Why Won't They Learn? Part 2

Why Won't They Learn? Part 2

By Rommie L. Duckworth, LP Aug 11, 2011

This is the second in a 3-part series by EMS educator Rommie Duckworth. Rommie is a featured speaker at EMS World Expo in Las Vegas, NV, August 31-September 2, and will speak on this topic on August 31 and on managing the first five minutes of an MCI on September 1.

Customers, clients, co-workers, pupils. Call them what you will, the next step in improving your results is finding out why they are in your class. This can often be accomplished early on, during student introductions. Simply asking students to say why they are attending is an easy way to give you great insight.

Of course, there are times, such as during short-form classes, when students may not explain why they are attending. Even then, it often isn't as hard as you might think to find the answer if you know what to look for. Stephen Lieb describes how adults seek out education for one of six basic reasons.1

1. Friendship. One of the reasons adults like to learn is because of the social relationships that can be formed or reinforced during classes. Remarkably, this applies in both short- and long-format classes, as well as online education.

2. Bosses. Adults may be prompted to complete an education program because of outside expectations, such as job or recertification require-ments.

3. Good. By nature of the personalities interested in emergency services, many students want to learn in order to better serve their communities.

4. Me. Personal advancement is a great stimulus for education. You may find students are in your class for personal or professional development, whether the rewards are direct or indirect.

5. Boredom. Some students take classes to relieve boredom and to provide an escape from other work or home responsibilities. While this may not be as true for experienced emergency responders (don't we get enough excitement already?), this is a common reason for students new to EMS.

6. Curiosity. Finally, some students seek education simply for the sake of learning. They seek knowledge to satisfy their own curiosity. This is often closely tied to the Good, Me and Boredom motivators.

A Great Educator PREPS

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Once you've considered the core concepts of adult education and learned the reasons your students are in class, it's time to prepare for teaching a specific lesson. Here again, Knowles identified four elements critical to adult learning: motivation, reinforcement, retention and transference.1,2 These describe how educators must get students excited about the content they are learning, encourage proper use of that content, and ensure students come in contact with the content enough so that it stays with them and they may ultimately apply their knowledge in a variety of real-world circumstances to help people.

While it may seem difficult to apply this to both long-format programs, like a paramedic course, and short-format classes like a one-off CME lecture, one technique that has been used with success in EMS education is the PREPS mnemonic. Using this mnemonic, instructors can focus on their own relationship with the course materials in order to best prepare to share this material with students.


  • Prepared. This includes not just knowledge and under-standing of the curriculum material, but also the logistics of the course itself. Do you know where to go? Do you know when the class is to begin and end? Are there required testing elements for the program? As educators, we must ensure that we know the "what" and "how" of each lesson ahead of time, each and every time.



  • Relevant. Decide in what way this material is relevant to you. How would you use this information on the streets? The information that you're teaching must have real-world value to you as an educator in order for you to demonstrate that value for your students. It simply isn't enough to emphasize that students "need to know it for the test."



  • Enthusiastic. What part of the material you are teaching do you truly care about? What part of it can you get excited about? Instructors often ask how they can motivate students in their classes. The answer begins with the instructor. If you are motivated and excited about the topic, the students will follow along. Think about the best educators that you've had. How enthusiastic were they about what they taught you? Simply put, when you care, your students will care.



  • Positive reinforcement. So you've taught well and the students know the material. But how do they know that they know? They won't retain it if we don't make sure they know that they've got it. Do you give the students an opportunity to answer questions or to demonstrate their skills? Do you have an evaluation with feedback mechanisms? If you make sure that the students who "get it" know they've "got it," then you've recruited more informal instructors. If you're just taking your information and "putting it out there" for the students, not only are you missing a tremendous opportunity, but the students who do "get it" are likely to drift away from their knowledge.



  • Simulation/scenarios. As educators, we're often fond of telling students "there's the book, and there's the real-world." This is another way of saying that transference is the most important aspect of educating both new and experienced responders. We need them to be able to take our information and apply it in different ways to a variety of different circumstances and environments. We must consider how we are going to put our students through verbal or practical scenarios, or better yet, simulations in which they can apply the knowledge that we've taught. This isn't just a matter of teaching students who say that they "learn by doing." This is completing the education cycle by having students' brains work with and apply the information in a dynamic scenario, not just recall memorized facts.


So you've prepared for class. You've thought about how your content is relevant. You're enthusiastic about it, and you reinforce the students who "get it," ensuring that your learners use their newfound knowledge in a realistic and dynamic manner. Yet you still have a problem student or two. What do you do? Part 3 next month discusses common barriers to adult education.


1. Lieb S. Principles of Adult Learning.

2. Knowles MS, Holton EF, Swanson RA. The Adult Learner, Sixth Edition: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 6th ed. Butterworth-Heinemann, p. 390, 2005.

An emergency responder for more than 20 years with career and volunteer fire departments, public and private emergency medical services and hospital-based healthcare, Rom Duckworth is an internationally recognized subject matter expert, fire officer, paramedic and educator. Rom is currently a career fire lieutenant, EMS coordinator and American Heart Association national faculty member.



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