Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory and Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

Current Problem

Where I currently work, we are finding that our instructors need and crave more targeted professional development. As mentioned in the Methodology section, adults want to know that what they are learning is relevant and has immediate application. If there is something that an instructor needs to know to do his/her job, then it is our responsibility to provide it. As a relatively new company, our resource library is limited and does not necessarily address the different skill gaps of our instructors, nor the levels at which they need to address them. In other words, we aren’t practicing differentiated learning. We are taking a one size fits all approach that leaves some instructors feeling lost and others feeling stagnant.

Proposed Solution

At the very simplest – build a searchable repository of professional development resources and pair this with the observations and assessments that are already happening. Ensure that all instructors across all campuses have access to this database and leverage instructor and employee knowledge to further populate it.

It’s extremely important that the resources you provide are accessible, relevant and accurate. Forgetting these simple guidelines can result in frustration (why do I need to learn this?), confusion (what does this mean/this contradicts something else), and resentment (I have to pay/drive an hour out of my way for this information) from learners.

Why Self Directed Learning?

You’re covering a few bases with this approach, most of which are covered in other parts of this site. Above all else, you are providing adults with actionable and applicable items. They can pursue as little or as much as they want to in order to meet the benchmarks set forth by their managers. They can also choose to expand their knowledge outside of the provided resources and are encouraged to improve their in class practice with the support of their instructional leaders.

In a classroom setting, this can be a useful tool for students who often finish early and crave additional knowledge. Conversely, it’s also a great tool for a student who is having trouble grasping a concept that everyone else has mastered. The missing information may be critical to the student’s success, so it cannot be glanced over. Instead, you can provide articles, textbooks, videos or other resources to allow the student to learn the concept on his/her own.

What it Looks Like

For me, this looks like a centralized web-based system that is managed by the instructional leaders across all campuses. Because this will be used by all instructors and is part of the message and culture of the company, it’s important that the information submitted is vetted and that it aligns with what you want to see in the classroom.

For you, this depends on the systems and process already in place for learning. Do you have a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas, Blackboard, Oracle or Schoology? If you answered yes, there might already be add-ons or functionality that allow you to build resource libraries. You may also be able to create videos, quizzes and other assessments that are specific to the goals of your course.

If you answered no, you can still create a system that ticks those three boxes. If you are working in an offline environment, have a listed of links, books, videos, etc to provide to students. Or, if you have books or articles in the classroom, suggest the student has a look during the break. You can also build a simple website, like this one, to act as an extension of the classroom materials.

How can I make this work for me?

SDL is best used when:

  • There are small or simple tasks the audience needs to know before you can move forward. This is sometimes called pre-work and has been used in as a requirement for trainings and classes.
  • A learner is struggling during class but you are unable to a)spend anymore time on the subject, b) provide the depth of knowledge necessary for understanding or c) adjust the lesson to address his/her preferred learning style.
  • A learner is excelling and requires more stimulus to remain engaged in the lesson.

Want to give it a shot? Download this Adult Learning Application Cheatsheet to get started.

Using Learning Contracts to Facilitate Success

Learning contracts can be a great tool to clearly define course or training expectations for the instructor/trainer and the student/employee. Although an employer may hope that information provided in a training environment is clear and relevant, it’s necessary to take into account context. Your audience needs to know why they are learning this information and how they are expected to apply it.  Take a look at the learning contract (above or view the PDF here) and course description (below), that I created for my sample ‘Data Management Across Systems’.

Sample Course: Data Management Across Systems

Course Description

This course has been designed to assist Data Administrators in evaluating current data collection systems in their department or company. Regardless of the size or purpose of your organization, you collect data in one form or another. Some of us are used to the old paper and pen method while some of us are almost completely digital. Both systems have pros and cons, which we will discuss in this course. Knowing the reason your company collects various types of data, who the responsible parties are and what the output format will be, has a great bearing on the systems you use and the issues you will face. We will take a look at all of these factors over the next 5 weeks to help you lead or support the implementation of more accurate and robust data collection.


Creation of a Learning Contract

Each of you come from a different background and may have slightly different expectations for this course. The purpose of this learning contract is to ensure each student sets and completes his/her objectives. The contract is between the student and the instructor, created as a way to clearly communicate course expectations for both parties. It will be completed at the end of the first week so that you have an idea of the material that will be covered and the options for projects used to demonstrate learning.

