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Working Individually with Adults: Strategies and Techniques

Frank had just completed a stimulating weekend teaching a course on human development and aging. He was tired, but began to reflect over the weekend's experiences and how well his use of various techniques seemed to have been received. The weekend had consisted of a Friday evening session, followed by a seven-hour block on Saturday.

Frank's pre-planning had involved determining what needed to be covered and how best to approach each task given the available time. From his previous experiences, he had recognized the desirability of using at least three special techniques to maintain learner interest and involvement. These included a mini-lecture on life transitions followed by small group discussion, using an outside resource on issues in aging via a tele-conferencing link, and a gaming device to simulate developmental changes over the life span. General group discussion and individual counseling sessions made up the remainder of the weekend course experiences.

An evaluation conducted mid-way on the weekend and another one at the end provided Frank with

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positive feedback on his efforts. Before he dozed off he reflected on the changes he had made in the past two years compared to when he used to lecture all the time.

There is nothing more gratifying than seeing your techniques work and watching a group of adult learners continually grow and develop. They are often highly motivated, possess a sincere desire to learn, and bring something extra to the instructional situation. Like Frank experienced, facilitating instructional activities with adults typically is very fulfilling and often even sends shivers down our backs, as the excitement of learning is exhibited. We believe that adults can be exemplary learners and deserve the best kind of instruction available. That is why we have studied and experimented with the instructional process over the years. We now believe that the individualizing approach is most appropriate for adults.

Numerous writers have addressed the subject of instruction, although most have directed their efforts toward children and adolescents (e.g., Highet, 1976; Joyce & Weil, 1972; Postman & Weingartner, 1969). There also is a fair amount of material directed toward the college student (e.g., Eble, 1985; Ericksen, 1985; McKeachie, 1965). Unfortunately, there has not been much written specifically about instructing adults. Part of the reason for this is that many people believe instructing adults is the same as instructing children. We believe there are some necessary differences and trust you may as well if you are reading this book. This chapter explores various aspects of instruction and looks at instructional techniques that are effective in working individually with adults.

What is Good Instruction?

The question of what good instruction is has been debated for years. We all usually know when we have experienced good instruction and when we have experienced bad instruction. It is probably easier to describe poor instruction since, like eating, the experience is so emotionally laden. Yet, the idea of good instruction is something most of us prize and value. If good instruction is so important, then how can we measure it? More importantly, how do we know when it is good?

One of the problems in trying to answer what is good instruction is that nearly everyone holds opinions about the subject. Given this reality, criterion standards that are reasonable and fair to the instructor, learner, and any institution involved are difficult to obtain. Often, measurements are conflicting and problematic. For example, they can range from objective-based checklists that are referenced against statistical norms, to subjective assessments by colleagues or administrators interpreted against

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qualitative reference points that may or may not be useful guides for evaluating instructional performance (Ericksen, 1985).

 1. Effective instructors of adults are those who help learners become more self-sustaining, more intellectually curious, and more cable of learning by themselves.

What constitutes good instruction of adults, what are various differences when instructing adults as compared to instructing youth, and how can adult learners be empowered to maximize their own learning are some important questions for which we have been seeking answers during the past several years. There are many people like Frank, described at the beginning of the chapter, who have made adjustments in their instructional techniques with positive results.

Apps (1981) studied the qualities of exemplary instructors like Frank. He was particularly interested in the common ingredients that contribute to effective instruction, especially with adult learners. Apps found that exemplary instructors tend to consistently follow nine instructional principles (pp. 145-146):

  1. Learn to know your students.
  2. Use the students' experiences as class content.
  3. When possible, tie theory to practice.
  4. Provide a climate conducive to learning.
  5. Offer a variety of formats.
  6. Offer a variety of techniques.
  7. Provide students feedback on their progress.
  8. Help students acquire resources.
  9. Be available to students for out-of-class contacts.

