Given the aging of the American workforce, “Organizations that learn how to train older workers effectively could stand to gain a significant competitive advantage over those that ignore those demographic trends.” So wrote management researchers Judith Callahan, Scott Kiker, and Tom Cross in a study published in the Journal of Management.
Little research had been done to determine comprehensively which training factors work best for older adults, the researchers said. They decided to analyze data in all of the relevant research studies to determine the relative effectiveness for older adult learning of seven variables shown useful in training younger people:
The scientists surveyed around 350 studies to find 41 that specifically tested their variables in training of people 40 or older. Most of the participants were 60 or older. In the studies, the effectiveness of each variable was measured using results of knowledge or skill tests at the end of the training.
Compared to younger learners, the article said, older workers take more responsibility for their learning, have more experience, “are task or problem-centered,” and “need to know why they must learn something before undertaking learning it.” Although the authors thought lecture formats would not improve adult performance, the data proved them wrong: lecturing was effective. But as expected, modeling and active participation also helped significantly.
Among the instruction factors, only “self-pacing” and “group size” made a difference with older adults. The use of supplementary materials and feedback did not significantly improve learning. Group size had the same effect it has with younger learners, with bigger groups producing less learning. In short, self-paced learning in small groups incorporating a combination of lecture, modeling, and active-participation teaching methods had the most positive effects on adult learning.
The terms “lecture” and “self-paced” may seem contradictory. The combination suggests using lectures to provide the basic information, and then creating opportunities for progressive modeling and participation as the person feels ready. A significant focus of the lectures should be explaining to the students how learning the course material will help them.
Spending time to create detailed training materials also seemed unnecessary. The student guide could instead serve as a reference work hitting the main points, with room for notes, allowing the student to add details fitting his or her needs.
Source: Callahan, J., S. Kiker, and T. Cross (2003), “Does Method Matter? A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Training Method on Older Learner Training Performance,” Journal of Management 29(5):663.