Spring 1988 // Volume 26 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB2

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Communicating with the Adult Learner


James W. King
Communication Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

S. Kay Rockwell
Evaluation Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

As researchers expand their knowledge about adult learning, Extension staff can communicate information in more meaningful ways. Recent research focusing on cognitive learning processes has identified four audience learning requirements - stimulation, meaning, order, and strategy. Several authors discuss how these characteristics of the learning environment can be applied to make programs more "user friendly."1

People have limited sensitivities and perceptions, yet without an optimal level of external stimulation, they develop their own stimulation. If a presentation isn't motivating, audience members may doodle or fall asleep. If it's too stimulating, people may miss the message. The bottom line is that a variety of stimulation - color, pacing, motion, voice level, visuals, print - must be used.

Presentation styles that are complex, novel, uncertain, dissonant, or aversive stimulate the audience. However, stimulation needs to be balanced with meaning. Program messages should be understandable (not too complex), familiar (not too novel), related (not excessively uncertain), relevant (not totally dissonant), and satisfying (not completely aversive). Incoming messages will have more meaning if people are able to apply information to their situation in a problem-solving manner.

Order is important because people prefer predictable learning situations and look for patterns and regularities. Providing order can be done in several ways. The product approach describes and directly presents the content - "... to accomplish X, you do Y." The process approach guides the audience to discover for themselves - "What should you do in situation X?" or "Why would you do that?"

Order can also be made by "chunking" information either in a chronological, hierarchical, or procedural manner. Relationships between ideas are suggested by grouping materials or using comparisons and contrasts.

A variety of presentation techniques allows information to be repeated at different levels of abstraction and elaboration. Start with the more concrete and simple, then move on to the more abstract and complex.

People need and want a learning strategy-guidance and feedback in selecting, processing, and using information. Headings, titles, statements of objectives, and topic sentences facilitate the information selection process. Elaborating on the subject helps retention. Using cues during presentations guide the learner in forming concepts. Active participation encourages one's long-term memory to store messages.

Thus, various techniques can address the cognitive processes in adult learning. These include using introductions and final summaries to help organize thoughts, relating information to prior knowledge, emphasizing relevance and utility, providing feedback and reinforcement, and keeping the audience aware of goals. By using the techniques associated with stimulation, meaning, order, and strategy, Extension staff can better communicate their information. The audience is more likely to remain active and involved in the learning process.


1. M. L. Fleming, "Displays and Communication," in R. M. Gagne, Instructional Technology: Foundation (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1987), pp. 233-60; M. L. Fleming, "From Seeing and Hearing to Remembering: A Conception of the Instructional Process," Instructional Science, IX (No. 4, 1980), 311-326; M. L. Fleming and W. H. Levie, Instructional Message Design: Principles from the Behavioral Sciences (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology, 1980); J. Van Patten, C. I. Chao, and C. M. Reigeluth, "A Review of Strategies for Sequencing and Synthesizing Instruction," Review of Educational Research, XLVI (Winter 1986), 437-71; and D. S. Salisbury, B. F. Richards, and J. D. Klein, "Designing Practice: A Review of Prescriptions and Recommendations from Instructional Design Theories," Journal of Instructional Development, VIII (No. 4, 1985), 9-19.