We, too, have arrived at certain beliefs about instructing adults based on our own study and experiences. We believe that successful instructors of adults are those who haven't given up on their own learning. They are constantly at work, integrating new knowledge and information into their instructing. They tend to be learner advocates who believe in the sanctity of human dignity and potential. They understand how to assess their own skills for teaching adults, perhaps through using something like Rossman's (1982) self-assessment inventory. They are adept at creating teachable moments for their learners. They are dramatic when appropriate, humorous when the situation dictates, and above all else, avoid humiliating learners. Most importantly, good instructors are never content with the way things are; they see change as an ally noting the positive and negative consequences along the way. Finally, we believe they strive to link

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individual needs, interests, and experience with the learning contents.

To be a good instructor is to be a good and earnest servant of the traditions of the past, the instability of the present, and the opportunity of the future. We readily admit that there is no best way to instruct others, just as there is no best way to live. Yet there are certain ideals to which all good instructors should aspire. The following list, which is based on the work of Kidd (1973), summarizes these ideals:

  1. Thou shalt never try to make another human being exactly like thyself; one is enough.
  2. Thou shalt never judge a person's need, or refuse your consideration, solely because of the trouble caused by the individual.
  3. Thou shalt not blame heredity nor the environment in general; people can surmount their environments.
  4. Thou shalt never give a person up as hopeless or cast the individual out.
  5. Thou shalt try to help everyone become, on the one hand, sensitive and compassionate, and also tough-minded.
  6. Thou shalt not steal from any person the rightful responsibilities for determining one's own conduct and the consequences thereof.
  7. Thou shalt honor anyone engaged in the pursuit of learning and serve well and extend the discipline of knowledge and skill about learning which is our common heritage.
  8. Thou shalt have no universal remedies or expect miracles.
  9. Thou shalt cherish a sense of humor which may save you from becoming shocked, depressed, or complacent.
  10. Thou shalt remember the sacredness and dignity of thy calling and, at the same time, "Thou shalt not take thyself too damned seriously."

Early in this chapter we talked about the gratification possible in working with adult learners who are growing and developing. We believe almost everyone who has worked with adults in an instructional setting will readily attest to this fact. Adults are usually highly motivated, have specific goals in mind,

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and become deeply involved in the task of learning. In fact, beginning instructors may find such enthusiasm disconcerting at first. However, we have found working with highly motivated and excited learners very satisfying. The problem often is to recognized the specific cause for a person's enthusiasm and then find ways of capitalizing on it.

One of the biggest challenges facing the instructor of adults is realizing that such adults are simply not big kids. Adults have a variety of experiences that distinguish them from younger people. They also have different styles of learning. We acknowledge that many instructional approaches work equally well for children and for adults. However, if an instructor continues to teach in a manner that does not take into account the mental, physical, emotional, and social factors constituting adulthood described in Chapter Two, then the difficulties of instructing adults will be needlessly magnified.

Linking Instruction with Learning

2. Certain ways of instructing adults are more appropriate than others, and one important step is linking instruction directly to learning activities.

It also may sound overly simplistic to make such a statement, but the fact this kind of linkage is sometimes not made or even seen. Many instructors simply assume that the responsibility for learning rests primarily with the learner. This is understandable since most of us have been educated under a system where the teacher told us what to learn, how to learn it, and then evaluated us according to how well we parroted the information back. Learners who fed the information back in nearly the same way it was given, were presumed to have learned or mastered the information while those who do not, were judged to have not learned the material.

The unfortunate consequence of such a situation is that little attention is given to how meaningful is the material to be learned, the individual's motivation for learning, and the instructor's personality or communicative ability. We believe all of these are important qualities that contribute to effective instruction and learning.

Few will argue that the ultimate quality of instruction must be defined in terms of what happens to learners. However, measures of instruction are oversimplified if they limit attention to how well the instructor presents information. There should be some connection between how the instructor performs and how one influences learners in terms

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of their motivation and values, problem-solving abilities, capacity to think independently, and so on. As Ericksen (1985) suggests, "a valid appraisal of teaching must be anchored to what happens to the individual student because, in essence, teaching is the interaction between two persons: the instructor and the learner . . ." (p. 4).

