Educational Technology & Society 2(2) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

French version

Adult Learner Behaviors in Workplace vs. Educational Environments

Moderator: Nora Carrol
President, The First Forward Institute, Inc., USA. Email:

Mary Harrsch

College of Education, University of Oregon, USA. Email: mharrsch@OREGON.UOREGON.EDU

Karen Kaminski
Colorado State University/OIS, USA. Email:

Discussion Schedule
Discussion: 11 - 20 Jan. 99
Summing up: 21 - 22 Jan. 99

Pre-discussion paper

The advent of technologically driven distance education has triggered a revolution in every kind of adult instruction and learning, but understanding adult learners is critical to effective instructional development. In this discussion, we will investigate the attitudinal, motivational, experiential and resultant behavioral factors impacting adult distance learning in a variety of technological environments.

Post-discussion summary

Discussion of this topic began Monday, January 11, 1999. Nora Carrol, discussion moderator, asked us to consider the following:

  • differences that may emanate from motivation (i.e., what motivates someone to attend formal courses may or may not be the same as what motivates them to learn at work)
  • differences between voluntary and involuntary participation in learning
  • differences between learning that is tangibly rewarded via credit, CEU's or certification, and learning that is not tangibly rewarded
  • differences that result from the learning evaluation and measuring methods used
  • differences that result from the instructional delivery systems, physical and virtual

Adult Learner Characteristics

A common thread that has been raised by a number of those posting comments centers on the recognition that adult learners bring a variety of experiences, cultural differences, personality types, attitudes towards the learning experience, technical literacy, and motivations to the learning environment. All of these variables impact their preferred learning style and the learning modalities that need to be considered by the instructors.

John Eklund recalled a student who experienced frustration because she could not connect a demonstration to a prior experience. I really had difficulty trying to convince some of [the] students in the class that the best way to achieve a satisfactory outcome in the course was by thinking from the top down.

Adult learners are defined by the roles that they play. Adults return to education because of a need that they have identified. These needs can vary widely. Adults have more years of experience than the traditional student does, that they bring to the educational setting. They also bring more specific expectations.

Intelligent Tutoring with Variety

Chris Eliot pointed out one of the primary assumptions of the intelligent tutoring community is that there are great differences among individual students. "It is also the reason why computer scientists think that effective tutoring systems require complex reasoning mechanisms: you have to have multiple ways of teaching the same thing, and you need to 'diagnose' what kind of student you are working with, and you must then select the best available way of teaching to match each individual student," he stated.

Jack Ring reminded us of Ashby's principle of 'requisite variety' that tells us that any 'learning environment' must exhibit an even greater spectrum of learning modalities. He also mentioned that learning styles are very significant as put forth by Isachsen and Behrens in 'Working Together' in which they correlate Meyers-Briggs personality styles and individual learning styles to show that some people like to learn by isolated study but others need to be in group with high interaction. Jack thinks that when the challenge is to learn how to do, adults learn more, faster from peers and power figures who are directly involved in the activity than they do from teachers, mentors, coaches, and researchers. When the challenge is to learn what a student does not know then 'the guru is necessary'.

Tom said there needs to be a wider reference to the characteristics of the individual. He points out that educational institutions structure learning environments as a means to regulate and manage the instructional and learning experience. "In the work place," he says, "you can institutionalize learning through professional and vocational qualifications." But, he asks, "How do you enhance such learning and identify common problems, create effective learning resources and support individual learning needs?" He reports that he is working on a project to help people in small and medium sized enterprises improve their performance by examining their order fulfillment processes. "The uniqueness of individual experience, the business characteristics, and the markets they serve make prescriptive instruction almost impossible," he states. "Under these circumstances the assumptions of educators and designers need a radical rethink about the purpose and approach to learning."

Jack Ring suggests presenting the material in multiple ways and let the student select the mix that they like. Chris Eliot agrees with this alternative when it works. He warns us of 'hidden problems'. "You are assuming that the student can understand the choices and know enough about their own learning style to make the right choice," Eliot observes. He feels you can only give students a small number of choices which are completely distinct.

Bob Leamnson tells us that the problem with learning styles is that once we know what they are, we don't know what to do with the information. There is no consensus to how many learning styles there are. To which Abdul-Karim replies that in definition, learning styles go beyond audio, visual, and kinesthetic. He refers us to Kolb's model of experiential learning. Learn through doing, through watching, through thinking, and through trying. Each preference has strengths associated with them.

In Karen Kaminiski's experience with teaching adults, she has found that they don't need to be tested to determine their learning style. "Although they may not understand what learning styles are, most adults know whether they would prefer to read a book, watch a video, listen to a tape, work one-on-one with someone, work alone, work in groups, etc.," she states. She proposes that we should not always allow people to learn the way they do best but to challenge them to learn in various modes. "Certainly, you can provide alternatives but in 'real life' there may not be alternatives. How can we prepare adult learners for better jobs, new skills, and the like if we do not challenge them?" she asks.

Martin Owen agrees with the value of Kolb's model of experiential learning to an extent but points out that the assumption that professional communities constitute a "reified" body of professional practice into which one can become inducted is a weakness. He states that an "individualist" approach places too much emphasis on individual "learning styles". "We need to emphasize learning as a collaborative goal," he says. He points out that the advantage of 'collaborative/group' learning is that each learner type contributes to the discussion and the discussion is enriched by each strength.

