6 Adult Learning Principles You Should Use During Safety Training


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Before you read any further, let's do a quick check.

Are you in safety/EHS and do your responsibilities include safety/EHS training?

If so, that's a good sign that you'll find this article relevant.

Next, take a moment to think about the people you provide safety/EHS training to. Are they adults?

If so, things are looking very promising for you and this article.

Because in this article, we're going to take a look at something called adult learning principles and see how keeping them in mind when you design, develop, and deliver safety/EHS training can make your training more effective. Which of course means your training will create a healthier, safer work environment.

We'll even give you some tips and examples of how to apply adult learning principles, and try to clear up some confusion about the multiple different lists of adult learning principles you'll find if you do a Google search for the term.

Adult Learning Principles for Safety Training

If you're in charge of providing safety training at a workplace, then you're in charge of helping adults learn.

And if you're in charge of helping adults learn, it's useful to know that specifically because they're adults, there are things that you can do to make your efforts to help them learn more effective.

As a group, those "things" are called adult learning principles. Let's learn more about them.

Why Do Adult Learning Principles Matter?

Let's start by asking why so-called "adult learning principles" matter.

In short, there are at least two reasons:

  1. Adults learn differently than kids do
  2. If you don't design, develop, and deliver training in a manner that's consistent with how your training audience learns (which in the case of most workplace safety training means how adults learn), your training will be ineffective

Let's look at each a little more. Along the way, we'll learn a third tip, too.

1. Adults Learn Differently Than Kids Do

Think back to two different learning experiences from back when you were a kid (if you can't remember these yourself, think of kids you know).

First, think of a young child in his/her everyday life. The kid is constantly learning everything. How to tie shoelaces. How to ride a bike. How to speak languages. At this age, the brain is like a sponge soaking up knowledge.

But adults don't have that ability quite as much. There are changes in the brain that happen around puberty that are partly responsible for this. And there are other reasons for this too, some of which we'll touch on below. I'm not an expert in how children learn, but if you're curious, here's an article that touches on the differences a bit more. If you're well-versed in this issue, feel free to inform us all in the Comments section below.

Second, think of your experiences going to school. You were content to go to third grade, for example, and sit down and learn about topics like math, science, and literature in an exhaustive, encyclopedic manner. In many cases, your learning was entirely directed by your teacher. And often, there was no real practical application or direct relevance to your life.

Adults don't (and typically won't) learn in a situation like this.

(Caveat: If you're thinking "well, I'm not sure kids really learn so well in situations like that either," I get your point. I remember being in school and finding some of those approaches boring and irrelevant, and I have two twenty-year old daughters and we had plenty of discussions about effective and ineffective education practices as they made their way through junior high and high school not so long ago. But again, the article's focus isn't on how to teach kids, and I'm no expert on the topic.)

2. Design Training for How People Learn

The second point, which follows directly from the first, is that if people learn in specific ways, it's important to design, develop, and deliver training materials that are "aligned" with the ways in which people learn.

If you align your training with how people learn, people have a better chance of learning, and you'll see better outcomes at work as the result of your training. That seems simple enough, right?

And if you completely ignore this issue, and create training experiences that are at odds with how your workers learn, people will have less a chance of learning, and you're likely to see worse outcomes at work as a result of your training.

There's an entire field devoted to how people learn called Instructional Design. It's worth taking lessons from these experts if you're in safety training. Adult learning principles are certainly one of those "tips from the pros" you can use to make your training better.

If you'd like to investigate this issue a little more on your own (beyond the adult learning principles we'll cover below), here are JUST A FEW additional resources:

3. Different Lists of Adult Learning Principles

If you do a quick Google search for "adult learning principles" and start reading around, you'll find you won't find the exact same list everywhere you look.

But that's OK, and in general, they're all pretty similar and consistent.

Since there are different lists of adult learning principles, we're going to give two separate lists in this article:

  1. An "original" list created by the famous learning theorist Malcolm Knowles
  2. The adult learning principles listed in ANSI Z490.1, the (U.S.) National Standard of Criteria for accepted Practices in Safety, Health, and Environmental Training (for more about this, read our multi-article series on ANSI Z490.1 and/or download our free Guide to Effective EHS Training)

We'll give a little more attention to the list from Knowles, but we do want you to be aware of the list from ANSI Z490.1 as well, and we agree with both lists.

Adult Learning Principles With Safety Training Examples

Here is the list of adult learning principles created by Malcolm Knowles.

Adult learners1:

  1. Are self-directed
  2. Bring a lifetime of knowledge and experience to training
  3. Are goal-oriented
  4. Want training to be relevant and task-oriented
  5. Learn when they are motivated to learn
  6. Like to be and feel respected

So there you have it—six simple principles.

How can you design safety training that uses these principles and gives the learning and safety results you want?

