Reasserting the Learner’s Responsibility

BY Jeff Cobb

Learner responsibility concept - multiple silhouettes of heads in geree, one in blue with keyhole

One of the major positive trends in adult lifelong learning over the past several years is that more organizations have recognized the need to do a much better job of grounding learning experiences in what we actually know about how adults learn.

In a nutshell, we need to move away from the excessive emphasis on lectures that has characterized adult lifelong learning from time immemorial. We need to provide more opportunities for adults to interact and collaborate with each other, to learn from each others’ experiences, and to engage in various approaches to making learning stick.

Yes, and …

We also need to reassert the learner’s responsibility for learning and support learners in embracing that responsibility.


Mainly because there is no getting around the fact that most meaningful learning requires effort. It requires effortful retrieval – as Henry Roediger and his co-authors establish so persuasively in Make It Stick – and self-testing – as research by John Dunlovsky and others has made clear.

It benefits greatly from deliberate practice,  as Anders Ericsson has established through years of research (summarized in his book Peak).

It requires the discipline to focus, to review material over time, to practice, to reflect.

Certainly, as developers of learning experiences, we can and should do as much as possible to facilitate all of these things. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that we can design – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot – learning experiences so perfect that no will need to try. Learners simply have to step up if real learning is going to happen.

Of course, while this is easy to say, it is not necessarily easy to achieve. As I have argued before, there is a “rub” when it comes to adult learning – namely, that most of us are not all that well prepared to be effective adult learners.  Our traditional approaches to schooling simply have not taught us enough of the “learn to learn” skills we need in today’s rapidly changing world.

Clearly, we need a shift in how we approach school, but for the large numbers of people who have already entered the other fifty years and are beyond the influence of the K-12 and higher education systems, we need leadership. At a minimum, this means:

  • Integrating education about learning into major member touchpoints
    Education in how to learn effectively should be an integral part of every major meeting – part of the opening and closing sessions and woven throughout. It should a complement to Webinar series and other forms of online learning. It should be discussed often in publications. It should be addressed frequently and consistently – using, of course, good learning practices. There is no reason this has to be a pedantic or patronizing practice: anyone who has encountered the material in books like Make It Stick, Brain Rules, or Peak knows this is really engaging stuff that will fascinate most intelligent adults. But it needs to be shared broadly and often.
  • Fully enlisting and supporting subject matter experts
    An extension of the point above is that presenters and other subject matter experts tasked with facilitating learning need to be on board with educating learners about learning and, of course, need to be educated themselves. Our research suggests that many organizations are making at least some effort in this area, but our experience suggests that consistency and quality need to be improved greatly.
  • Being avatars of learning
    As I have argued before, to be a leader is to be an avatar.  If we expect our learners to do more than go through the motions when it comes to lifelong learning, to fully embrace responsibility, then we must do it ourselves. In many cases, though, we cry “busy!” and don’t make the time to embrace good habits in our own professional development and lifelong learning.

In general, we need to create a culture of learning that emphasizes and, indeed, celebrates the learner’s responsibility rather than acting as if all responsibility falls to organizations. Anything less is pandering and does not ultimately serve the learner – or the organization’s mission – well.


P.S. – More on learner responsibility here.

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