Instructional Planning

The linking of instruction with learning is made easier if an instructor has a good grasp of the many and varied instructional modes and methods available to the educator of adults. An instructor typically is responsible for selecting, arranging, implementing, and evaluating those learning activities that will hopefully result in learner attainment of desired goals and objectives. In subsequent chapters we discuss some variations on this notion when the learner is primarily independent of an instructor or when the learning is mainly self-directed in nature. Generally, though, basic decisions about how learning will occur and under what conditions are related to the instructional planning process and those decisions are put into action once the instructional process begins.

3. There are many instructional options available to assist the instructor of adults in putting learning decisions into action.

These options range from individual methods such as independent study or an apprenticeship to group methods such as a workshop or seminar. In all cases, the instructor must be both flexible and responsive in working with individuals. To develop this flexibility and responsiveness, an instructor must have some knowledge of the general nature of instruction and then be able to decide on which instructional strategy is most appropriate in a given situation.

Instructional Strategies

There are several instructional elements common in most learning situations. Dickinson (1973), based on the work of Gagne, suggests that there are nine such elements necessary for effective instruction. These elements, listed below (only very slightly adapted from Dickinson, 1973), are usually put into practice as a series of verbal strategies or directions given to learners by an instructor. The events may not always occur in the following order, although they typically do (pp. 65-66):

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1. Gaining and controlling attention: By means of statements or gestures, the instructor directs the attention of the learner to the material that is to be learned.

2. Informing the learner of expected outcomes: The instructor tells the learners what their performance should be like when the learning is completed.

3. Stimulating recall of relevant prerequisites: Before learning new material, verbal directions are given to the learners so they will recall the material learned previously that is relevant to the new material.

4. Presenting the new material: The instructor presents the new object, skill, or printed material that is to be learned.

5. Offering guidance for learning: The instructor attempts to facilitate the learning process by providing guidance in the form of questions or directions to the learner.

6. Providing feedback: The instructor informs the learners, or structures the situation so they can find out for themselves whether or not their performance is correct.

7. Appraising performance: At the end of a sequence of instruction, the learner is given an opportunity to appraise personal performance against some external standard.

8. Making provision for transferability: The instructor provides a variety of experiences, examples, and problems so that the learner can transfer the material to a variety of different settings.

9. Ensuring retention: The instructor attempts to ensure that new material will be retained by providing the learner with a number of opportunities for practice and by relating it to previously learned material (pp. 65-66).

In working with a group of children or youth, the instructor must provide nearly all of such instructional elements. However, in an adult group, there is greater variety of knowledge and experience so that some of the instructional activities, particularly the latter ones, can be undertaken by the individual learners, themselves. As Dickinson points out, "A group of adult learners can be quite adept at providing feedback, appraising performance, and providing transferability, and the instructor's function then becomes that of creating a situation

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in which the learners are able to assume more and more of the components of instruction" (1973, p. 67).

An additional consideration for the instructor of adults is the particular instructional strategy that will be used. Selection of a particular strategy will depend upon learner characteristics, the nature of the learning situation, and the instructor's personality among other things. However, there are two general types of instructional strategies: closed and open.

In a closed strategy, the instructor controls all aspects of the learning situation. Learners are expected to be relatively passive, follow the instructor's directions, and listen intently so as to receive the information given. This type of strategy generally fits within the didactic, and to a certain extent, even within the socratic model, both described in Chapter One. It also falls within the rubric of pedagogy as practiced by many educators of youth.

In an open strategy, the instructor follows more closely the facilitative model by providing various types of assistance to learners. Generally in this model or with this strategy, learners are expected to assume an active role in determining and directing their learning. As noted in Chapter One, the facilitative model undergirds the individualizing approach.

4. An effective instructor is one who is able to select and use a variety of strategies depending upon the situation.

Thus, we are not suggesting that there is only one correct strategy. There are times when a particular element, model, or strategy will work well with a group of adults, but in other times or with other groups different choices are needed. For example, a closed strategy following a fairly strict sequence of events might be more appropriate for a group of adults with lower literacy skills who need more structure and guidance initially. Whereas, an open, more flexible strategy might be more appropriate if the group consists of physicians or lawyers participating in a seminar on ethical practice. The key is for instructors to avoid relying upon one instructional strategy or approach at all times and be prepared to make adjustments as warranted.

