[From Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. Third Edition. Raymond J. Wlodkowski, Copyright C (2008, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) pp. 435-438. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.]

Among the sixty motivational strategies that are found in the third edition of “Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults” (Wlodkowski, 2008), using relevant models to demonstrate expected learning, is one of my most trusted and immediately effective teaching methods. The first time I used it was at the beginning of a research course, and I could see the relief and feel the new energy and confidence emerge among my students. I use this motivational strategy for every course I teach to enhance concretely the sense of self-efficacy of adult learners and to make clearly visible the actual work expected of them. In most instances when this strategy is used, the criteria for assessment become much more specifically understood as well. In general, using relevant models at the beginning of a course is the best single way I know to initiate and sustain a positive learner attitude, and over the years, course evaluations have confirmed this understanding.

I owe this dependable knowledge to Albert Bandura (1982) who brought it to my attention through his research over 25 years ago.  As Bandura (1997) points out, perceptions of self-efficacy are often acquired through vicarious learning. Observing other similar adults successfully perform a learning task can be a powerful positive influence on the performance expectations for that task for those adults who are watching.

A number of years ago I had a short break with reality, and thought that rock climbing could be fun. I actually took a course entitled Rock 101. The instructor was at least 15 years younger than I was and quite lean and muscular. He showed us the proper technique for climbing as he scrambled up a vertical cliff like a spider on a web. When he asked for the first volunteer to do the same, I found my eyes locked on the ground below my shoes and I could hear my mind saying, “No way.” But my friend, David, older than I and a bit portly did volunteer. And, made it to the top of the cliff on his first try. I was the second volunteer. What seemed impossible was the beginning of a 17 year avocation for which I am still grateful.

Because many adults often find learning new as well as abstract, they honestly wonder if they can do it. Unlike many young children, most adults are not enthusiastic volunteers for a public attempt at a new learning task. Any time we can provide examples of people, who are similar to the learners successfully performing the expected learning activity, we have taken a significant step toward enhancing their self-efficacy. This strategy is originally derived from research with college students.  Bandura  (1982, pp. 126–127) offers some of the reasons for its powerful impact: “Seeing similar others perform successfully can raise efficacy expectations in observers who then judge that they too possess the capabilities to master comparable activities…. Vicariously derived information alters perceived self-efficacy through ways other than social comparison…. Modeling displays convey information about the nature and predictability of environmental events. Competent models also teach observers effective strategies for dealing with challenging or threatening situations.”

With adults, this is one of the best strategies for enhancing performance in new learning. Once I started using this strategy in my courses, the quality of work and motivation among adult students rose dramatically. For the research course, I have three to five former students who represent the demographics of my current students meet with them during the first class session. All of the former students have been successful in the course and their reports (graded and with written comments) are duplicated and available for the current students. The former students compose a panel and discuss with the current students what their beginning attitudes toward the course were (not always positive); how they worked and cooperated to learn; what were the challenges they faced and surmounted, and so forth. About half way through the panel session, I leave so that the entire group can converse without my involvement or monitoring. This modeling process has been so effective in lowering tension, raising learner performance expectations and self-efficacy beliefs, and enhancing the quality of student work that I have never abandoned it. For my other courses, if I do not have former students join us, I have their videos, papers and projects available for examination and discussion

With film and video technology, we have wonderful ways to organize and demonstrate what we want adult learners to achieve. If something can be learned and demonstrated, be it a skill, technique, or discussion, today’s technology enables us to bring it to our learners and to raise in a concrete way their expectations for success. Observational learning can be a very specific and structured process that learners use to self-regulate their learning. As such, it has been researched in academics and athletics. Based on these studies, there is strong evidence that people who learn vicariously and adapt their model’s methods to their own learning, are more successful and motivated than those who rely on solely individual means to learn (Zimmerman and Kitsantas, 2005).

Bandura, A. “Self-Efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency.” American Psychologist, 1982, 37(2), 122-147.
Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman, 1997.
Wlodkowski, R. J. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Zimmerman, B. J., and Kitsantas, A. “The Hidden Dimension of Personal Competence: Self-Regulated Learning and Practice.” In A. J. Elliot and C. S. Dweck (eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation. New York: Guilford, 2005.

–Raymond J. Wlodkowski, Professor Emeritus, Regis University, CO

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