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Adult Education: Changing Behaviors

One of the objectives of adult education is to change the behavior of an individual, team, or department. For adults, this is not an easy task and requires exceptional analysis skills in determining what is needed to create a training strategy for change. When a client asks for a training program to change a behavior, that instructional designer must ask the client why a behavior change is required. It is important that the instructional designer understand the necessity of being an active partner in promoting and correcting performance behaviors. By working as a partner, the instructional design can help the client to identify the root cause of poor performance and assist in changing behaviors.

An employee's poor performance is usually based on two things: either the employee lacks the skills to perform the task or the employee just doesn't want to do it. In the instructional design world, we call this the "skill versus will" concept. This concept requires the ability for instructional designers to ask the right questions. Unfortunately, there is not one solution for all situations. In order to help you in determining what questions you should ask, let's explore a few concepts around what is needed to change behaviors for adults.


Awareness is critical in establishing any kind of change in a person. Some managers assume that an employee already knows what to do. Unfortunately, these managers find themselves frustrated in attempting to make any type of change within their team or group. There must be some type of awareness campaign that promotes the behaviors that the manager wants to change when it comes to adult education.

Training can be a great start in this process of awareness. It can help establish the blue print for changing behaviors and how various components of the desired behaviors are incorporated into the daily processes or procedures of tasks performed by the employee. Below is a list of things that Instructional Designers can and cannot do to assist in promoting the awareness of change for adult education.

What Instructional Designers
can do for awareness
What instructional Designers
cannot do for awareness
  • Educate on desired performance levels
  • Motivate employees initially on behaviors
  • Provide job aids and tools
  • Train managers to coach the behaviors
  • Conduct continuing education on behaviors
  • Establish curriculums for job skills
  • Guarantee success
  • Enforce the standards
  • Hold employees accountable for performance behaviors
  • Change attitudes
  • Resolve personal conflicts
  • Recognition and incentives for job performance

While awareness is critical to changing behaviors, it is not the only step that is required to bring about the type of behavior management desires. Many training strategies fail because they only focus on the awareness aspect of the process and over look other contributing factors to the adult education process such as the reinforcement of the behaviors.


Adults have a tendency to quickly revert back to previous habits. Therefore, adult education requires constant reinforcement of the desired behaviors to meet specific performance standards. Adults respond well to both positive and negative reinforcement. Using this approach will require some creativity and understanding of the individual. Some people respond better to positive reinforcement, encouraging a person by periodic confirmations that a task is being accomplished appropriately. Similarly, some people are motivated by negative comments that promote a competitive environment to prove that a task can be completed appropriately. Both techniques have pros and cons and should be applied within a well balanced strategy.

For instructional designers, reinforcement should be a part of the overall training strategy in partnering with the management team. Obviously, most of the reinforcement of a behavior must come from the management team. However, here are some ideas that an instructional designer can incorporate into an overall training strategy for reinforcing behaviors outside of the initial classroom or computer-based training.

  • Periodic assessments: Testing adults on specific performance tasks periodically can help the employee to verify that he or she is doing a task correctly. It can also help the management team identify additional training opportunities. Incorporating this concept will help compliment your training initiatives and help to sustain the desired behaviors of your client.
  • Meeting Guides: Structured team meeting guides that help managers and supervisors to reinforce specific goals and objectives being achieved. Included in such meeting guides could be an opportunity to share ideas or success stories about how a task was completed in accordance to the client's desired behaviors. Developing meeting guides for your client is a great way to stress key points of your training objectives.
  • Activities: Games and exercises are a great tool to continue reinforcing certain behaviors. This can be a very powerful tool in conjunction with some type of incentive or recognition. Creating fun and competitive activities for your client can offer unique situations to reinforce critical behavior concepts.

Incentives and Recognition

Adults are highly motivated by incentives and recognition. This is an important factor for instructional designers. This is especially important when you are trying to change a behavior within the workforce. While most people understand how incentives and recognition are used by management, few understand the silent aspect of these two powerful learning tools. I want to focus this section on the silent factors rather than on the obvious concepts of praising and rewarding someone for doing a great job.

The silent factors of rewarding and recognizing people for performance can be damaging to many organizations. Most managers never consider the concept that when an employee continues performing poorly without any corrective action that the employee is actually being rewarded for his or her poor behavior. Bad habits and incorrect performances continue to be displayed because the employee is assuming that they must be doing a good job because no one is telling them otherwise.

For instructional designers, this can be a very frustrating concept when building a training strategy. When employees are not held accountable for performing tasks to certain standards, it is difficult to reinforce the desired behaviors. Therefore, as a partner with your client, these things must be discussed up front to identify the risks of implementing a training strategy in an environment that doesn't emphasize performance standards. While the majority of rewarding and recognizing good behavior falls on the shoulders of management, here are a couple of suggestions that you can incorporate into your training strategy.

  • Management coaching sessions: A great training strategy always includes the education of the management team. By incorporating management training concepts into your strategy, you can overcome some of the obstacles that could hinder your training objectives.
  • Observation Checklists: These are a great tool to use to identify current behaviors and to verify the implementation of new behaviors. Having other employees or managers using a list of requirements to observe other employees can offer opportunities to coach or confirm that tasks are being completed correctly.


While there are many factors that contribute in changing adult behaviors within the workforce, I have attempted to present a few key concepts that instructional designers must consider in developing a successful training strategy. Understanding the concepts of awareness, reinforcement, and incentives and recognition will assist you in being a better partner with your client in solving their training needs.


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