The general strategy selected for a given situation provides some guidance to the instructor as to how much responsibility they and the learners will assume in carrying out the nine instructional elements described earlier. If the situation is more open, then learners normally can or will assume more responsibility for performing the various elements. Conversely, if the

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situation is closed, then the instructor will assume increased responsibility for executing the elements.

Instructional Procedures

Another key area to consider is the instructional procedures that will be used in order for any particular strategy to be effective. There are a wide variety of instructional procedures available to the adult educator. According to Verner (1964), distinctions can be made among three different types of instructional procedures, each of which is outlined and briefly described below.

1. Methods: Methods refer to ways in which a group of participants are organized for the purpose of conducting an educational activity. They establish a relationship between the participants and the sponsoring agency or institution through which the educational task is attained. There are individual methods such as independent study, correspondence study, internship or apprenticeship, and computer-assisted instruction, as well as group methods such as a class, seminar, workshop, or institute.

2. Techniques: Techniques refer to the ways in which an instructor establishes a relationship between self, the learner, and the learning task(s). Techniques may be classified according to their main purposes or functions such as imparting knowledge (the lecture or speech), teaching a skill (demonstration or simulation), changing attitudes (role playing or group discussion), and encouraging creativity (brainstorming or self-analysis and reflection).

3. Devices: Devices are instructional aids that extend or increase the effectiveness of methods and techniques but do not teach by themselves, although this distinction is somewhat blurred with the sophistication of much of today's instructional technology. Devices may be classified by the function they carry in the instructional setting such as illustrative (overhead transparency or film), extension (radio or television), environmental (seating arrangements or movable seats), and manipulative devices (tools or equipment).

5. One of the most important tasks facing the instructor of adults is selecting the instructional procedure that will yield the desired learning results.

A competent choice of procedures depends upon a number of factors including knowledge of the instructional process, an understanding of participant characteristics, and a reasoned appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of available methods, techniques, and devices. At the same time, there is no perfect procedure that will work with all learners every time.

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A procedure that works well with one group might be inappropriate with another. A procedure that works well one week may yield different results the following week with the same group. To use educational procedures effectively requires patience, sensitivity, and flexibility on the part of the instructor. The individualizing process incorporates flexibility as a major component.

In many respects, an individualizing approach requires more advanced planning than the more traditional teacher-directed approach. This is because an organizational structure for participatory planning must be devised, various materials prepared, and a good-deal of anticipatory thinking regarding what should be expected in terms of learner involvement must take place. We realize that this may cause some initial consternation for the beginning or experienced instructor who has not used an open instructional strategy such as the one we are advocating, but we believe that the end product is well worth the time invested.

Finally, we noted earlier the range of techniques available to the instructor of adults. The most commonly used technique is the lecture but we believe this need not be the case. In fact, there is no reason to always use the lecture as the primary technique, just as there is no reason for relying almost exclusively on some other technique such as group discussion. The use of a certain technique depends on your instructional philosophy, your prior experiences or training, and the goals and objectives you have. The best instruction results from the use of a combination of techniques which follows careful planning and evaluation of the individuals with whom you are working.

Any number of techniques may be used in our individualizing process, depending on the situation. For example, in a three-credit graduate course we typically use as many as fifteen or twenty techniques. These range from mini-lectures to small-group discussions, from films to dialogues, from huddle groups to demonstrations, and from simulations to role playing. We also believe that variety helps to stimulate and motivate learners. In each case, we try to link the technique to the educational purpose and the strengths of the learners.

Model for Individualizing Instruction

Obviously there is a need to put all of these planning elements together in some way. In the individualizing process, this means laying out a general plan that is consistent and flexible and also

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provides a coherent system for promoting effective instruction. The model presented below is aimed primarily at learners in a group setting. In subsequent chapters, we will describe how the individualizing process is designed, implemented, and used in other kinds of settings.

