Applying Adult Learning Theory to Onboarding

Adult learning theory refers to methods or techniques used to teach adults. When a new employee starts or an existing employee changes to a new role, adult learning theory informs the process of successfully equipping them to take over the role.

We know that there are a few ways adults prefer to learn: They link new information to existing knowledge or past experiences to learn more quickly, and they want to immediately apply what they learn in order to become competent as quickly as possible in their jobs. This approach eases the stress of the transition and helps them feel like capable contributors to the team and the organization. In addition, adult learners are self-directed, which means they like to be involved in planning the training to the extent possible. They also need to understand tools and how to use them and then be able to experiment and explore. Lastly, they want the learning to be practical rather than theoretical.

Knowing that these principles work, how do we apply them to employee onboarding?

Of course, every business is different, and larger corporations have more resources and time to allow new employees to ease into their roles than smaller companies do. After the acculturation piece of onboarding (going over mission, vision, core values, etc.), use the following guidelines to implement effective onboarding.

Week 1: Systems Thinking

New employees need to understand how each part of the organization is interdependent. Therefore, explain what each department or division does and how each impacts the others in important ways. Then, explain how their new department impacts the rest of the organization and how they will impact the department and the organization.

Why give new employees such a big-picture view? This information is empowering. When they see how what they do impacts the entire company, they will see how important their role is and take it seriously.

After this big-picture discussion, walk them through their new role from start to finish, and explain why each task is important. Then, explain the expectations of their new role and the consequences of not meeting those expectations.

Here is an example: A new graphic artist for an aerospace contractor is responsible for creating graphics for the maintenance of the F-35 jet. Week 1 of onboarding should cover these questions:

How does the graphics department impact the rest of the organization?How does being a graphic artist for the F-35 impact the rest of the organization?What software does the employee have to master to be able to create these graphics?What are the inputs to correctly create a graphic? (They may include a style guide, data from technical engineers, a database of previous graphics and knowledge of the aircraft.)What would happen if the employee made an incorrect graphic? What are the repercussions?Will future contracts hinge on on-time, correct graphics?Would the maintenance manual be late if the graphics were late or wrong?Would the maintenance professional be able to correctly fix the aircraft with incorrect graphics?

Weeks 1 and 2: Basic to More Difficult Tasks

Next, you want to give employees a thorough walk-through, from start to finish, of a basic task, asking them to repeat as much as they can remember. They will have linked new information to previous experiences and knowledge (if any). Asking them to explain why the task is important (linking back to systems thinking) will then tell you where to provide deeper information regarding the task itself and why it is important. You should also ask them to repeat the task themselves, which gives them the ability to immediately use the information they have learned.

For example, in this stage of onboarding, the graphic artist learns about creating a graphic to repair a gouged wing, including:

How to check the database to see if the requested graphic already exists.Which software and files to use to begin to create a graphic to repair a gouged wing.To read the instructions from the author and then determine the type of graphic needed to show in picture form what the words explain.How to use the style guide to follow specific rules.Where the gouge is located on the aircraft.About the maintenance professional’s point of view.The materials they must use to repair the gouge and why they are important.

The trainer asks the designer to repeat this information and ask questions if he or she does not understand.

Weeks 2 and 3: Self-direction and Higher-level Thinking

Now that the employees are becoming more confident, you want them to take on more direction of their learning, which will make the learning “sticky.” Start by teaching them about software they’ll need to use. Then, in a controlled environment, tell them to “mess it up” as much as possible using all the software options available, ask them what they did and where they ended up, and show them how to fix it. Give them all the job aids, database applications, style guides and other support materials they’ll need, and tell them where to find the data they need to make correct decisions. Now, you are now building higher-level thinking.

For example, let’s say the trainer asks the designer to create a graphic using all the different commands in the software. It doesn’t matter what kind of graphic they make, as long as they use as many of the commands as possible. Then, the trainer explains what they did, working backward, and shows them:

Job aids for the software, where to look for similar existing graphics and how to manipulate them to save time.How to recreate the graphic using the style guide.The technical data on the type of graphic they created so that they know where that data is, how to read it and in what circumstances they would do so.

Finally, the trainer asks them to use this information to recreate the graphic.

Week 3: Increase the Difficulty and Reinforce

Now, you increase the difficulty of the practice exercises and tasks. Using job aids, guides and other content, give the employees tasks to build on what they have already learned. Increase the layers of difficulty until they can show you a complete product from start to finish. Use reinforcement each time they turn in a task or assignment. If they did it correctly, they gain confidence. If they did not, it is a good opportunity to go deeper and explain the information in a different way.

For example, the trainer asks the designer to find a similar, but more complex, graphic in the database and make the changes to their graphic using the similar graphic, such as turning capabilities on or off. They repeat this process until creating the graphic is easy.

If the designer turns in an updated graphic and it is well done, the trainer brings them to their supervisor and “brags” about how well they are learning a difficult task. If it is not well done, they have someone else offer a different explanation of the task.

Weeks 3 and 4: Real-world Issues and Repetition

In this stage, take a real issue in the workflow, and ask them to troubleshoot it and find the root cause, suggesting that they work backward to do so. Ask them to explain it to you in their own words; if are correct, have them explain it to someone else. This process will increase their confidence, because they used higher-level thinking (you taught them how to fish rather than spoon-feeding them) to reach the answer, and they are becoming a capable contributor. If they cannot explain the cause correctly, teach them in a different way, possibly by using different tools.

For example, the trainer asks the designer to troubleshoot why an incorrect graphic is wrong, asking them to use all the tools, guides and databases at their disposal to find the root cause of the problem. Then, the trainer asks them to explain why it is wrong and how to fix it.

Tighten It up

By now, your new employees should understand their tools and how they work. They should know the importance of each task and how it relates to the rest of the department and the organization. Now is your opportunity to fine-tune and tighten their knowledge and skill application gaps and their opportunity to show you that they have linked the knowledge to the tools and understand how to use them. Have them use all the tools to create something new. It should be something fun that has no right or wrong answer but does have an element of difficulty.

For example, using all the tools at their disposal, the trainer has the designer create a new graphic of an element of the F-35, including layering of different options and capabilities, and using the most difficult materials. The trainer explains that this activity should be fun and that there are no wrong answers, as long as the designer can replicate and explain it to the trainer.

Following this guideline for weeks one to four will allow your new employees to gain knowledge; direct their own learning; apply the learning to real-world issues; gain skills; and, finally, by using higher-level thinking, gain confidence in their ability to complete their assigned tasks. The ability to fully engage employees in a new role hinges on helping them understand how their role is important to the organization; encouraging them to make mistakes in a safe environment; and then, through explanation, practice and use of the tools, and reinforcement in correct thinking, allowing them to creatively make the role their own.

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