Motivation in Adult Education

One of the most important topics for educators to understand is learner motivation. While it’s certainly a concern for any teacher, it’s especially important for those of us who teach adults, for a few different reasons.

First, in many situations, adults have chosen to be in our classes. Even when someone is taking a required course (for example, a class on business software that they need for their job), they often are in a position to choose from among several options. As a result, if they find a particular teacher unappealing they will “vote with their feet.” Negative reviews on a website or in a community can have a lasting impact on our success as teachers.

Second, when learners are motivated, they become more engaged with the process of learning. Most teachers report that increased engagement tends to spread to include other learners. As a result, the overall satisfaction increases dramatically.

Third, when our learners are more motivated, it makes teaching more fun. While it can sometimes be challenging to keep a group on target when the energy is high, there’s no denying that many teachers find that they enjoy teaching more when they can see the impact of their hard work. That’s much more likely when the learners are motivated.

Unfortunately, many educators don’t know how to foster motivation and help it grow. I’ve observed that for some teachers, it’s because they feel such enthusiasm for the topic that they forget that not everyone does. Other teachers seem to think that learning should be a process of quietly absorbing a lecture, even though many people simply don’t learn well in those settings. Some educators seem to want to focus on the content without dealing with all of those “messy” emotions. But an emotional connection with the material creates deeper learning and better retention. And there are teachers who have never learned how to support motivation and are simply ignorant of how it can help them.

My understanding of learner motivation comes from Dr. Raymond Wlodkowski, who offers the insight that motivation is an emergent phenomenon that requires two ingredients: safety and relevance. When these two elements are present, motivation naturally arises. Trying to “make our learners feel more motivated” often results in frustration because we can’t make someone feel anything. Instead, we can create the circumstances that foster motivation and provide the room it needs to come out.

Of course, what constitutes safety and relevance will vary quite a bit. Each topic, each audience, and each setting will require a different approach to each. Fortunately, there are some general principles that we can use to plan our classes, as well as some tools that make it easier. I’ll discuss these in future posts.

The important thing, I think, is for teachers to learn to integrate how they support motivation into their lesson plans. It’s an effort that reaps huge rewards and in my experience, it’s well worth the effort.

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