5 Ways to Keep Adult Learners Engaged

The year was 2002. It was the first time I ever stood in front of a classroom of “grown-ups”. The students didn’t know me or care who I was — a TA at LSU covering a College Algebra class. The topic was logarithms. Specifically, an introduction to logs as the inverse of an exponent. I may have been slightly older than the median age of those students and I was terrified, nervous, and profusely sweating.

Up until that moment, I thought deep content knowledge was the secret sauce of teaching. But in the 17 years of experiences that followed, I’ve learned how much MORE there is to teaching than merely knowing your stuff. Student buy-in is the key to student engagement and, ultimately, student learning.

As a corporate trainer I’ve found adults are no different from kids in how they learn and how they engage. It all depends on the trainer’s ability to read the room and adapt as needed.

I compiled the list below after 17 years of total instruction including college algebra and statistics, high school math and AP Statistics, and corporate training for data analysts. I’m sure I will update this list in the future, but at this point, reflecting on my own feedback and observing other trainers, these are the top points I find trainers miss.

Please note this list is not exhaustive and assumes you follow the basic tenants of instruction such as: knowing your audience, knowing your content, preparing x 10, taking breaks every 60 – 75 minutes, beginning promptly after a break, being approachable, avoiding excessive talk and rabbit holes, Rule of 3, minimizing powerpoint, summarizing major points, etc. So here you go – 5 ways to improve student engagement.

1. Be Adaptable.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

– Charles Darwin

I’ve entered a classroom to discover the WiFi down. Many times. There have been a few unannounced fire drills, some medical emergencies, that time the projector bulb blew — all derailing my meticulously-planned lesson. But the show must go on!

If something goes wrong, keep calm but think on your feet. Focus on keeping the students engaged first. So if the students have working laptops and the only problem is a projector (or your laptop), get them started. Walk around the room teaching the concepts you’d planned to teach from the front. Ask the students questions, have them come up with solutions.

Tech completely down? Ask yourself, “What is the goal of this class?” It’s not easy to teach a tech-driven class with a whiteboard, but it can be done (and here’s hoping the WiFi will be up soon). In fact, if you teach a workshop using a software or only technology, I would urge you to get in the habit of adding in low-tech activities for those “just in case” moments.

Pro Tip: Oftentimes you can lead the students to an a-ha moment or two, then request IT support at the next break.

According to The Oxford Review, adaptability in the workplace is related to one’s emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. And, of course, mindset.

Lastly, being adapatable also means being coachable. Everyone gets frustrated from negative evaluations/feedback at times. But try to step back and ask yourself if you could have improved the delivery. Making tweaks to your performance based on student feedback can help YOU in the long run. Being coachable does NOT mean you give up confidence. You are the professional, but all great professionals learn from feedback and reflection.

2. Don’t Fake it.

It’s okay to admit you don’t know the answer to a question. Saying, “I’ll find out and get back to you” is not a weakness. What’s not okay is making up an answer. “Fake it til you make it” is NOT a mantra of teaching. Especially when you have Google.

“When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth.”

– Khaled Hosseini

If you’re worried about questions, I recommend giving everyone sticky notes at the beginning of the class. Encourage students to ask questions. If a question comes up that is not relevant to the topic at hand OR if you don’t know the exact answer, ask the student to write down their question. Create a space on the wall for participants to stick these questions up (some trainers call this a “parking lot”) and on breaks, take some time to research and answer the questions. I would strongly recommend you DON’T take class time to do said research.

And oh the mistakes I’ve made when teaching. Some embarrassing. It happens. And it is important to own those mistakes, especially if you can turn it into a “teaching moment.” For example, I once observed a new math teacher square a binomial incorrectly. A COMMON mistake among students. So instead of (x+2)^2 = (x+2)*(x+2), she (without thinking about it) squared both terms, making (x+2)^2 = x^2 + 4. Whoops. A big mistake in the math world, but really not a big deal when she stopped herself, realizing her mistake, and laughed about it. Then explained that was an example of what NOT to do.

Squaring a binomial incorrectly may not be your mistake, but you will make one (probably many). But to err is human. And there is plenty of research out there to suggest an HONEST teacher is a TRUSTWORTHY teacher. People LIKE honest teachers, especially when it comes to their own flaws.

3. Use People’s Names.

“Go the extra mile. It’s never crowded.”

-Author Unknown

Names are powerful. Dale Carnegie once said, “A person’s name is, to him or her, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When someone takes the time to learn and use your name, you feel important. Which means using a person’s name in conversation is the quickest way to connect with them on a personal level — and therefore promotes positive classroom engagement.

Generally, people also enjoy talking about themselves. Which is a great way to learn their name. On the very first day, after I introduce myself, I give participants the opportunity to introduce themselves and say a few words. You probably already do this. And I use this as an opportunity to learn their name — I write it down then say their name aloud (so they hear it AND to help me remember). Creating a blank seating chart ahead of time is always helpful – this way I can jot down the name and an interesting fact while they speak, creating a reference for later in the course.

