Helping Adults Learn New Skills Copy

When peer support specialists are working as mentors to their adult clients, their primary role is to model and teach new skills that are necessary for the client’s best functioning in recovery. Learning that is focused on mastering new skills requires different techniques than learning that is focused on acquiring and retaining information. In addition to changing techniques based on the purpose or focus of learning, instructors must choose techniques that are developmentally appropriate for their audience. This section of the course will focus on the appropriate techniques and methods for helping adults to learn new skills.

How Adults Learn

Multiple theories and professional studies about how adults learn have been developed by observing adults in traditional classroom situations. Adult learners in those situations were individuals enrolled in high school, college or vocational school later in life than would be commonly expected. Some of the clients that you deal with as a peer support specialist may become students in that traditional sense. Others may not identify themselves as students, because they are not in school, but they are learners just the same. In the course of their work with you, they may learn about how to manage their behavioral health condition and they may also be learning practical living skills as we have described in this module. Whether these clients identify as learners in one or both of these definitions, they are likely to have the characteristics known as the principles of adult learning. The principles state that adult learners:

  • are internally motivated and self-directed
  • bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
  • are goal oriented
  • are relevancy oriented
  • are practical
  • like to be respected

Video: The Six Adult Learning Principles (4:39 minutes)

This video provides a brief overview of the principles of adult learning.


How Mentoring Fits with Adult Learning

The process of mentoring is an ideal way for adults to learn new things. In the mentoring relationship, adults learn from experience in actual life practice, rather than just passively receiving information about how things work. In the mentoring process, clients are able to associate new learning with previous experiences and use their prior successes as building blocks for new achievements. As a mentor, you will remind your clients of times in the past when they learned new skills and encourage them to attempt to master the challenges they are facing now.

In your role as a mentor, you will help the client to plan the learning process and set appropriate goals for achievement. We are all more likely to be invested in goals that we set for ourselves than in goals created for us by others. Your mentoring role as a peer support specialist is to help the client maximize the payoff for this investment. Together, you and your client can explore a variety of learning options and analyze progress along the way.

The chart below looks at the relationship between adult learning and mentoring.

Adult Learners: Mentors:
Are self-directed, learn experientially, and approach learning as problem solving. Facilitate learning by encouraging protégés to build their own knowledge while providing resources and other supports.

They support protégés in working through problems.

Bring to the learning environment a wide range of experiences that have become part of their knowledge base and the way they think about things. Work with protégés, building new information upon the foundation of past experiences and previous knowledge.
Believe that learning must be of value and relevant to their work. Focus on what is important to protégés’ work environment to help protégés improve practices.
Are goal oriented. Help protégés set out goals and learning objectives from the outset. Together, mentors and protégés assess the progress protégés are making toward meeting those goals.
Have different ways of learning (for example, visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Use a variety of strategies (for example, observations, portfolios, journals, videotapes) in the mentoring process.
Based on information from: Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (1995). Student achievement through staff development. Fundamentals of School Renewal. (2nd Ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers, USA. andKnowles, M. S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education. New York, NY: Association Press.

While there are some general characteristics that are common among most adult learners, the truth is that every person learns differently. As a mentor, it is important for you to discover how your client learns best so that they can be successful in attaining the skills that they need. Adults have different modes of learning; some may learn best by seeing, others by hearing, and others through touch and movement. Mentoring may increase successful learning because it is more flexible than traditional education, particularly when done in a one-to-one format. Mentoring provides the opportunity to practice, receive feedback and obtain follow-up support to ensure that learning is retained.