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That's How to Engage Adult Learners!

Learning experience designer Cheryl Oberlin joins me to discuss the unique challenges that face adult learners in the corporate setting. We discuss why some adult learners may be reluctant to even engage in continued learning once they are out of the academic setting, and some ways to engage unmotivated learners.

Connect with Cheryl on LinkedIn.


The following transcript was auto-generated and may contain typos or spelling errors.

Leslie Early 0:00

Today I have a learning experience designer, Cheryl Oberlin here with me today. Thank you for joining me Cheryl.

Cheryl Oberlin 0:08

Thank you for having me, Leslie. It's great to be here.

Leslie Early 0:11

So I kind of know you we know each other a little bit through designed by humanity and our work with them. But would you like to take a moment and tell listeners a little bit about yourself or about your journey with instructional design?

Cheryl Oberlin 0:23

Yeah, absolutely. I started out in corporate America, way back when when I was a teenager, I spent some time there. And then I moved into education, where I found what I really love is my passion for helping others learn. So I am an experienced designer. I'm also a former professor at the university level, and college, a community college. And I'm a storyteller. And I say that because I inherited that trait from my father, he would always have great stories to tell never met a stranger. And I, my kids and husband say that I have that as well. And I also noticed I can intertwine it into my work to create scenarios for learning.

Leslie Early 1:05

Yeah, that's a great skill to have, especially for scenario based learning. Basically, you know, the point of the show is like, if you have one thing that you're super jazzed up about, or interested in these days in instructional design, or learning experience design, so what is something that you've been thinking a lot about these days?

Cheryl Oberlin 1:24

Well, my theme is helping others. So I have had so many people reach out to me about adult learning and about instructional design. So there are kind of two pathways I've been trying to help others with. In adult learning folks get really frustrated in training classes, because they don't want to ask questions, they don't want to seem like they're not knowledgeable about the topic, or any topic, really, a lot of people who take training classes, you know, do have a management level. So when they're mixed in training with their employees, they don't want to say anything wrong. And that's where the scenario training comes into play.

Leslie Early 2:06

Yeah. So yeah, so if I'm understanding correctly, so the thing that's sort of special about adult learners, especially in like a corporate setting, I'm assuming you're talking more of a corporate rather than epidemic setting. Yes. So that's true, I never thought about that, that you can definitely have moments of training where some subordinate level employees are in the same training with the manager or middle management level. And that can probably be uncomfortable for both sides.

Cheryl Oberlin 2:36

Yeah, I've taught over 2000 people how to design quality online courses in the last two years. And most of those people are administrators, or professors. So they have a PhD or higher. And when they came into my class, they were not happy to be there, mostly. And then secondarily, they didn't want to ask questions. And the only time that you can really hook them in is when you provide them feedback, that actually shows them that you're trying to help them learn. And you're not criticizing them or have any high expectations of them. When we do that, we get a better response from them.

Leslie Early 3:13

Mm hmm. So when you say that they're not happy to be there, like what? So what do you think is the thing that's making these, it sounds like, you know, let's say a PhD, they're a little bit higher educated. So what makes you think that they're, what's the reason that they're unhappy to be there?

Cheryl Oberlin 3:32

Well, a lot of people are not happy to be there. Because it's forced training, they have to do it for compliance, or they have to do it for their job level. So they're not happy to be in there. They feel like they're wasting their time because they can't do their job when they're in training, and that they know everything already. So it's fantastic when you can use visual stories based on real world scenarios. And, you know, kind of show them yes, you do have something to learn. And it can be enjoyable if you let it it's all about the positive mindset for training.

Leslie Early 4:05

Yeah. And that makes sense. Because if you're using these scenarios, then they might see themselves in it right, like they might, or find something to relate to, I guess Exactly.

Cheryl Oberlin 4:16

My elearning stories are framed by real people, real life issues and current world situations. So there's something that you can always go back and tweak. So that address is something that's going on in their life right now. It's not something that you just create a canned, you know, course and leave it there forever and make no changes to it. You absolutely have to go back and evaluate the course. So you can view your measurements and see how the learners are performing. And if changes need to be made.

