Do you know how your aides learn?

Let us count the ways . . .

In every inservice, there seems to be at least one student who plunges into the task without even reading the material, while others never ask questions or actively participate. It can be enough to frustrate any home care education manager. Naturally, you'd rather everyone participated in each inservice and did a little studying to prepare for it.

However, your expectations might be the real problem. Adults learn in different ways, and if you take time to discover how your students approach education, then you can teach them more effectively, says Joan Ryan, BSN, RN, director of paraprofessional and private duty services for the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Salem (MA). The full-service agency, which is part of the North Shore Medical Center, serves the suburban North Shore area of Boston.

"Adult learning theory has been around since the 1920s, when people realized that adults learn differently than children," Ryan says. "When we're teaching home health aides, we're teaching adults and people who have a lot of different work experiences and education experiences. For us to assume that adults are clean slates like children is not correct; we need to take into account that people learn differently and need different techniques when we're teaching them."

Education managers often don't have time to gear a particular inservice to each type of adult learner. But if they understand how the majority of their students learn best, then they can create an inservice that will benefit the majority, she suggests. "We try to vary our inservices, sometimes by giving a game, sometimes trying role playing, and sometimes a lecture."

For example, if the agency is doing an inservice on body mechanics, classroom time might be devoted to showing aides the different kinds of lifts and transfer devices. Also, the agency often allows time for interaction between the lecturer and students at the end of the session.

Ryan speaks at national conferences about adult learning theory, and she bases her talk, in part, on theories and information found in author Malcolm Knowles' Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (New York City: McGraw-Hill; 1987). She also refers to David Kolb and Richard Boyatzis' Learning Skills Profile (Boston: Experience Based Learning; 1981, distributed by McBer and Co. in Boston).

A combination of types

Kolb and Boyatzis have described four types of adult learners:

1. Concrete experiencer. This person prefers to learn from examples. "This is the person who calls up all of her friends to find out how to do something," Ryan says. "They like to role play, and they like to talk about actual experiences, things that have happened to them in the past and that might relate to this."

When education managers hold role-playing inservices, they won't have to worry about finding volunteers as long as a concrete experiencer is in the group. If a class includes a large number of people who learn this way, the educator might break the class into small groups to discuss the lecture material.

"These individuals also like to do homework problems that are discussed the next day, and this type of learner dislikes lectures or watching videos, unless you do follow-up discussions," Ryan says.

2. Reflective observer. A reflective observer likes to watch and will be tentative in participating in a class. "They like to reflect on what they're learning, and they like to watch a role-play situation but may be uncomfortable in participating," she explains.

Don't push these students to be the first to volunteer for answering questions or role playing. "But on the other hand, they may need a push to participate after the class gets involved."

If your class has a lot of serious, quiet, seemingly shy students, you might be most successful using lectures, videos, and group activities in which some people may sit back and watch before participating.

3. Abstract conceptualizer. This type of student relies on logic and has an analytical approach to learning. "They want to find out the theory behind the task," Ryan says. "They like reading assignments and homework, so they know what they're getting into the next day."

Abstract conceptualizers don't like surprises and sometimes have difficulty relating to people. "They may get lost in the shuffle in a large class and would do well with self-learning packets," she suggests. "Or give them an assignment for homework, which is related to a lesson for the next inservice, and this way they're familiar with it and understand what is behind what you're teaching."

4. Active experimenter. As long as a class includes one or two active experimenters, role playing and hands-on activities will succeed. "This is the most extroverted person," Ryan says. "But this person will not read the assignment or read directions and will instead plunge into a task without asking questions."

Active experimenters like to apply what they learn directly to their experiences. They will throw out what doesn't apply, and they have a low tolerance for fuzzy ideas, she says.

"They just want to know what they have to know to get the job done, and they don't want a whole lot of extraneous stuff," she explains.

If a class has a great deal more active experimenters than abstract conceptualizers, it might be wise to explain theories behind inservice topics in handouts rather than class discussions. Also, active experimenters will be the first to try things, and they do not learn well from lectures. Ryan says they might enjoy role playing but would prefer an inservice with hands-on learning activities.

Education managers probably will find their students include a combination of those types of adult learners, Ryan says. "And I've found that it can be applicable to other things, like people's management and work styles. If you find that someone is always the first person to jump in during the inservice, then that person may be the same way at work."