2 Ways to Give Power Back to Learners

As a facilitator, it’s all too easy to do the work of being a student. Instead of letting students struggle or form their thoughts, we offer a “here, let me…” or a quick “oh, I can show you.”

We’re just trying to be helpful. It’s human nature to offer a hand when you see another person struggle. But in the case of learning, that helpfulness can actually be a hinderance, especially to novice learners. So, how do you resist the urge to be “helpful” and step back to let learners do the work of learning?

I offer two helpful strategies: the deliberate pause and the arm hold.

Deliberate Pause

Taking a deliberate two second pause in front of a class can feel like an eternity. How about a six or seven second pause? The time seems to move at glacial speed.

Oftentimes during a lecture or presentation, we’ll throw out a question to students. It will probably be predetermined, and we might even have a specific answer in mind. We’ll wait an uncomfortable second or two, and then either answer the question ourselves or move onto the next topic.

It can be tough to fight the natural reaction to avoid an awkward pause. But taking a deliberate pause and letting learners do the work of learning allows them to sit with their thoughts and feelings. It gives power to learners as they grapple with complex ideas. Prior to this experience, we as facilitators have had the opportunity to think deeply about the question at hand. Learners haven’t. This might even be the first time they’ve thought about a certain topic.

So, ask a question and then take a deep breath. Count to six or seven seconds in your head if you need to. And then try not to expect an immediate reaction from learners. Remember, if they do give an immediate reaction, perhaps they aren’t thinking deeply enough about the question at hand. By giving students time and space to answer a question, we’re promoting deeper learning because they have time to think of good answers (which isn’t usually their first answer).

Another tip is to reframe the question. Sometimes I’ll ask the initial question and then follow it up after 5-6 seconds with “put another way. . .” You can also try moving to a different spot in the room or adjusting a piece of jewelry. These tasks give you something to focus on other than the discomfort of waiting for the discussion to begin.

Arm Hold

Another great strategy to give power back to learners is what I call the “arm hold.” I actually learned this strategy from watching Barbara Oakley in her wonderful MOOC called Learning How to Learn. It is one of my favourite resources on how to study and learn effectively.

She discusses the natural tendency of teachers to want to “help” learners by taking over. Whether it’s taking over the mouse or writing out the equation, we can’t help ourselves. We want the learners to “get there,” and that usually involves showing the learners exactly how to get there. But if they can’t get there themselves, have we really succeeded? I don’t think so.

To overcome this reflex, try crossing your arms behind your back. For example, if you are helping a student solve a problem, cross your arms so you can avoid writing the equation or solution for them. Today, I was trying to help a student troubleshoot an Internet problem. My initial reaction was to grab the mouse and take over the computer. But then the student wouldn’t know what to do the next time something like this happened. So I crossed my arms and helped guide the student by asking questions and guiding them along when necessary.

These strategies will give learners more autonomy and show them that you trust them to get “there”, wherever there may be. Give it a try and let me know if it works!


Wait image taken from Unsplash: https://unsplash.com/photos/jRE-2tH2Bvk

The Gist of Adult Learning

I just began my first course of the PDAL certificate program, Program Design. One of the very first topics we explored was “adult learners.” I’m formally trained in elementary education, so I’ve always associated learning with pedagogy. Although I was aware of andragogy, I usually defer to “pedagogy” when I’m speaking about adult learning. I’m working on changing that, and here’s why.

Our book for the course is Training Design Basics by Saul Carliner. In it, he shares the 7 Principles of Adult Learning. I’m going to share these principles and some takeaways I’ve had in the course so far.

Principle 1: Adult Learning is Andragogy, Not Pedagogy

Andragogy is the art and science of teaching adults, whereas pedagogy is the art and science of teaching children. Adults and children have very different learning needs, so it can be misleading to use the terms interchangeably. As a designer, it’s important for me to reflect on the assumptions of adult learning before creating new content. This can help guide me to make decisions that adult learners will appreciate.

Principle 2: Adult Learners are Pressed for Time

Anyone who has been an adult student knows the importance of fitting in their studies between family life, exercise, work, and sleep(?). Otherwise, the studies don’t get done. As designers, we have to be careful about what we assign outside of class time. To assist in their learning, we might collect relevant resources and aggregate reliable content for learners. Providing these professional resources for students helps focus their attention on what matters. Finally, I think it’s important for instructors to provide short summaries of the week and reminders of what’s upcoming. This helps adult learners reintegrate into the course.

Principle 3: Adult Learners are Goal Oriented

Adult learners want to know “what’s in it for me?” They are usually enrolled in a course to reach a specific goal. I am enrolled in the PDAL program because I have some instructional design gaps to fill, which I know will help me in current and future roles. Thus, in my studies, I am always interested in how I can apply what I am learning to my job. Each week in the Program Design course, we are answering questions related to one of three scenarios: workplace training, higher education, and community development. I’m interested in workplace training, which is a great opportunity to apply my learning.

Principle 4: Adult Learners Bring Previous Knowledge and Experience

While it’s true that adults have tons of background knowledge, they also need help making sense of how information fits into their mental model, and whether that needs to be modified.

When presented with content, it’s important to help students reflect on what they think about the content. Providing context and thought-provoking questions can be good strategies.

It’s also important to start with where students are. I find that many titles of course or programs as well as their descriptions can be misleading. I’ve signed up for courses in the past and been disappointed because it didn’t cover what I thought it would. This is one more reason why we should create clear objectives and accurate course descriptions. We can also consider sending a pre-course survey to students to understand their background knowledge.

Principle 5: Adult Learners Have a Finite Capacity for Information

I think this is the principle most instructional designers struggle with. We just want to share what we know or have learned about the content! But, the human brain can only process so much information. We used to think we could store 5-7 pieces in our short-term memory, but recent research indicates there are many factors that affect short-term memory. A better way to think about memory is chunking. How can we organize chunks of content into manageable pieces? Some strategies include sticking to one topic per slide, telling a story that includes relevant facts, and presenting only the need-to-know information.

Principle 6: Adult Learners go through Several Phases when Developing Competence in their Job

When I begin a new job, I am gung-ho to learn as much as I can. After a few months, I often find that I reach my threshold of learning and need to take a breather. I have also suffered from imposter syndrome and a fear of failure (issues with self-efficacy), which sometimes slows me down. This is common for many adult learners. They need time to “warm up” to learning, and they need cues from the instructor, like “This next topic is challenging, but if we apply what we learned about _____, we can get through it.” Encouragement goes a long way! So does considering when people may need extra help, and when they understand the material and need to be presented with a new challenge.  

Principle 7: True Learning Happens When Adults Successfully Integrate (or Transfer) the Skills into their Daily Routines

One of the questions we should always ask as designers for adult learning is, “how will this transfer to the job?” As a learner I really like to see examples of how different applications are being used on the job. Getting learners to share how they can transfer their learning to the job is inspiring and motivating to others.


Carliner, S. (2015). Training design basics (2nd ed.). ATD Press: Alexandria, VA.

Group image from Raw Pixel: https://unsplash.com/photos/WNXujnXfK7I