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How do adults learn?

By Darby Jones

SUMMARY: Where there’s connection, there’s education. Ensure you’re making the impact you want by learning all about learning.

People soak up information when they are in an environment conducive to learning. You could take postgraduate psychology classes on this subject, but we’ve condensed it into key points that are easy to incorporate.

Adults learn the most when:

  • They are in control of the learning process.
  • They are respected for their views.
  • The teacher is not arrogant.
  • The teaching builds on previous learning experiences.
  • Teachers cater to surprisingly short attention spans.
  • Teaching methods are varied to include discussion groups, role-play, drama, questionnaires, etc.
  • They can come to their own conclusions based on information that is offered to them without pressure.
  • The environment is friendly and informal and incorporates humor.
  • They know the teacher walks the talk.
  • The teaching has one clear message.

Adults will not absorb all the information you offer if some or all of these elements are missing. Here are some strategies that will help.

  • Learn the principles of Permission Evangelism, a book you can order through Cokesbury.
  • Trust the experts. One hour of one-way dialogue is at least 40 minutes too much. After 10 minutes, people are saturated with information. By 20 minutes, the heart rate is dropping. At 30 minutes, shining faces turn into fixed glazes. Eventually sleep takes some of your audience. At this point, your alarm should be sounding. To avoid “code red,” break your one-way presentation into segments of no more than 20 minutes.
  • Keep articles and website copy short and to the point.
  • Questions, demonstrations or video clips provide good breaks to allow the mind to compartmentalize information. More information is retained when people have time to think about or process it.
  • Messages incorporating visuals or humor are easier to remember.
  • Invite people to use their spiritual gifts to help you teach. Let them provide demonstrations, skits or testimonies.
  • Learn people’s interests and use that knowledge to draw them into your message or website. This may seem like common sense, but research, including simple surveys, is a step that many communicators skip.
  • Assume that people have little or no understanding of Christian words and concepts. Speak conversationally, instead of didactically. You will engage learners more deeply through dialogue if everyone is speaking the same language.
  • Build opportunities for interaction into your church’s onsite welcoming ministry and website so that visitors can get to know other newcomers and develop a sense of belonging. You could start an “Apologetics 101” discussion group (be sure to choose a name that will interest followers) through your congregation's Facebook account. Churches can use social networks, like Facebook, to promote interaction and their websites to promote and store important information.

-- Darby Jones, eMarketing Coordinator at United Methodist Communications.