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Assimilating a Personalized Approach into Your Instruction

Cheryl Brown, a community college instructor, was talking with a colleague regarding teaching older learners. Her colleague of seventeen years was taken aback by the increasing number of older learners at the college and how they seemed to be so different from their younger counterparts. She told Cheryl, "I don't know about you, but the adults in my classes can be a pain at times. They seem almost too intent on learning and expect me to meet their various needs. They are often impatient with my teaching examples; one even challenged me in class noting that I had my facts wrong. I've always been a good instructor, so why am I having problems all of a sudden?"

Cheryl tried to comfort her colleague by noting how she too had experienced problems teaching older learners in the past. She related how a workshop on teaching adults and further reading on the subject had helped her to better understand the adult learner and how the instructional process could be revised so as to teach them more effectively. Cheryl offered to help her colleague learn more about instructing adults noting, "I can really relate to your problem. Adults are wonderful

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learners but they must be approached differently than the traditional students we have been so accustomed to. One good place to begin is to think about how you can use the experience each adult learner brings to your class. Remember, adults usually are experience rich and theory poor, so finding ways to build upon this will likely bring greater success. It works for me and if you like, I'd be happy to show you how I do it?" Cheryl's colleague nodded affirmatively.

Like Cheryl experienced as she struggled to adapt to teaching older adults, one of the most important decisions any instructor makes is how to organize and deliver information that is both responsive to the needs of learners and helpful in assisting them attain desired or necessary competencies. This statement may seem rather obvious, but too often instructors like Cheryl's colleague fail to consider the varied needs of their learners and, consequently, forge ahead with little awareness of such variation. When working with adult learners it is important to recognize that while they may in fact be theory poor, many rich experiences are brought to the instructional situation and such learners normally have a myriad of reasons for choosing to learn. Thus, the importance of implementing an instructional approach that takes into account such factors, works in a variety of settings, and works with most groups of adult learners cannot be overstated.

Most instructors teach the way they were taught and this is most likely the case with Cheryl's colleague. This usually means assuming an authority position where all decisions regarding what will be learned, how it will be learned, and how it will be evaluated rests with the instructor. While this approach certainly has some value for particular situations where a high degree of structure and control is necessary, in general, our work with adult learners suggests an individualizing approach is more effective than an authoritative approach because it capitalizes on learner's innate capacities for self-direction. But you may be asking such questions as how do I make the transition from a teacher-directed instructional approach to one that is individualized? How can I successfully employ an individualizing approach? What kinds of audiences are more likely to thrive in such a setting? What kinds of topics or content areas appear most conducive to individualizing instruction? In this chapter we explore such questions.

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Overcoming Resistance

It would be naive of us to expect every reader to embrace our individualizing instructional approach without some degree of hesitancy, confusion, or skepticism. After all, most of us were initially trained to believe or shown that instruction was largely a one-way street. Nearly everywhere we turn even today, we can see instructors controlling all aspects of the teaching and learning process. We wish this was more the exception than the rule, but it is not the case. Both of us remember our trepidation over what should be the proper role of an instructor. Should we be a content expert and transmitter of that content only or should we find ways to facilitate the learning in others? Through active experimentation, enormous patience among the many adult learners with whom we have worked, and an openness toward improving our own instruction, we have developed an instructional process that works especially well with adults.

The true test of this process will be how well you assimilate the various parts of it into your own instructional efforts. The transition may not be easy since a good deal of "unlearning" will need to take place before the process becomes part of your own instructional repertoire. All we ask is that you be open to the potential of organizing instruction differently and give it an honest try. As a means of "easing" you into the individualizing approach, we will discuss some of the typical problems we and others have encountered when initially using the process.

1. The negative response of certain learners may cause you to question whether the individualizing approach really works.

For example, some of our learners have found this approach to be too permissive and loose. This reaction was probably not unusual since we as well as most of the learners had been accustomed to a more teacher directed approach. But we had not anticipated this occurring and it initially left us with some serious doubts about the individualizing process. In fact, we wondered if the research on self-directed learning (some of which we had conducted ourselves) and adult development had been in error.