This contract should be personal to you and focus on what you intend to get out of this course. To help you begin this process, please complete the KWL chart provided on the first day of class. Use this document, along with the course description to begin developing objectives. During the submission of the Learning Contract, the instructor will meet with you to provide feedback. Once it is finalized, both the instructor and the student will agree on at least one in-person check-in and sign the contract. A copy will go to the student, one to the instructor and one will be kept on file with the department, to be revisited during the follow up meetings to ensure the objectives are being met.

After reading through the information, think about how learning contracts can be introduced in your learning environment to facilitate success.  Does this change the way you approach teaching or training? Are there any aspects of this that you can implement now?

Finding the Ideal Solution: 3 Approaches to Problem Solving


I may have mentioned taking a few courses through So far, I’ve found the Problem Solving 101 course invaluable as it explores the topic in depth, including the identification and allocation of resources, objective and subjective input, and evaluation of outcomes. Moreover, introduces three main categories for to consider when faced with problems in the workplace (or everyday life).

First Approach – Pretty Straightforward

The first category is referred to as the “stop it and mop it” scenario. In this situation, there is an event, behavior or condition that you need to stop from happening, as well as clean up the existing damage. Imagine that you are a landlord and your tenants are complaining about mice eating through the walls. To stop this, you hire an exterminator to find out where the mice are coming from and place baits or traps to catch them. To ‘mop it’, or clean it up, you have the exterminator locate likely areas existing mice might nest and place baits there as well. You also hire a contractor to come in and fix all the places the mice have chewed through. With these items in place, the problem should be resolved.

Second Approach – Some Concessions Are Made

The next situation employs the “current reality vs ideal” scenario. In this case, what is happening in the now does not match up with predetermined expectations or goals. To demonstrate, we’ll use student enrollment as an example. You currently have 250 students enrolled in your school but the Department of Education has budgeted you for 300 students. This means you are 50 students short of the goal. There are two ways to approach the issue and the one you chose depends heavily on which holds the most acceptable outcome:

  • Option 1: Adjust the goal. Is it unlikely that you’ll get another 50 students? Is it possible to increase by 25 students instead? How will this affect your goals and budgets for the remainder of the school year? What about next year?
  • Option 2: Attempt to meet the goal. While this seems like the obvious first choice, it may not be possible. In this example, your pool of students is inherently limited by things like zoning, number of students eligible, class sizes and competing schools. This means that even if you recruit all remaining students, you may still fall short. However, this option might be easier to implement when dealing with products or services, as you can increase production, hire more staff, adjust hours, etc.

Third Approach – Hard work for Lasting Payoff

The third approach to problem solving is the “opportunity for change” scenario. This is best applied to a situation where the problem is something with room for improvement. Perhaps you supervise a call center. You discover that employees spend an average of 5 minutes searching the company database for answers to commonly asked questions. While this might not directly translate into dollars lost, it does affect how many customers can be served. It can also have a negative impact on the way customers view your company. After all, how many of us have spent hours on the phone with the cable company trying to do something as simple as reset a router? This sort of issue, under the right management, can be turned into a learning experience for everyone. Determining whether staff needs better resources, guidance or training can improve or eliminate the problem altogether.

To summarize, there are three main ways to categorize and resolve problems. At the most basic level, each categorization requires identifying what the problem is and then determining what the anticipated outcome is. Approaching adverse situations in this manner can help you structure processes and procedures to avoid similar issues in the future.

Collaborative Learning in Adult Education

Given as a project in my Processes and Methods course, this website was created to explain the what, why and how of collaborative learning. The most concise definition I’ve found comes from Cornell University for Teaching Excellence (quote below):

Collaborative learning is based on the view that knowledge is a social construct. Collaborative activities are most often based on four principles:

  • The learner or student is the primary focus of instruction.
  • Interaction and “doing” are of primary importance
  • Working in groups is an important mode of learning.
  • Structured approaches to developing solutions to real-world problems should be incorporated into learning.

Group work or collaborative learning can take a variety of forms, such as quick, active learning activities in class or more involved group projects that span the course of a semester.


Collaborative Learning Resources

Utilizing Multiple Intelligences to Problem Solve in Business

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences suggests intelligence is not solely defined by IQ.
Instead, human beings learn and excel in areas for which they have an aptitude. The seven intelligences
described are visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic and
logical-mathematical. In relation to problem solving, it is thought that assembling a team to include a
combination of these intelligences can positively impact the team perspective and results.