Let's look at each principle in more detail.
Adult Learners Are Self-Directed Image

1. Adult Learners Are Self-Directed

In general, what do you like to do? Make your own decisions or have them made for you? Most adults like to make their own. And that applies to adults who are learning on the job, too.

What Does This Mean In a Safety and Safety Training Context?

Give your employees a role in developing their safety program and safety training program. Consult them during JHAs; ask what they think should be covered in weekly safety tailgate talks; make sure they feel included in the safety and health program and the safety training instead of feeling like children being lectured at by a parent; when possible, allow them to complete "equivalent" training in various formats (such as online e-learning or instructor-led) to suit their personal preferences; consider making training available on mobile devices when possible.

How to Design Your Safety Training Accordingly

  • Remember that trainers help employees guide themselves through the learning process.
  • When possible, allow employees freedom to take assigned training activities in the order they want to.
  • When leading instructor-led training, emphasize discussions, collaborations, and active learning exercises and minimize lecturing.
  • Provide training that allows employees to use leadership, judgment, and decision-making and that helps employees foster these abilities.
  • Involve employees in the development of training materials; seek their input.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to assess their own levels of learning.
  • Provide active training materials—discussions, hands-on exercises, problem-solving scenarios.
  • Make it possible for employees to access training materials on an elective basis when they need it instead or in addition to just when your want to deliver them.

Important note: In some cases, employees have been conditioned to be passive learners. Initially, you may have to make it clear to your employees that you value their participation and encourage them to do so.
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2. Adult Learners Have Life Experiences

When adults learn new information and skills, they "associate" that new learning with information and experiences they already have. As a result, it's important to know adults are going to relate concepts from training to their own experiences. It's also important to know that there's a higher chance they'll remember concepts from training if you help the employees relate the new concepts to prior knowledge.

If you're interested in more information about how this works, check the following articles and watch for mentions of the word "schemas:"

What Does This Mean In a Safety and Safety Training Context?

Your employees have lots of experience related to safety--at home, from previous workplaces, and of course at your workplace, where they probably know as much as managers (and even you) on certain topics. Welcome their perspectives, input, and knowledge. Ask them about hazards and how best to control them; ask for input to find the best safety training methods; ask them to share their own safety experiences during training sessions.

How to Design Your Safety Training Accordingly

  • Ask for employee input when training materials are being developed.
  • Begin training by asking employees what they already know or believe on the topic you'll cover.
  • During training, ask employees for their own opinions and experiences.
  • Connect their previous experiences to the new training materials.
  • When introducing new concepts and ideas, use similes, metaphors, analogies, and comparisons to things your employees already know.
  • Remember that each individual may have had different experiences and may hold different opinions; remain receptive to all.
  • Be prepared to address people whose opinions are different than the training and may in fact be correct.
  • Be prepared to respectfully address people whose opinions based on past experience are mistaken.
  • Incorporate the experience of your employees into your safety training program.
  • Provide ways for employees to offer feedback on their training.

Adult Learners Are Goal Oriented Image

3. Adult Learners Are Goal-Oriented

Adults rarely sit down to study just to study. It's a romantic notion, but in reality there's not a lot of "learning for learning's sake" going on in the adult world (sure, there are exceptions, granted).

Instead, people often engage in learning because they have a specific, concrete goal they want to meet. They want a degree so they can enter a new professional field. They want to learn a new skill so they can get a promotion. They want to learn about a new machine so they can use it without getting their arm chopped off.

What Does This Mean In a Safety and Safety Training Context?

This is easy. Don't lecture abstractly about safety. Instead, make sure they realize that safety is about something they care about--their own hands, their own eyes, their own ability to earn a paycheck, their own ability to support themselves and their families, and their own lives. Plus all the same things for their coworkers. That's a goal all workers can buy into. In addition, make it clear what the objective is for each safety training event--let them know where they're going in advance.

How to Design Your Safety Training Accordingly

  • Provide training that leads to a clear, desired goal, such as a raise, new job opportunity, better self-esteem, more responsibilities, or safer work conditions.
  • Explain during training how the training will help lead to the desired goal; help your employees see “what’s in it for them.”
  • Focus on training in which they "do" something instead of simply get to "know" something.
  • Always create learning objectives before training development begins and make sure your training sticks to those learning objectives.

Adult Learners Are Task-Oriented Image

4. Adult Learners Want Training to Be Relevant and Task-Oriented

In school, kids study large fields of study such as chemistry, physics, and math. The average adult isn't likely to do that. Instead, they want training that's more "bite sized" and that teaches them to perform specific tasks. And they want to know they'll use those tasks in their life and/or on their jobs. Soon.

What Does This Mean In a Safety and Safety Training Context?