We came to understand that this reaction is normal; some people resist change while others readily accept it. As we carried out our own formative evaluations, examined the evaluation feedback from learners at the conclusion of learning

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experiences, and reflected over those who exhibited resistant behavior, we realized that they often appeared to have more rigid personalities and learning styles. Thus, their reaction was not necessarily directed at the individualizing instructional process as much as it was directed at the presence of change.

In order to deal with this situation and attempt to help those individuals more likely to resist change, we suggest you try the following. First, be aware that some people are going to perceive your instructional role in a conventional or teacherªdirected manner. This means you will be expected to tell the learners exactly what they will learn, how they will learn, and how they will be evaluated.

We suggest you confront this expectation immediately during your first encounter with the learners. Tell them something about yourself and your feelings about the role of education in life. If you are familiar with some findings from the self-directed learning literature suggesting that adults, when given the opportunity, prefer to direct their own learning or as you gain experience in facilitating individualized instruction, talk about how this has impacted on your own teaching to a point where you organize it differently from what they may have experienced. You may need to discuss the individualizing process and how it emphasizes collaboration and shared responsibility for teaching and learning.

In similar situations, we also describe how our role will sometimes be as a content transmitter, other times as a facilitator of learning, and still other times as a manager of resources. We emphasize our commitment to helping learners meet their own individual needs and interests, noting that they will have a say in the process. Finally, we provide lots of encouragement and support while the learners become "comfortable" with the individualizing process.

Second, try the process or aspects of the process you are interested in at least three times. We believe this is necessary in order to test the relative merits of the individualizing approach and to evaluate it thoroughly. The reason for this is because the first time you use it, the process will be new to both you and the learners. The second time it will be new to the learners but not to yourself, and the third time, it will be fairly routine so that you can critically assess the process and its impact. Additionally, some learners will have experienced the process already

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and can serve as role models for new people. Through their efforts, they can help you implement the individualizing process with greater ease.

2. Some colleagues may question your use of the individualizing instructional process and challenge its efficacy.

The plain truth is that some instructors are threatened by the idea of giving learners a role in the instructional process. They often have conventional ideas about what an instructor should and should not do. Rather than be personally threatened by this reaction, we believe the best defense is offense. We have found that most colleagues are at least willing to discuss their views of instruction. You can do the same but we recommend doing so in a neutral location over coffee or tea. There, you can start a dialogue about your views of instruction much as you would do when first introducing the individualizing process to a group of new learners. Though you may not convince everyone, at least they will have a better idea of what you are doing.

Another effective approach is to invite colleagues to occasionally observe your classes and evaluate what you are doing. Try to establish a mutually conducive time for such observations and stress your desire to receive feedback about your teaching. Often, this strategy eases existing tensions and helps convince colleagues of the value of your instructional approach. Sometimes, former critics become avid supporters.

3. Certain bureaucratic hurdles may interfere with the use of the individualizing instructional process.

While these hurdles or barriers are sometimes only sources of irritation, they should certainly not be overlooked or ignored. The key is to understand the nature of the policies and follow them according to the spirit rather than the letter of the law. For example, certain institutions have a standardized syllabus format that must be followed. If this is the case, go ahead and follow the prescribed format but add additional information through attachments or appendices. Our experience suggests that this compromise usually satisfies the needs of the institution and learners.

Other problems can arise if you decide to use learning contracts. Learning contracts enable learners to designate what it is they intend to learn, what strategies will be used in the learning, what evidence will be used to demonstrate the learning,

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and how the learning will be evaluated. Often, learners indicate what grade or performance level they are working toward as part of the contract. We use an evaluation scheme that results in a pass or incomplete score. If the learner has not completed all contracted activities by the end of the term, we will grant an incomplete or award a provisional grade that may be changed at a later time.