Leslie Early 4:47

And that's kind of interesting. I hadn't really thought of that either. You're You're like giving me so many good things today, Cheryl, the fact that you can, even though it's a compliance training, it sounds like you're still making tweaks or Changes to the content depending on who your audience is, or, or is it, you're changing it. based on the feedback from the audience,

Cheryl Oberlin 5:08

It could be both, you know, it could be who your audience is, it could be what the story is. If they're learning something about compliance, and it relates to something that's going on in the real world, if things change, then you need to change that. That that lesson. So that it's current. Yeah,

Leslie Early 5:28

I guess cuz, yeah, the perception of compliance training is like, you know, like a 919 90s video, then, you know, it's like, really bad actors and bad lighting. And they're just like, acting out a scene. And like, it hasn't been updated since it was shot in 1999. Right, like, right perception of compliance training.

Cheryl Oberlin 5:49

Yeah. So it is, and you know, people come in and they're anxious. They don't want to make mistakes, they feel like that is a bad thing versus a, an item that has to happen for learning. So they're very anxious when they come in. Yeah.

Leslie Early 6:06

So if you sense if you're reading the room, and you sense that, you know, people are coming in sort of anxious, do you have a trick? Or do you have a way of engaging them to get them to start to like, kind of get hooked, like you said, or started sort of start to loosen up?

Cheryl Oberlin 6:21

Yeah, it's mostly in online courses, right. So I tell them that, I recognize that it may be some time since you are in a learning environment. And sometimes you are actually a teacher in your job. I mean, even if you're a corporate person, as a manager, you can be a teacher. And I realized that this type of learning can be frustrating and causing anxiety to you. And those are actually natural responses to the struggle that can accompany learning something new for the first time, and this material is new.

Leslie Early 6:52

Yeah, I like that. So basically, just being transparent from the beginning, I understand this is uncomfortable for you.

Cheryl Oberlin 7:01

Right sort of all in this together, kind of experience, recognize their feelings, encourage them to take some time to just step back from the situation and then come come back later if they need to. Because things like writing our recursive project, and a lot of learning is that way, too. So if you take a break, and you come back later, it's actually fresher in your mind. And if we use knowledge checks in our in our courses, those are like, low stakes retrieval practice, people take a break, they come back then, you know, they probably know more than they think they do.

Leslie Early 7:37

Yeah, yeah, that's a good point, too. Like taking breaks is great for learning. Different topic. But yes, also very good point.

Cheryl Oberlin 7:45

Yeah, a lot of people feel like they know, aren't eligible to be there, even though they have the training, they have the education, they have the work experience. They don't want to speak out in a course. Because they don't want to look like they don't know those things. Right. So they feel like an imposter.

Leslie Early 8:05

Yeah. So imposter syndrome is a big thing, I think, with a lot of adults. And I, I wonder if that's just because we're always fed these, you know, messages of like, you hit a certain age or you get into a certain career or a certain role. And you should have it all together, right? Like, by this point, you should have it all together. Yeah, that makes it really hard to keep learning,

Cheryl Oberlin 8:30

Right. And everything in life is, you know, takes practice, from riding a bike to learn in about compliance, you have to practice things in order to master it, right. So it does matter for everybody to be a lifelong learner. I listened to a short podcast this morning by a gentleman that was on my YouTube feed Jacob Morgan. And he had like three things for you to remember every day. And one of them was that you've learned something new every day. And I've been telling my students and my kids that forever. And, in fact, the kids will go I know, I know, I have to learn something new every day. So yeah, I think that's really, really important that people understand that you never really stopped learning.

Leslie Early 9:15

Yeah, and, and of course, it can be uncomfortable. Again, like I keep going back to the having different levels of different levels within a company all in the same training. And that may be uncomfortable, but maybe that's a good leadership opportunity. If you're a manager and you're demonstrating, like, Hey, I'm gonna learn to do this, or I'm not afraid to try to learn more, that's setting a good example to

Cheryl Oberlin 9:42

people below. Absolutely. And it, you know, really shows some opportunity, instead of a challenge, right? People see things as challenges, when instead you could see them as an opportunity to grow and to share that information with the people who are on your team in the same training.

Leslie Early 10:00

So I'm trying to think so if you have like a group of unmotivated people or people who are maybe uncomfortable, who don't want to ask questions, or don't want to show that they don't know something, how can you still engage them? or How can you still try to convey this information? if nobody's asking questions, and nobody's admitting that they don't really know.

