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Multiracial adult students working in computer class. Women in casual sitting at table, using desktops, typing, looking at monitor. Online course concept
ATD Blog

Holding Learners Responsible

Tuesday, November 15, 2022
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What do these two scenarios have in common?

Cody is a participant in a leadership development program that includes a 360-degree feedback component. Cody has not submitted a self-assessment by the due date, despite receiving numerous reminders. The learning team is considering extending the deadline once again and sending Cody one more urgent request to complete the self-assessment.

Sanjay’s learning team is developing an e-learning course that contains 10 minutes of content, a welcome video from a senior leader, and two interactive exercises. The content is relevant to the current organizational climate, the senior leader video is inspiring, and the exercises are important for determining whether learners have absorbed the message. Therefore, the learning team decides to lock the e-learning course menu so learners must complete the entire program.

So what do these scenarios have in common? Despite the good intentions of these two learning teams, both scenarios are examples of not holding learners responsible.

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Most learning professionals are familiar with Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory related to self-concept. Knowles posited that adult learners see themselves as self-directing, responsible grown-ups. Consequently, trainers must help adults identify their learning experiences and goals and allow them the autonomy to succeed and the choice to fail.

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Here are some tips for holding learners responsible:

  • Provide test-out options. Rather than testing knowledge at the end of a module, test at the beginning. Let learners skip modules with content they have already mastered. There’s an important caveat to remember: Tests must be reliable and valid so people can’t guess correct answers, which would provide a false sense of their knowledge. Self-assessments can be effective for helping shape a learner’s experience by highlighting what they do and don’t already know.
  • Start with action planning. Action planning should not only come at the end of a program, so experiment with having participants create an action plan at the beginning. Participating in the program may be their first achievable action.
  • Ask about intentions. Start by asking questions to get learners thinking about how they might take charge of their learning. For example, ask, “How do you intend to hold yourself accountable for applying what you’ve learned in this course?” or “What do you need to do to get the most value from this course?” We can ask these questions whether the program is synchronous or asynchronous.
  • Have learners write personalized learning objectives. After sharing the course outcomes or objectives, ask learners to prioritize them by voting for those that are important or relevant for them. Have them write or state their own desired learning outcome, and revisit it at a midpoint or the end of the program. Rather than sharing “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM), ask learners to identify these benefits.
  • Have learners rate their effort. Add a regular question to your level one evaluations such as, “On a scale of 0–100, how much effort did you put into this course?” Tell them at the start of the program that they will answer this question at the end. When participants know that they will evaluate their efforts, they may feel more accountable for their work. Set the expectation that learning is an active process, not a passive one.

You may also need to adjust your mindset to give learners autonomy:

  • Restrain your pride. You’ve created a stellar training program based on robust learning objectives grounded in data from a thorough needs assessment. You may know that learners will benefit from their participation in your well-crafted and executed program. But you must accept that some people are not going to complete it, as good as it may be.
  • Give up on some learners. We can request that adults fully engage with, or participate in, our programs, but sometimes we must allow them to opt out. They’re responsible adults and should be aware of the logical consequences of not completing the program as intended (for example, they won’t understand a concept that they need for success at work or to be considered for promotion). Ultimately, the employee is responsible for their learning outcomes.
  • Think “just-as-needed.” Many trainers provide training that is “just-in-time,” offered when the content is needed. We can also think about offering training that is “just-as-needed.” Providing opportunities for learners to customize content decreases “scrap learning” by increasing chances that they will apply what they learned on the job. Let learners stop midway through a program if they’ve already gotten what they think they need, or provide role-based training.
  • Focus on those who commit. So much time is spent chasing people who are not participating in developmental opportunities, and this time may be better spent enriching the experiences of learners who are fully engaged. When more people have better learning experiences, they will draw disengaged learners back into the fold.

Adult learners’ success is in their hands. Help set them up for relevant, engaging, instructionally sound experiences—and then get out of their way.

About the Author

Sophie Oberstein is an author, coach, adjunct professor, and L&OD consultant helping individuals who are seeking increased effectiveness and satisfaction at work. She’s been in the field of learning and organizational development for more than 20 years at public and private organizations, including Weight Watchers; Columbia University Irving Medical Center; Redwood City, California; and Citibank, N.A.

Oberstein is on the faculty of the NYU School of Professional Studies, where she developed and conducts the fundamentals course in the learning design certificate program. She has also taught at Drexel University, Mercer County Community College, and Menlo College.

Her books— Troubleshooting for Trainers, 10 Steps to Successful Coaching, 2nd edition, and Beyond Free Coffee & Donuts: Marketing Training and Development—are available from ATD Press. Oberstein is a past president of ATD’s Greater Philadelphia chapter.

You can reach her on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/sophieoberstein or via her website at sophieoberstein.com.

7 Comments
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Great topic it was, but also get the most featuring Assignment Writing help, https://assignmentmasters.ae/ in UAE easily.
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This is a very helpful article with tips that I am definitely going to adopt to help the adult learners that I train take responsibility for their success.
I particularly love the last paragraph of the article:
Adult learners’ success is in their hands. Help set them up for relevant, engaging, instructionally sound experiences—and then get out of their way.
Glad you found it valuable, Yemisi.
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I enjoyed reading this, especially because I see the resistance at my workplace and wonder how I should approach it.
When it involves management instead of direct reports, what other considerations are there?
Hi, James, I'm not really sure I see a difference between individual contributors and managers when it comes to holding them accountable for their own learning. I want to do all I can to help them connect to the content, to make it relevant and to have them articulate the benefits, and then I want to allow them to fail or to follow-through as responsible adults.
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