However, some institutions discourage such practices and make it nearly impossible to employ them. If your institution is one of these, you may have to make some compromises to the practice we follow or find a way that permits you to use aspects of contracting without creating a huge problem. While most institutions tend to follow conventional instructional practices that can impede aspects of the individualizing approach, change often is possible, but only through creative problem-solving on your part and confidence that the process will work.

Personalizing Your Instructional Approach

Moving toward a more personalized way of organizing your instruction is much easier than you might think. Aside from some initial hesitancy and trepidation in trying something new, the rewards for adopting the individualizing process should be substantial and well worth the effort. There are, however, a number of recommendations we make in order for you to maximize your instructional success.

4. Above all else, be patient, flexible, and trusting in the abilities of yourself and the learners.

It is not unusual to desire fairly immediate results if you are trying a new approach to something. If the results are slow in coming, a typical response might be to abandon it. However, one of the consequences of such a response is that many good ideas are then never able to mature. Thus, we caution you about expecting too much too soon when you adopt the individualizing approach to instruction. Because the process involves a good deal of preplanning, challenges previous instructional experiences, and is often new to you and your learners, it will take time to realize the kind of benefits that will surely come. So our advice is to be as patient as possible with your learners and yourself.

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Another item to consider is flexibility. If we could give every reader something, it would be an endless supply of flexibility. The individualizing process is by design a flexible way of organizing instruction. In fact, that is one of its chief features. But some people may feel that being flexible is an invitation for learners to take advantage of the situation. In a perverse way, this could happen. Our experience, however, has consistently demonstrated that adults thrive in instructional settings where options are open and subject to individual choice. So in a direct sense, when we teach we do encourage adults to take advantage of the liberties afforded and select those learning activities that will lead to desired outcomes. Yet no abundance of patience and flexibility will be enough unless you have ultimate trust in your own and your learners' abilities. This may seem obvious even trivial, but our experience suggests that the individualizing process works best when the instructor and learners are engaged together in making the instructional process effective. In order for this kind of relationship to occur, it is essential that a climate of trust and honesty be established. A particularly good way of accomplishing this is through role modeling. For example, we often start each class meeting by saying, "greetings fellow learners." This helps establish a spirit of mutual inquiry and subliminally says to the learners that our roles are complimentary. But this is only possible if you are comfortable in your role as an instructor and believe that the ultimate aim of education is to help learners reach their potential.

5. Giving frequent feedback and receiving it from them are useful ways of promoting instructional success.

One of the most important things you can do to ensure instructional success is to give frequent feedback to your adult learners. Not only will they appreciate this, they also want to know what kind of progress is being made in a timely manner. For example, on any written materials received from learners, we recommend you give written feedback by the next class meeting if at all possible so that any necessary corrections can be made or appropriate praise can be something on which to build later learning. When this isn't possible due to time constraints, tell learners exactly what the situation is and let them know when to expect your feedback.

In addition, we recommend soliciting frequent feedback from learners regarding how the learning experience is progressing and how your instruction is being perceived. This helps determine progress and what kinds of changes need to be made so as to make the experience as meaningful as possible. You also are better able to gauge your own instructional effectiveness. We feel this is vitally important since it is far easier to make adjustments as the learning experience unfolds than waiting to the end when improvements are impossible. In addition, by asking for frequent feedback from the learners you are helping to build greater trust among everyone concerned and demonstrating your commitment to learner success.

6. It is desirable to use a variety of teaching techniques in the individualizing process.

One of the worst things any instructor can do is use the same teaching technique over and over again, regardless of its effectiveness. For example, many instructors rely almost exclusively on the lecture method without considering other techniques that could work even better in helping learners meet their desired competencies. This is not to say the lecture technique is inherently bad, just that many instructors repeatedly use it at the expense of other equally effective techniques.