Cheryl Oberlin 10:23

One of the great things about elearning is the feedback. When you get personalized feedback, you can really have a conversation with someone whether they want to have one with you or not. Right. So I can explain to him that them that it is a challenge to learn that most learning is recursive, you come back after you take a break. And it is perfectly okay not to get things right the first time, you know, there's never a knowledge check that will fail you for the entire course I don't think one question and out right? So there are opportunities to try again or do over. And that really helps people learn, you know, if I miss a question on something, and I go back and get it, like, it's more likely that I'm going to remember that answer because I missed it the first time.

Leslie Early 11:06

Right. And then e learning, it's kind of it's a little bit, it's personalized feedback. But it's also more private, exactly can go through this on your own time, nobody's around. It's not a classroom where you're like, answering out loud, you're just going through it on your own, nobody's watching you.

Cheryl Oberlin 11:23

Right. And with the with the personalized feedback, you're really creating a rapport with your participant. So it's just like, you know, creating a friendship, you have to create it on a base level, and then you have to cultivate it. So with the more feedback that you give them, that's conversational, they feel trust for you. And then they open up and then they will start asking questions. And sometimes at the end of the courses that I taught, I would get glowing evaluations from people not because I was nice and let them get through. But because they actually learn something, you know, they would say I was tough on them, but they learned at the end of the day, which is the goal.

Leslie Early 12:03

That's the goal. And that's kind of what you want to hear. Right?

Cheryl Oberlin 12:06


Leslie Early 12:07

You don't you don't want it to be too easy.

Cheryl Oberlin 12:09


Leslie Early 12:11

But so I guess what I'm now My question is, so when you're designing something, like you're designing an elearning? What are some design principles that you use to try and get around some of these issues?

Cheryl Oberlin 12:26

Sure. Talk about that goes all the way back to Malcolm Knowles, you know, he talked about adults are being an internally motivated and self directed, they want their life experiences to be reflected in the learning. They also are goal oriented. How is this gonna help me? You know, the what's in it for me? New Age, wording, they also want to see how relevant is how can I use this in my job or my career, and they need to be respected. So when you do elearning, they actually feel more respected, because like you said, they're not being called out in a face to face class. And the adult learning principles also are mostly problem centered. So during the training, you actually show them how to resolve the issue or resolve the pain point that that created the training? Mm hmm.

Leslie Early 13:16

What about like, what about the graphic design? Like, what about how you're visually laying all of this out?

Cheryl Oberlin 13:23

Well, it's so much better for adults to be able to learn when there are signals on the screen. So versus having an entire slide of text, we all know that they won't read it, you can just have fewer words and more cues that will highlight the importance of the material. They also learn better from graphics and narration than On screen text. So you can if you don't like voiceover, you can hire someone that does do voiceover. Or you can actually use some of the ones that are in, in the learning tools like Articulate Storyline has some, they do sound a little bit like the Jetsons and robotic, but this still works. Yeah. And then the multimedia principle has is just that people learn better from words and pictures from just words alone, because if they read, read read, they're just going to skim and they're not going to take as much away from it.

Leslie Early 14:23

So we've basically covered several things like the disposition of these adult learners and like why that's could be uniquely challenging. And then some ways to try to, to get around that and hook them in. Do you have any other last bits of advice for how to engage adult learners?

Cheryl Oberlin 14:43

Well, it's a bit of audience analysis. So when you're designing things, or even if you're the person who's going to deliver it, it's really important to analyze your audience, find out who they are, how they're going to use this information, why it will be helpful to them and that will help you structure Both the design of the course and how you deliver it and provide feedback. Okay,

Leslie Early 15:05

So if I know that this is a big topic and like we could probably talk about this for a really long time, but If If listeners want to reach out to you and continue the conversation, is there a good place that they can find you?

Cheryl Oberlin 15:18

Yeah, absolutely. You can find me on LinkedIn. I'm there every day, interacting with the amazing l&d folks that I found. Well,

Leslie Early 15:27

thank you so much, Cheryl, for joining me today.

Cheryl Oberlin 15:30

Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed it.

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