John Bottomley pointed out that there is little hard evidence supporting the view that taking student learning styles into account leads to positive learning outcomes. He mentioned a counter view discussed by David Brooks in his text 'Web Teaching: A Guide to Designing Interactive Teaching for the World Wide Web'. Brooks says the best outcome for students is to expose them to many kinds of learning experiences ultimately enabling students to learn under a wide range of situations and circumstances.

Chris O'Hagan raised the issue that students should be enabled to see "broader horizons and why certain learning activities are important." He described a successful experience in which a colleague prepared videotapes of a lecture on 'Learning To Learn' which were offered to first year students. The tapes were very successful because they created an environment where the instructors had to engage the topic and learned as much about how students learn as the students did.

He also mentioned a personal experience that illustrated the difficulty of trying to adapt a large system to individual learning styles. As a faculty member of a tutorial college where he tutored six different students per hour he discovered that a single textbook did not provide explanations that were successful with every student. "I suspect that even with the level of knowledge of have today, I still would not have been able to predict which explanation would work with a particular student." From his own experience, he supports providing a lot of different ways to learn the same thing, support for students who are have real difficulty, and in larger institutions particularly, educating students in learning "so they *know* when they are having difficulty and have the confidence to admit ignorance and ask."

As a personal reflection on points made by Karen Kaminski in her previous summary, Mary Harrsch said we should distinguish between the "media" and the "message". "Whether an adult prefers a book, a video, or a group project is not as important as whether the desired instructional message is being delivered in a way that is clearly understood by the majority of students," she points out. "A process animation can often demonstrate a concept visually that is very difficult to grasp using words. A simulation in which the interactive forces are clearly defined can result in understanding cause and effect as each variable is manipulated by the student. A dramatic reading accompanied by images and music of the period may reveal social differences that may have influenced the author of the piece. Hyperlinks to word definitions or graphics provide "just in time" knowledge to students attempting to understand a complex discourse. These strategies would be as successful with adult learners as with younger students. The key difference with adult learners is that they usually have enough life experience and self esteem to question the results rather than accept them at face value. Instructors must be willing to explore alternatives and, like Chris O'Hagan observed, they may find they learn as much as the students."

Chris O'Hagan emphasized his point that teachers should know a lot more about how students learn and different styles. He is concerned that an instrumental approach to identifying a student's learning style may hinder student development and that it is much better to help them adopt a range of different approaches.

Karen Kaminiski expressed her belief that most educators are aware of different learning styles. "What they don't have is the skills to incorporate strategies targeted to different learning styles into their content delivery. She also suspects that part of this is a time and comfort issue. "How many people teach the way they are most comfortable learning themselves?" she asks.

Chris continued, reminding us that variety is the spice of life. This is why he thinks 'engaged' is a useful word for describing the mental activity taking place. He goes on to differentiate between being engaged and being interactive when learning with a computer. Karen agrees, "We can all remember having conversations where we were interacting with the other party while our minds were engaged with other matters. " She also agrees with Mary Harrsch's observations. "The technology used is just the medium to deliver the message. It is the relevance of the message that will engage the students in the learning process," Karen states.

Nora Carrol remarked that education-as-regurgitation may still exist in primary learning but is certainly not dominant in adult learning. "Adult learners are the 'market' that has pushed both institutional and workplace learning toward an applications focus," Nora said. Martin Owen pointed out engagement does not come from the computer "... but from the individual and the social group."

"One of the advantages of learning in a traditional classroom is the social contact with fellow students, " Martin continued. "Distance programs using cohort groups are showing more success than those that offer open registration to randomly sequenced courses."

Cultural Differences

Mary Harrsch pointed out that cultural differences may influence particular adults or groups to approach distance education differently. Elaine Winters agreed referencing her articles that focus on Gardner's work with learning styles:

"Some societies, specifically those characterized as high context, place great emphasis on ambiance, decorum, status of the participants, and manner of delivery; low context cultures ignore these events--emphasizing content in a communication - sometimes expressed as 'cut to the chase'."

Martin Owen just returned from a conference where Nonaka Ikujiro delivered a presentation on "Knowledge Creating Companies" and the concept of physical, virtual and mental spaces for knowledge interchange referred to as "Ba". Martin says ICT can make a clear contribution to this activity by facilitating knowledge acquisition through sharing information with fellow professionals and mutual problem solving. However, he also mentions that there has been some discussion of discrepancy between Asian and North American cultures. Nonaka San suggested that in creating Ba there is a need for humor, including irony. "This may be problematic for some," Nonaka acknowledges.

David Bird disagrees with the Western approach of setting the teacher above the student stating that on the contrary it is eastern cultures that set a respectful tone for the notion of a 'teacher'. He uses Sensei in Japan as an example. Instead David suggests we distinguish between pedagogical learning based around the ideas of reinforcement, and adult learning which is based around notions of adults identifying their own needs.

Bob Leamnson also acknowledged the impact of student diversity. "We still don't know quite what to do with that fact. It is a situation that is not restricted to adult groups, or groups of mixed ethnic/cultural background."

Raymond Lewis tells us that he believes that the significant difference between Asian learners is not culture but learning styles and the climate created in the classroom. The key issue is for the educator to meet the needs of the learners in their classroom by providing a variety of approaches. Technology may be a useful tool to achieve this.

Martin Owen expresses his opinion that the characterization of Asian students as passive and unquestioning does not square with the dynamic and reflective ways in which workplaces have developed in some Asian economies. Clearly there are areas within the cultures of Asian workplaces where active, mutual dialogical learning takes place. He suggests it may be a more Western approach to place the teacher "above" the students that revokes the "respectful" response from the Asian students.