstated to make a point, but learners in such settings generally become very dependent on capturing every word the instructor says. It is also not unusual for such learners to have real anxieties regarding future evaluations of them or to spend considerable energy trying to "figure out" just what the instructor wants or expects.

9. An important key to the success of individualizing instruction is the establishment of an informal learning environment.

In a setting where reliance on self and the taking of personal responsibility for learning is encouraged, an informal environment is necessary. For example, you need to pay special attention to the needs and interests of each learner as much as humanly possible. You need to use good human relationship skills, such as direct eye contact, active listening to learners, smiling, and humor. Even tools like learning contracts can be used to foster a feeling of informality. It has been our experience that taking that initial time to create an informal setting will pay tremendous returns in the long run.

We also attempt to establish and promote friendships among learners. This is done through the getting acquainted activities described earlier, by encouraging learners to dialogue among themselves, and by suggesting that learners will be able to work together on various learning activities if they so desire. The intent is to promote relationships so learner to learner exchanges can be made freely outside the actual meeting time.

The real intent in working at the development of an informal environment is to establish early ownership on the part of each learner for personal involvement in the learning activities. Such ownership and involvement means that an individual takes charge of understanding personal needs in relation to expected learning parameters, designing a series of learning activities that will maximize the meeting of such needs, and carrying out evaluation functions to provide evidence that, in fact, accomplishments are on target.


In contrast to more traditional teaching approaches where instructors plan most if not all the activities for a course or workshop before it begins, step three in the individualizing process requires that some initial time be spent specifying what will be the major foci of the learning activities. Usually there will be certain topical parameters on which time must be spent. For example, if the major learning emphasis is on planning and evaluating adult education programs and people have chosen to participate with that subject in mind, it most likely would be inappropriate to spend considerable time discussing adult education's history.

However, within a topic like program planning, there are numerous sub-topics on which time can be spent depending on what skills and needs that specific group of people brings to the learning environment. Thus, rather than prejudging--judging what is best for that particular group of individuals and perhaps missing the mark for many--time is invested in determining exactly what should be studied.

There will be instances where for various reasons most of the hour to hour learning activities must be pre-planned. However, we believe it still is important to involve learners in some sort of ownership-building process. Even if it is not possible for learners to have much say on specific activities, they still can be involved by discussing such functions as how group discussion will be used, how individual activities can fit into group activities, and how learning experiences or evaluation activities are designed.

10. It is important for instructors and learners to build and finalize the learning plan together.

Developing the learning plan together is crucial in terms of promoting feelings of personal ownership by learners. You obviously will need to develop an approach to this planning process that fits within your personal and any institutional philosophy under which you much teach, but the following demonstrates how we approach the planning activities:

Once the plan is initially developed, it should be presented to learners for their feedback. In a graduate course, for example, at the next session learners are presented the plan and asked to review, modify as necessary, and approve it. When a consensus has been reached learners are encouraged to develop a learning contract based on the plan. For example, there will be some topics that fit the majority of needs but that will not be appropriate for certain individuals because they have had extensive related experiences. They may choose, therefore, to not participate when that topic is covered in-class and can build alternative learning activities into their contract. Other topics may only be touched on in a general way during group sessions so any participant desiring more in-depth material can describe in the contract how additional learnings will be obtained. Other topics may best be addressed by a learner through some combined efforts with others, through some mechanism where several topics are studied in depth, or as a unit covered in-depth via a term project activity. Obviously, in a shorter course or a one-day workshop, the activities described above must be compacted in many ways.

The instructor's role in all of this analysis and feedback focuses on designing a logical flow of events, finalizing the acquisition of any necessary resources if time permits, and building in any maintenance or needs rediagnosis activities that are deemed necessary. Subsequent feedback to learners on their contracts or plans will be helpful as personal needs are matched against topics to be studied during group sessions. Thus, in addition to addressing future topics through presentations to learners, the instructor truly becomes a learning process facilitator.


The fourth step in the individualized involves identifying various efforts possible for learners to build knowledge and develop competencies related to their assessed needs and the learning content. Several learning activities in which participants can engage, some learning techniques they can use, and several experiences in or out of the formal setting they might like to consider should be described.

Such information can be brought to the attention of learners in various ways. Some are described in the workbook or study guide. Some are suggested early in a workshop or training session for their feedback. Others are discussed during subsequent sessions together if the time is available. Still others are detailed in learning contracts completed by prior participants and, if prior learners have no objections, such contracts can be made available to new learners so they can gather ideas for their own use.

Learners should consider working together in small groups on some of the learning activities because of the potential enhanced value of people cooperating on their efforts. The development of critical thinking and reflection through such techniques as interactive reading or writing logs, critiques of written or mediated materials related to the learning experience, and the development of theory statements pertaining to materials they read can be encouraged. In our own instructional efforts, we often provide opportunities for learners to present information to each other via some instructional technique such as a role play activity, by leading a small group discussion on a topic they have researched, or by a mini-lecture.

We also encourage learners to make use of the various educational resources that exist in their community. As time allows, interviews with agency administrators, brief internships in adult education organizations, and actual study efforts within some portion of a community can provide useful learning experiences. Some specific recommendations we make on a variety of learning activity resources and ideas are provided in the resources section of the book.

Puttling Learning into Action

There are two additional steps in the individualizing model. Step five, in many respects, begins to parallel traditional instruction, although we employ more variety in terms of techniques and devices than many of our colleagues who don't use an individualizing process. It involves carrying out and constantly monitoring the progress of our initial planning efforts. We use various instructional techniques aimed at keeping interest high both for us and for the learners. This includes such techniques as lecturing, small and large group discussion, case study analysis, role-playing, and debates. We use a variety of mediated resources, outside experts as we have described before, and various gaming and simulation activities. We also employ some formative evaluation strategies to ensure we are on target or to determine when certain adjustments should be made.

Evaluation Learner Outcomes

The final step, six, involves facilitating learners in the evaluation of their efforts. We do some of this early in the process when we provide suggestions, assistance, or confirmation to learners related to their learning contract evaluation plans. We also provide evaluative feedback to them throughout a learning experience if they submit materials to us for our assessment. We also ask them to provide feedback to us in various ways during the experience.


The six-step individualizing process requires a variety of actions from both learners and instructors that will be seen by some critics as outside of the mainstream of traditional expectations regarding education. This generally will be more noticeable when the learning takes place in formal settings and when there is some organizational sponsor, such as a university or a corporation.

Consequently, an instructor or trainer constantly will need to fight what may seem like an uphill battle in obtaining the support necessary for the process to work. Arranging that extra breakout room, providing options to learners, and spending some initial time in a learning experience with activities like introductions or needs assessment will seem strange and even educationally unsound to some of your colleagues.

Thus, you will need to work hard to obtain the institutional support necessary to the process. This will require some of your time explaining, justifying, convincing, and even defending your actions. It may mean learners will need to become involved at least initially in providing affirmation for your activities in terms of support letters to high level administrators or conversations they can have with others about what they have learned. You may even need to carry out evaluation activities that result in information about the competencies and abilities obtained by your learners.

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