My friend and colleague Ryan Nokes remembers names much better than I do, impressing his classes by learning every name immediately! After preliminary introductions he says each person’s name, first to last person, and states their name (without notes). And then Ryan does it again at the start of the next day. People enjoy hearing their own names and are pleased when you remember them later

I teach hands-on courses and encourage constant interaction. When calling on students, I use their first name, careful not to just point to them. When talking to them one on one, I use their name. And by the way, please use the name they gave you. NOT their government name. FYI, I cringe when people call me, “Annamarie.”

Many articles have been published around the power of names. If you aren’t sure about the power of using a name, start here.

4. Move Around the Room.

“Nothing happens until something moves”

-Albert Einstein

Moving around the room, when done correctly, increases participant engagement.

When I teach, I rarely sit down. Moving around the room allows me to interact with each student one-on-one and check for their understanding. This proximity also allows the more reluctant talker/questioner to ask their burning question when they know the entire class won’t hear them. And, dare I say it: Moving around the room keeps you in control.

This is why you hear grade school teachers say they never sit down. K-12 teachers use physical proximity to manage their classrooms. Being interested in each student’s learning promotes positive behaviors and keep students on task. In the same way, walking around keeps adults out of their inbox. And you won’t ever hear me criticize a training participant about their email/phone use in class (despite it being a bit irritating — I mean, you DID sign up to be here) because when they expect me to move their direction, they self monitor and correct these behaviors themselves, often apologizing.

Note: I do try to give every group/person an equal amount of “attention” without lingering anywhere too long.

Educational research also promotes student movement around the room. So when delivering instruction, I like to create activities that make students/groups visualize data by hand – on a white board or big 3M sticky poster. Or even a post-it. “Around the room” activities could also include giving other groups positive feedback or presenting a new discovery in their data.

5. Seat People with Similar Experience-Levels Together.

When dealing with heterogeneous groups of participants.

“We are more powerful when we empower each other.”

-Unknown

After years of hoopla over the concept of “tracking students”, this tip might surprise you. How many times have you heard someone say, “Pair a low with a high?” And, while this strategy could work in certain courses and situations, it is, overall, an outdated practice.

Imagine. You have a grasp of the basics of a particular data visualization tool and use it weekly. A colleague in the same course has only installed the software that morning. Your instructor teams you up so you can “help” your colleague. How does this make you feel? At first, it might feel rewarding — you know the answers! However, in many situations the person doing the “helping” ends up feeling like they didn’t grow in their domain while the person being helped can eventually feel inadequate and frustrated.

No matter how well we market a course (“beginner”, “advanced”, etc) there will always be a heterogeneous group of abilities when I walk in to start instruction. And this is the way it always is — K12 or corporate training. So I can either roll my eyes and teach the outline as prescribed, pacing the middle of all abilities, or I can help all learners by differentiating my instruction a bit.

I’m not talking about group projects here — I only mean seating participants of like abilities near each other for an improved user experience. Of course in a training situation, this arrangement has more to do with experience levels — of which they can self-sort. I generally ask students “new” to the software to sit in the front, and others to sit behind them. That’s all that is usually needed.

But let’s look at the origins of this thought: When used appropriately, “flexible grouping” — pairing and grouping students based on need — can aid student learning on both ends of the experience spectrum. This can be homogeneous or heterogeneous groups. And how you utilize it matters. If you must pair high/low, do it only for a short time. (Because I’ve had students ask me, “Am I the dumb one or the smart one?”)

In the long run, research suggests pairing/seating students with similar abilities/experience in a domain (or software) engages all students. And if done correctly, actually improves their learning experience and accelerates their growth. How? If you’re already moving around the room (see #4 above), then it should make sense that you can tailor your instruction much easier to pairs/groups of similar background knowledge than if they are scattered around the room. Think about it — when you are helping a group of participants who are relatively new to the topic or software, you can give a “you try” practice problem to enrich or even accelerate the other group to work on their own, and vice versa. Peer pairing/grouping on similar experience levels also encourages those students to develop a deeper understanding of the topic together, rather than the back-and-forth waiting that occurs when unlike abilities are grouped.

Personally, I mix up my delivery — some whole group instruction, some partner work, maybe an activity in a group, and solo work. Pairing them up encourages dialog about the concepts while they work through a challenge. Groups can offer multiple points of view. Solo work helps the student think through the problem on their own. Since my classes are always hands-on I incorporate the process of I do, we do, you do. But I do start with seating like experience levels together.

Last Note

Being a teacher (or instructor, or coach) does require multiple skill sets including: entertainer, orchestra conductor, problem-solver, mind reader, therapist, referee, and cheerleader. However, promoting student engagement (teens and adults alike) goes beyond preparing a “fun lesson.” Student engagement results from student buy-in. And student buy-in results from the little things that create a positive atmosphere.

I’m going to add to this list over time. Do you have any suggestions on how you promote adult student engagement?

Published by

Anna Foard

Former math and statistics teacher. Current statistical analyst, data visualization enthusiast, business development specialist at Velocity Group in Atlanta.

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