To combat this problem, we recommend you conduct an "instructional audit" of your teaching units. This involves analyzing each lesson plan or activity and then choosing at least three different instructional techniques to deliver the necessary content. For example, for a group of learners meeting two hours in a row, you might decide to use a mini-lecture, large group discussion, and a simulation exercise. By using several different techniques for delivering information, you are varying the presentation modes, providing learners with opportunities to participate, finding ways of involving the learners in the teaching and learning process, and breaking a long period into smaller units. We find this combination works especially well with adults since they prefer being actively involved in the instructional transaction.

7. Recognize and use learner expertise in your instructional efforts.

One of the characteristics that distinguishes adult learners is the amount of expertise they possess. For example, it is not unusual to find a significant number of experienced professionals in any adult learning situation. In an industry seminar dealing with strategic planning, you might find several individuals who possess substantial administrative expertise but lack specific knowledge about strategic planning. You can capitalize on their expertise by linking

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the new information about strategic planning with any problems participants might have in setting long term goals. Providing illustrations that grow out of participants' experiences and asking for potential solutions to these problems are additional ways of connecting new information with the expertise at hand. By doing this, you are significantly increasing the odds of participants retaining the new information, and more importantly, putting it into action.

8. Recognize that the individualizing process will not work perfectly for all learners, and that some will take much longer than others to adapt themselves to the process.

As effective as we believe the individualizing process to be, we recognize that it will not work perfectly for all learners. There will be a few who will resist every effort to assume personal responsibility for learning, regardless of what you do. For whatever reason, these learners will demand that you be teacher-directed in every conceivable way possible. They will constantly test your patience and even cause you to question the efficacy of the individualizing process. For these kind of learners, we suggest you provide the kind of direction they demand while at the same time moving them to assume greater self-direction.

In fact, however, most adult learners eventually thrive in the individualizing process, although some will assimilate it faster than others. The reasons for this are not altogether clear or certain, but they generally have to do with conditioning; some learners find it more difficult to give up the idea that an instructor's proper role is to tell them what should be learned, how it should be learned, and how the learning will be evaluated. They have internalized this view of instruction so fervently that it takes longer to accept an alternative system. In addition, we suspect that some people are less trusting than others and manifest this through various degrees of skeptical behavior. Rather than being concerned about this, we suggest you anticipate it by providing numerous opportunities for learners to raise questions about the instructional process and associated activities. In future chapters, we will provide some specific suggestions for introducing the individualizing process, and how to deal effectively with learners who are initially resistant to it.

9. The individualizing process is a structured approach to helping adults assume greater responsibility for their learning.


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individualizing instructional process is not a laissez faire approach to learning. It is not a process just rooted in concepts of self-directed learning and where anything goes. In fact, the process has considerable structure built into it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with structure, although some may associate structure with being highly organized. Certainly, instruction of any kind should be carefully planned and organized. At the same time, there should be sufficient flexibility so that mature learners can indeed direct their own learning. The individualizing process works equally well for those learners who need greater structure as well as those who need less. By focusing attention on the individual needs of learners and devising personalized plans for meeting those needs, the whole meaning of learning is transformed from one of passive acceptance to one of personal empowerment.

Situations Appropriate for the Individualizing Process

The individualizing process can be used effectively in nearly every situation. We have used it in formal educational settings such as graduate or undergraduate study, in intensive arrangements such as short courses or workshops, in nontraditional formats such as distance learning, and in training sessions for business and industry with similar results. The nature of the educational experience, its time length, frequency of meetings, and expectations regarding intent may necessitate some adjustments to the individualizing process, but that's one of its strengths.

10. The individualizing process can be used in almost any setting.

Instruction takes place in many different settings. The most frequent location is the formal classroom. There is nothing about the formal classroom setting that prevents you from working individually with each learner. In many ways the classroom is an ideal location for personalizing instruction and helping learners achieve desired competencies. But the process will take time to fully implement. For example, you will need to do a good deal of preplanning about the subject under study and how best to tap the existing talents of the adult learners. This will lead to some analysis of the various human and material resources needed to present the content. You will also want to consider how to best assess the competency levels of the participants, as well as how you will introduce the process.

