Thursday, April 10, 2014

When It Comes to Learning, Let’s Treat Adults Like Adults

When I retired from QBE last year, I thought it might be interesting to do something totally different, so I got myself appointed as an adjunct faculty member at our local community college, where I teach courses in management, leadership, business writing and presentation skills. Since I am in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, my students are adults.

Recently, my connection with the college led me into a project with a Maryland defense contractor, and as part of that project I did some background research on adult learners--how they learn, what motivates them to learn, and what learning strategies are the most (and least) effective. Now that I am well read on the topic of Andragogy (the art and science of teaching adults), I can tell you something you may already know based upon your own personal experiences--adults and children learn differently. Instructional strategies that work well with children do not work well with adults.

As learners, adults:
  • Are wary of formal classroom learning. They may feel uncomfortable or "at risk" in the classroom since their self-esteem and ego and reputation are on the line. That being said, adults learn better in a classroom setting when they are treated with respect and when their knowledge, abilities and achievements are welcomed and acknowledged.
  • Choose what they will learn. They are more strongly motivated to learn by intrinsic rewards (personal growth, satisfaction, self-esteem) than by extrinsic rewards or requirements (promotions, increase in compensation, licensing or certification.)
  • Need to know why they are being asked to learn something, and why it is in their best interest to learn it. They routinely weigh the benefits of learning against the consequences of not learning. To move into a state of learning readiness, they may need to be convinced they have a critical learning gap that needs to be filled.
  • Prefer learning that is problem or task-centered, not subject-centered. Ideally, content should have relevance and immediacy so they can apply newly learned concepts to real world problems and situations.
  • Prefer to learn by doing. They dislike lectures and survey courses, but are increasingly fond of self-directed and self-paced instructional media such as self-study, programmed instruction, and computer or web-based training. In the classroom, active learning experiences involving problem solving, judgment, reasoning, questioning, critical thinking, exploration/research, and group relationships and dynamics are most effective.
  • Need to be given time and space to integrate new ideas, particularly if those new ideas conflict with what they already know or believe.
Of course I don't have to worry about running a Claims operation any longer, but for me Claims is still a powerful personal frame of reference. Once I understood these adult learning principles (having given myself the time and space to integrate them with what I already knew, of course!), I suddenly had more informed insight and a new and potentially useful perspective into why so much of the training I experienced, and designed, and delivered at insurance companies over the years inevitably failed to fully achieve learning objectives. For whatever reason, in most cases the training just wasn't designed with adults in mind. It didn't appeal to what motivates adult learners, it didn't consider their learning preferences, and it didn't employ the most effective instructional techniques to help them learn. That was unfortunate, in retrospect, since one of the first steps in designing any instructional approach usually involves a detailed analysis of the learner group so the training can be tailored to their needs and preferences.

Perhaps your training strategies are sound, but I sense an opportunity to review and possibly improve claims training outcomes simply by incorporating and considering adult learning theories and principles that have been around for decades. If you want to learn more about those principles, just do a search on Andragogy or start here.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, CIC is a retired Chief Claims Officer and an expert and advisor on Property Casualty insurance claims and operations. He can be reached at or through

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