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No Two Alike


By Amy Gibson

Have you ever been in a class or a training session with an individual who asked too many questions? How about with an individual who knew everything about everything?

Have you been with an individual who seemed like he or she just couldn’t get it? A quiet one? A challenging one?

How about self-conscious? Assertive? Needy? Asleep?

Of course you have! You probably are one of those individuals—we all are.

adult learning environment
Photos: KTA-Tator

Learning environments are full of individuals with unique learning styles, needs, preferences and concerns—how can you be sure they all benefit equally from the shared education experience?

Learning environments are full of individuals, no two alike. Each adult learner has a unique learning style, unique needs, unique preferences, unique concerns.

So with all of these unique individuals coexisting in a learning environment, how can they possibly all benefit equally from one shared experience?

I Am Not a Clone

I am aware of my own struggle. When I am in a learning environment and I feel that I already got what I am going to get out of it, when I am ready to be done or move on, there is always someone who prevents the group from continuing. Somebody has another question, has another comment, wants to tell a story, etc., etc. I feel trapped and I get frustrated.

It is not that person’s issue, it’s my issue. That is one of my personal characteristics as an adult learner, and it is a common adult learner characteristic: the need to feel that my time is being used valuably. (Plus, I am just impatient.)

That other individual (who is torturing me) has another common adult learner characteristic: the need to be recognized for his or her knowledge and experience. Or possibly: the need to understand how the learning materials relate directly to his or her life.

Classroom discussion

As an instructor, one way to learn more about the knowledge levels of the individuals in your classroom is to use an icebreaker activity that is designed to reveal some background about the participants.

That person needs a different experience than I do. So now what? How can we both feel fulfilled?

The Struggle Is Real

These questions raise a valid concern for adult educators and instructors who are responsible for fostering successful learning outcomes. Here are some ways that facilitators can provide a learning experience that reaches all of the individuals in the room.

1. Expect Diversity

Facilitators should plan for learning events with the assumption that learners will show up with a wide range of knowledge. This means some will have no prior exposure to the subject matter, and some may have years of experience. Find out who is present before you begin.

Use an icebreaker that is designed to reveal some background about the participants. This way, you can rely on some of the more experienced participants to contribute to the learning materials.

Those who are new to the subject matter will appreciate the variation in real-life analysis of the content, meaning they won’t just have to rely on the facilitator’s knowledge but can learn from their peers as well.

Those who have experience will feel satisfaction in sharing their knowledge with others, and often will stimulate discussion that may challenge them and result in deeper learning.

Teaching Tip: Giving learners the option to take the wheel is very engaging. It automatically redirects focus from external to internal by challenging the competency of the learner and recognizing his or her value to the group. It is also a great method of reinforcement. But be sure to work it into the lesson plan so that you are not left with an abundance of contribution efforts after the learning content has been exhausted. (That’s when you lose people like me.)

hands-on activity

Consider engaging your more confident or knowledgeable students by allowing them to perform a demonstration for the class, which you direct.

Example: When introducing an instrument, let one of the participants who feels confident perform a demo for the class. You can then provide direction and make suggestions to the class.

2. Plan for All Learning Styles

There are three general learning styles: auditory, kinesthetic and visual. Auditory learners learn best by listening or hearing; kinesthetic learners learn best by trying or doing; and visual learners learn best by seeing or watching.

Consideration of learning styles should happen long before facilitation. The curriculum should be designed to cater to all three. That means that for each learning objective, there should be a variety of strategies to best reach each learner and his or her learning style.

Example: Provide a demonstration, a discussion, and a hands-on workshop, all related to the same lesson. This will give each learner the opportunity to access the learning materials in a way that is meaningful to him or her.

3. Know Your Audience

At the onset of a learning event, be aware that every person in the room is distracted by some aspect of his or her life. The ultimate goal is to get the learners invested enough in the learning event that the distractions become diminished.

Spray coating hands-on

Your curriculum should plan to engage the three general learning styles, with strategies or activities to reach those who learn by listening, watching or doing themselves.

However, to start, just be aware that someone is nervous, someone wants to be somewhere else, someone is having a bad day, someone has personal stressors at home or at work. Awareness will activate empathy, which will support a positive environment.

When you are ready to get the learners invested, here are some strategies:

Get personal. I don’t mean get inappropriate, but find a connection. If the group likes you and respects you, they will have more interest in what you have to say. Likeability is often achieved by relatability. Respect is often gained by credibility. Be approachable, be human, but show that you know your stuff.

Make it meaningful. The learner needs to know that he or she is investing time into something that is worthwhile. Use that original icebreaker activity to figure out why people are there. Once you know what each individual needs to take away from the experience, you will know what needs to be provided or communicated to each of them, and you can do your best to make sure that they get what they need.

The Message

All in all, you will never find yourself in a learning environment with a group of people who have the same motivations, experiences or learning styles as you. As adults, we are all unique individuals who have had time to develop processes and responses that contribute to the way we learn.

But there are ways that learning experiences can be facilitated so they are meaningful and engaging for all present—that is, unless you are the learner who is asleep. In that case, you’re on your own.


Amy Gibson

Amy Gibson is the manager of training and education services at KTA-Tator Inc. in Pittsburgh, PA. She runs KTA’s coatings and safety training programs and provides curriculum and instructional design consultation. Amy is a master trainer and primary administrator for NCCER (founded as The National Center for Construction Education and Research), and she manages and maintains KTA’s International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) accreditation. Amy has a master’s in instructional leadership and is certified in online instruction. Training and Certification covers a range of practical topics related to continuing education and learning opportunities to improve your own skills or that of your workforce. Contact Amy.



Tagged categories: Certifications and standards; Education; North America; Program/Project Management; Worker training; Asia Pacific; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America

Comment from DJuan Stevens, (10/25/2016, 1:21 PM)


Comment from Robert Cook, (6/20/2017, 10:41 AM)

A person who thinks they know everything about everything is a "Sexual Intellectual", or a -ucking know it all.

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