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All of these decisions will be addressed in more detail in Chapter Six.

The individualizing process also works well is in more intensive settings such as workshops, training seminars, retreats, and weekend courses. We have found that just because the time frame is accelerated, decisions are not different from those required for longer, more formal arrangements. In fact, such decisions are nearly identical. However, you will need to strike a balance between time constraints and content needs.

Individualizing instructional efforts have most often been associated with many forms of non-traditional education. These include independent study, learning at a distance, and computer-based instruction. In a very direct sense non-traditional efforts readily lend themselves to an individualizing approach because of their inherent emphasis on the individual. There are, however, some issues to consider such as feedback, help with resource identification, and evaluating performance. Chapter Ten describes how the individualizing process is used in non-traditional settings.

11. One concern that requires some planning and adjustment in the individualizing process is group size.

We have found that the process is easier to implement if there are twenty-five or fewer learners. Obviously, this isn't always possible. In those instances when you are faced with large numbers, we recommend you still utilize a needs assessment procedure to determine learner interest in various topics and to help develop a learning plan, but that you consider how best to accomplish this task. A useful way is to use some technique for dividing participants into smaller groups for implementing a needs assessment process (see Chapter Seven for more detail). You probably should think about where each small group will meet; some possibilities are in various sections of the auditorium, adjoining class rooms, or smaller breakout rooms. The key is that group size can present problems when implementing the individualizing process, but through anticipatory planning you can successfully deal with such an issue.

12. The individualizing process works with most groups of adult learners.

At the same time, however, you should carefully consider their special learning needs and expectations. You will find that, while most adults prefer to be in charge of their own learning, some

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will be suspicious of instructional efforts that run counter to their previous experience. This is especially true in working with people who have fairly traditional views and expectations about their own role as learners and those of the instructor.

In fact, it is not unusual to find some adults who will balk at a process designed to give them a greater voice in determining what it is they will learn, how they will learn it, and how they will be evaluated. This is even frightening for some people. Through your initial efforts at explaining why an individualizing process will work with experienced adults and repeated efforts to console those who doubt, most people will become converts to the process. This will take some time, however, but usually by the fourth meeting of a semester long course, for example, people are thriving in the process.

In contrast, highly self-directed learners may sometimes jump too quickly into the process, expecting immediate results. Thus, it is important to keep an eye on such learners, and help them to be critical about their learning and open to alternative, less obvious approaches.

There are other adult groups requiring special attention in being introduced to and in using the individualizing process--for example, persons with disabilities, the undereducated, multicultural learners, and senior citizens. In each case, the process can be adapted to the special needs and conditions of such learners (see Chapter Eleven).

Other adults who often have some initial difficulties in using the individualizing process are highly trained professionals such as lawyers, physicians, and chief executive officers. These people typically are highly educated, affluent, and extremely busy. In many respects, they possess well developed self-directed learning skills and would seem most receptive to instruction that emphasizes individualization. However, such professionals usually are task oriented and frequently prefer more structured activities that would be described as teacher directed. Thus, some compromises between teacher directed and individualized activities will be required.

Many instructors are concerned about the relationship between subject matter and instruction. They wonder, for example, if the emphasis should be solely on content, process, or some combination of the two. We believe instruction is a marriage between content and process. The individualizing process

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links mastery of subject matter with procedures that exploit the talents, capabilities, experiences, and characteristics of the adult learner.

However, there are certain instructional situations, such as with laboratory-based subjects and content memorization requirements, that necessitate more emphasis on content and less on process. In these specific cases the instructor interested in individualization often assumes considerable responsibility for the content or uses a standard lecturing approach, but also institutes features of the individualizing process that still seem appropriate. For example, certain needs assessment techniques can be used to help focus subsequent presentations of content on specific interests of group members or the lecturing can include techniques to involve learners in sharing their experiences related to certain areas being presented. The main point is that adults generally thrive in individualized instructional situations, a compelling reason for incorporating as many aspects of the process as possible.


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