To demonstrate the pairing of different intelligences, consider the process of presenting data.
You’ve done the research, come up with the numbers, and run a dozen what-if scenarios in Excel.
You’re very proud of this complex document you’ve created and you can’t wait to share it. But how? To
you, it makes perfect sense but what about Dennis, who happily admits numbers are not his thing? Or
Karen, who tends to drift off when presentations read more like academic papers? The truth is, just
because they learn and interpret data differently doesn’t mean there’s anything personally wrong with
your approach. It does mean that you should seek input, maybe even theirs, to decide how to present
this material to better reach your audience. The addition of charts, videos, or a mnemonic device done
to the beat of The Bee Gees “Staying Alive” can have a greater impact than just text.

Beyond the technical aspects in the above example, consulting with someone better versed in
interpersonal relations and/or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence can assist you in keeping people like
Karen mentally engaged. Reading body language and understanding the motivations of your audience
is a great tool to ensure that information is getting through to everyone.

Creating A Positive Learning Environment

If you haven’t gotten a chance to, I highly recommend reading Ralph Brockett’s Teaching Adults: A Practical Guide for New Teachers. Assigned in my Processes and Methods course, it is wonderfully written and addresses many of the common concerns facing new teachers, or those who, after evaluating their current positions, find themselves in this unexpected role.

Even if you have been in this role for years, I think there is some benefit in viewing our students and classrooms through the eyes of someone who learned to teach incidentally. Like many of us, Brockett was asked to facilitate a course without any formal training as an educator. Through years of similar experiences, he has written this book to pass on what he considers the keys to becoming a successful of adults.

In the very first chapter, he describes 7 fundamental aspects of achieving success as an educator and lists them in this easy to remember acronym – TEACHER. For this post, I’d like to focus on respect as a fundamental component to creating a positive classroom environment.

Respecting Your Learners

In my opinion, respect is much easier to demonstrate than it is to describe. It’s inherent in our actions, in the way that we treat and speak to each other and in the way we treat the experiences of others. Your learners are able to discern whether or not you place value on them as individuals through a variety of social cues, included but not limited to whether you show up on time for the course, came prepared, ask them questions or otherwise engage with them before, during, after and even outside of class, and whether you consider answers or feedback that they share with you or dismiss it out of hand.

As an educator, you not only have the opportunity to set the tone with your students from the outset of the course, but also the chance to examine your own expectations of respectful behavior and identify areas in which you further develop. Do you have a tendency to cut people off or formulate answers while someone else is explaining theirs? Would you appreciate this behavior if it came from a student? The likely answer is no, which means that you have some work to do as well.

Be up front with learner about how you will interact with them and hold yourself accountable to the same standards you set for them. If being on time is a sign of respect, then you should be on time (and communicate when the unavoidable happens). If you expect learners to wait for you or another to finish speaking before they can take a turn, you should also be ready to hear everyone out, whether you agree or disagree with their statement.

In addition to your actions, you’ll also need to be aware of your tone of voice and verbal and physical ‘tics’. While you may be trying to convey sympathy or understanding, your learning may interpret it as condescension. At a recent observation, my husband, a Visual Arts teacher, was told that he has specific – and very obvious – facial expressions that indicate when he ‘strongly disagrees’ with someone. I had a similar reaction when someone asked me a question that seemed self-explanatory or that I’d already answered. My knee-jerk reaction was to say ‘if you were paying attention during x,y,z‘ or ‘if you read the assigned reading’, – both of which not-so-subtly imply that it wasn’t my fault if you didn’t understand. I quickly discovered that those responses made my learners feel disrespected, as if I didn’t trust them to do the research, to follow directions, to essentially behave like an adult. I immediately changed my approach to incorporate active listening techniques to demonstrate that was listening to what they were saying and that I needed more information to help them. Instead of saying ‘if you read the report from Wednesday‘, I’ll ask ‘after reading the report from Wednesday, did you find that x didn’t work as you expected? Can you walk me through what you’ve done so far?’ What this translates to is this: I assume the best of you, I trust that you tried to solve this problem on your own, I’m interested in learning from you and I want to know how I can help.

Whether you’re in a classroom or workplace, setting expectations around how you and your learners will treat each other helps build an environment where people feel comfortable in exploring new material and supported in their journey to grow personally and professionally.

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