5 Paths to Empower Lifelong Learners

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on September 20, 2021

4 Runners at finish line for empower lifelong learners concept

I’ve written before that the core of the business model for successful edupreneurs is empowerment, which basically comes down to asking – and answering –  questions like “How will I make life better for my learners?” and “How will I empower them to do what they want to be able to do?”

If you don’t effectively empower your learners and create real learning results, you may manage to launch a course or two, but it will be really difficult to achieve long-term success. Your learners won’t come back for more, and you won’t earn the reputation you need to keep attracting new learners.

This applies whether we’re talking about eCourses, seminars, events – really, any kind of educational experience that you offer.

So, it is incredibly important to understand how learning works, and what you can do to empower your customers as lifelong learners. This is the kind of topic that requires a book (like this one) to address fully, but as a starter, this post offers a few  recommendations based on some of the most recent research on learning.

Basically, as a good teacher, you need to understand how to support your students in being good learners. This starts with understanding the fundamentals of adult learning, but here are five approaches to help you take things further.

Provide Opportunities for Effort

I often work with clients who feel that making learning as convenient as possible is the key to success with adult learners. This is true only to a very limited extent.

Yes, you definitely want to make it easy for your learners to find you, find any relevant products you offer, and easily buy those products. But that’s pretty much where “convenience” ends.

If you want the actual learning experience to have an impact – by which I mean, be remembered and actually be applied in real life – the learner will have to make an effort. Period.

This means you can’t provide notes for the learner. She needs to take her own notes (and do it effectively).

It also means there need to be opportunities for practicing the concepts you teach, which – particularly if you offer self-paced, online courses – may mean providing guidance to learners on how to do this independently.

And, there need to be opportunities for learners to test themselves in meaningful ways and get feedback on their performance.

Finally, encourage – indeed, requirereflection as part of your approach to teaching. Pose questions that prompt learners to connect the material you cover to their own personal situation, to what they already know, and to form ideas about how they will apply what they learn.

If you are thinking some learners will be turned off by having to put in this much effort and may even resist, you are, of course, right. But do you really want those learners to stick around? The learners who will rave about you, who will come back for more, and bring others with them are the ones who are willing to put in effort.

Just think of the times in your own life when you have made major leaps forward in learning. Chances are it was hard, and you had a teacher who pushed you to realize your potential.

You need to be that teacher.

Space the Effort

Effort is essential, but for it to be really effective, it has to be spaced over time.

Cramming doesn’t stick. “Binge” learning isn’t learning. All the research and everything we know about the human brain tells us this is true.

So, design your courses and other learning  experiences so that core concepts come up repeatedly, along with opportunities for students to practice and test themselves.

This may mean building review of previously covered concepts into lessons, or it could mean sending our “drip” messages (which most decent  online course platforms support) to prompt learners to answer questions or apply an idea in their work or life. (For a simple approach to this that doesn’t even require a course platform, check out this post on Google whisper courses.)

And, if you want to dig deeper on the topic  of spaced learning, I recommend you check out Spacing Learning Over Time (free)  from Dr. Will Thalheimer, which is linked to here.

Set the Stage for Transfer

The key problem with a lot of educational experiences is that the learning evaporates once the learner exits the classroom – whether that’s an actual classroom or an online course. To combat that problem, you have to encourage and guide learners to practice and apply what they are learning in a range of relevant situations.

There is a lot evidence that it helps to vary the context in which you study or practice if you want to be able to apply what you learn as flexibly as possible. It is one thing, for example, to develop a great forehand in tennis when a backboard is your opponent. It is quite another to play against a range of other players of varying capabilities, or to play on different types of courts, or in different types of weather.

If you really want to become a great tennis player, you need to be able to adapt to all of the variations and many more. The only way to develop this ability is by putting your forehand through its paces in many different contexts.

In general, learners need to practice and review in ways that corresponds to how they will ultimately use whatever you teach. This is the only way that what you teach will transfer from theory into practice, from the classroom into the reality of the learner’s situation.

As someone designing a course or other learning experience, you need to think about how can you challenge your learners to apply whatever you are teaching in different contexts. For online courses, in particular, you have to think beyond the screen.

Put yourself in the learner’s shoes and think of the many context in which what you are teaching may apply. Then, provide guidance to the learner for practice in these contexts – and possibly even require some sort of evidence or report on the experience as an assignment in your course.

(All of this, of course, requires effort on the part of the learner, as discussed above, and also requires a certain amount of seeking stress.)

Turn the Tables

You may have heard that the best way to learn something is to teach it. There’s plenty in the research about learning – starting with the fact that learning requires effort – to suggest it’s true. Baking in opportunities for your learners to teach is a surefire way to make sure your educational products have a lasting impact.

Of course, this approach may seem impractical in the case of some types of educational offerings – for example, online courses or high volume seminars. But keep in mind that teaching opportunities can often be baked into group work or into online community discussions. Or, teaching may simply take the form of having students  submit an instructional video or educational blog post as part of the course.

And, it’s useful to know that even the mere expectation of having to teach can boost learning significantly, as I discuss in this Mission to Learn post.

Teach Learning

Finally, one of the best ways to empower your learners is to teach them to learn effectively.

If you think about your own experience in school, the chances are pretty good that you were never really taught how to learn effectively. In fact, it’s been only in the last decade or so that we’ve really started to reach consensus about what works in learning.

This is knowledge that our learners need, and the majority of them (at least those who have any sense!) will thank you for taking the time to share any knowledge and skills you can in this area.

Most learners, for example, are likely to be unaware of the points I’ve covered above.

They probably don’t know how to take notes effectively or that simply highlighting and reviewing text is close to useless.

They almost certainly don’t know how to develop a strategy for getting the most out of your educational products. You can help them. And, again, the learners who are likely to be most valuable to your business will thank you for it.

For more guidance in this area – and, for that matter  – everything I’ve covered above, I suggest Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning as well as my own 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner.

With Great Power …

My whole focus here is on the idea of a “learning revolution.” For me, that means that people with something to teach, people who have valuable knowledge to share, now have more power to do it than ever before. As a result, prospective learners have more opportunities than ever before.

And, all of that’s fantastic.

But it’s also my view that anyone who is going to try to make money from offering education to adult lifelong learners has a responsibility to deliver results.

There are, of course, plenty of people who will not achieve positive change from what you offer no matter how hard you try. But for those who are willing to make an effort, any of us who offer education have a responsibility to make the experiences we offer as effective as possible.

Pursue the practices I’ve outlined here, and you will be well on your way.


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