Our process consists of six specific steps as depicted in Figure 3.1. Each step involves ongoing planning, analyzing, and decision-making by the instructor. This six-step process should be used flexibly as a guide or framework upon which to build. It has been shown to work equally well in formal and informal settings. The hallmarks of the model are facilitation, cooperation, participation, and learner satisfaction.

Step One. Activities Prior to the First Session. There are many activities to plan and decisions to be made prior to the first meeting. Typically, instructors start by developing a rationale statement that describes why any learners should be interested in the learning experience, how it will help them professionally, and

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what the instructional process will be. Additional activities include determination of suggested learning competencies and requirements, identification of necessary support materials such as books, articles, and audio tapes, and securing requisite learning resources which include community experts. We also recommend the preparation of a workbook or study guide of supplemental materials that includes any necessary syllabus information, learning activity descriptions, bibliographic citations, learning contracts (this is a tool that helps to individualize learning objectives with individual learner needs), and any special readings or other material.

Step Two. Creating a Positive Learning Environment. Once the learning experience is underway, there are several activities that are important in terms of creating a good learning environment. These include paying attention to the physical environment of the room, arranging for bathroom and coffee breaks, and building an informal learning situation where adults are helped to meet one another and become comfortable with the instructional process. The importance of creating what we call the 3-R's is stressed and modeled at this point: Relationships with each other (achieved through a use of ice breakers); Relationship with the instructor (achieved through a use of ice breakers or personal introduction); and Relationship with the contents of the learning experience (achieved through a review of the workbook and other related materials).

Step Three. Developing the Instructional Plan. This step is crucial in the overall success of our individualizing process. It involves spending time on such things as suggested learning topics, activities, and objectives. A needs assessment process is introduced and completed individually and collectively based on the level of experience and competence. Once this process is completed, the instructor then takes the information and develops a learning plan that lays out topics to be studied, in what sequence, and through what kinds of instructional techniques.

Step Four. Learning Activity Identification. This step involves the identification of various learning activities, techniques, and approaches that learners might use in developing and executing their learning contracts. It is here that the various foundational assumptions, what Knowles (1980) would refer to as andragogical elements--

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such as setting objectives, establishing timelines, planning for evaluation, problem centered learning, immediacy of application, and the importance of personal experience are in operation. We also emphasize the potential of self-directed learning here. Several techniques are often utilized including the interactive reading log, theory log, and personalized journal to aid learners in their personal growth, synthesis, and reflections related to newly acquired knowledge.

Step Five. Putting Learning Into Action--Monitoring Progress. Once the learning plan has been established, the next step is putting it all into action. This is accomplished through various techniques including mini-lectures, small and large group discussions, case studies, role playing, individual learning projects, and the like. As the learning unfolds, we stress the importance of formative evaluation which enables both learners and the instructor to monitor group and individual progress so that feedback can be exchanged and adjustments can be made as the situations warrants.

Step Six. Evaluating Individual Learner Outcomes. In a sense, the ultimate test of the individualizing process is the success of each learner in terms of learner outcomes. Because each individual is unique and their experiential base different, the importance of matching desired learning objectives to mastery cannot be overstated. Through the use of the learning contract, learners are able to specify what it is they want to learn, how they will learn it, what form or product the learning will result in, and how they will know when they have acquired the desired proficiency. Thus, the role of evaluation becomes a process of development, mastery, and ensuring that quality learning and critical thinking take place, rather than the more usual form of punishment or reward.

Throughout the six-step process, the underlying intent is to promote good educational practice by creating an instructional system that takes into account individual differences, experiences, and learning needs. In such an instance, your role becomes one of managing and facilitating the learning situation. We believe that optimum learning is the result of careful interactive planning between yourself

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and the individual learners. The individualizing process is designed to enable this to occur.

The ultimate challenge for any instructor is finding ways of ensuring learning success. Content mastery is important, but so is the process that enables mastery to occur. Understanding the instructional process, helping participants realize their potential, being supportive and flexible when the need arises, and varying methods so that active learning can occur are all ingredients for instructional success. In subsequent chapters, we are going to offer concrete ways that you can be a more effective instructor of adults through our individualizing process. A beginning question is, When do I individualize instruction? This will be taken up in the next chapter.


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