Don't pull out a 500-page book on EHS training--as valuable and informative as it probably is--and start reading from cover to cover. Don't explain and entire OSHA regulation (yawn). Likewise, don't train every employee about every conceivable safety hazard at the site.

Instead, tell each employee about the hazards they will face while performing their job tasks. And tell them how to work safely in the presence of those hazards.

How to Design Your Safety Training Accordingly

  • Create training programs that focus exclusively on the material the employee needs to know; get rid of additional material.
  • Create learning activities that are task-based or that emphasize problem-solving.
  • Provide training that the learner can immediately transfer to completing a task or solving a problem in his or her work.
  • Provide training with a clear relation to the employee’s current job or desired future job.

Adult Learners Learn When They're Motivated Image

5. Adult Learners Learn When They Are Motivated to Learn

When do you eat? When you're hungry or when someone tells you?

When do you sleep? When you're sleepy or when someone tells you?

You get the idea, I hope. In general, we do things when we want to--when we're self-motivated to do them. The same is true with learning. We learn when we are motivated to learn.

What Does This Mean In a Safety and Safety Training Context?

It's true that safety/compliance regulations enforce certain training requirements and that's out of your control, but you've still got a lot of room on this one.

Try giving workers options, and try to show why specific safety topics are of interest to them.

How to Design Your Safety Training Accordingly

  • Provide training in small “chunks” shortly before the time it’s needed on the job; avoid providing a large amount of training with the expectation that workers will keep it all in mind until sometime in the distant future.
  • Include explanations of how the training is relevant.
  • Follow guidelines above, including keeping training focused on relevant tasks.
  • Consider making training available on an optional, on-demand basis so workers can complete it when/if they want
  • Make training available in more mediums, such as through online training
  • Make training available on mobile devices and directly in the work area.
  • Allow employees time for training so that job demands won't sap them of their motivation to train.

6. Adult Learners Like to Be and Feel Respected

This is pretty self-evident. We all do better in situations when we feel respected, and we often do poorly or don't engage in situations when we feel disrespected.

What Does This Mean In a Safety and Safety Training Context?

Some of the stuff we've mentioned earlier will go a long way toward satisfying this one. Seek out and then incorporate your employees' advice on safety in their work areas. Explain why you're not taking their advice in those cases. Consult them about safety issues and safety training topics. Make them feel like a partner in safety and safety training. Ask them to lead discussions during actual safety training sessions-let them take ownership when you can.

Do safety walk-arounds and talk to employees (and emphasize listening when you do this). Have a suggestion box, and act on those suggestions.

In short, value them as people and value their opinions and experiences. They'll wind up being better, more productive, and safer workers. And you might learn a lot from them, too. Plus they'll probably like you better.

How to Design Your Safety Training Accordingly

  • Always be polite and respectful to employees.
  • During training, ensure that a supportive, respectful atmosphere is always maintained.
  • Don’t assume you know everything and they know nothing; welcome all opinions.
  • Don't just welcome all opinions; seek them out.
  • Create and use post-training learner surveys (smile sheets).
  • Create training that’s focused on the needs of the learner.

The Adult Learning Principles Listed in ANSI Z490.1, the National Standard for Safety Training

Although we focused on the list of adult learning principles created by Knowles, we do want to provide the list that's included in ANSI Z490.1.

If you're not familiar with ANSI Z490.1, it's a U.S. national standard put out by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and created by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) that presents "Criteria for Accepted Practices in Safety, Health, and Environmental Training."

Here's the list from Z490.1 (E5.2.4):

  • Treat trainees with respect
  • Recognize and respond to individual learning styles
  • Exercise professional judgment in managing difficult situations or participants
  • Show flexibility in tone and pace of subject delivery to accommodate the needs of the trainees
  • Coach and counsel trainees to maximize the learning experience
  • Value the varied experience levels brought to the training event by the trainees
  • Encourage active participation from all trainees

We don't mean any disrespect to the Z490.1 list because we just listed them. They cover a lot of the same ground as our earlier list, we agree with everything on this second list, and hey, there's only so much you can write in one day, right?

Our Adult Learning Principles Online Course

For more information on this, consider our online training course about adult learning principles for the workplace. That's a short sample, below.

Summary: Adult Learning Principles for Safety Training

It’s critical to create safety training materials that are learner-centered, but very easy to forget this and create training that neglects the needs of your employees.

One simple thing you can do to make your safety training program more learner-centered is to (a) remember that your employees are adults and (b) make sure your training materials make use of the adult learning principles we just covered. If you do this, you’ll see positive results in your safety training program and where it matters the most--in safety at the workplace.

Notes: 1. The adult learning principles listed here are drawn from the original work of Malcolm S. Knowles. Knowles’ adult learning principles are sometimes known as andragogy (from the Greek words for “man” and “leading”).

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