NLL Distinguished Speaker Series: Ruth Kanfer

The Next Level Lab Distinguished Speaker Series launched on February 9, 2022 with a presentation from Dr. Ruth Kanfer, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Work Science Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

In her presentation, Adult Learning Related to Work: A Person-Centric Perspective, Dr. Kanfer discussed adult learning at scale, which includes the contexts of reskilling, upskilling, and retraining. Major drivers of adult learning include population/workforce factors (e.g., an aging workforce and the influences of migration and urbanization) as well as the career volatility and new skill demands resulting from technology and automation. Dr. Kanfer highlighted research that can inform our understanding of how to develop personalized learning experiences for all adults, and particularly those in midlife and beyond. In particular, the research findings suggest that scholars and practitioners should:

1) Consider differences between individuals in terms of abilities, experiences, and sources of motivation

First, Dr. Kanfer pointed to the importance of taking a whole-person perspective that recognizes differences between individuals in terms of knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits. These differences also interact with context and where someone is in the course of a learning experience. For instance, for a lower-ability learner who is facing uncertainty and high attentional demands at the onset of a training situation, holding a learning mindset (i.e., a mindset which is focused on mastery) can support better self-regulation abilities that enable the individual to stay on-task. Meanwhile, once a person is further into the learning process and cognitive load is reduced, holding a performance mindset (i.e., a mindset which is focused on accomplishment) can motivate the learner to devote more attentional resources to the task at hand. Dr. Kanfer also noted that inter-individual differences in learning and motivation are closely tied to wealth and educational inequalities. Individuals lacking advanced skills often perform hazardous, stressful, low-wage jobs and are often motivated to learn new skills by financial need, whereas those with advanced skills have the privilege of drawing on intrinsic motivations to work in addition to economic factors.

2) Recognize cognitive and dispositional changes that occur within individuals across the lifespan

Additionally, Dr. Kanfer emphasized the need for a lifespan orientation that accounts for changes that occur within individuals as they age. For instance, while some cognitive abilities decline with aging, such as processing speed, working and prospective memory, selective/divided attention, and executive functioning, other abilities remain stable or even improve over the lifespan, including, for example, procedural memory and sustained attention. Likewise, longitudinal research on the “big five” personality traits (agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to experience) indicates that though most changes in personality tend to occur earlier in adulthood (e.g., 20-40 years old), conscientiousness and agreeableness typically increase in midlife. This means that, on average, people tend to become more considerate and better at self-regulation of emotion later in adulthood.

3) Leverage the unique affordances of older adulthood

For individuals interested in designing learning experiences for adults, especially for those in midlife or older, adult development research points to the value of an asset-based approach to instructional design. Older adults possess a repertoire of knowledge and skills that may have taken years or decades to acquire but, once solidified, can often be deployed with little effort to accomplish tasks. This deep domain knowledge can be drawn upon to support the development of new skills by encouraging learners to identify connections between their existing understanding and a novel learning context. Moreover, instructional experiences should leverage the fact that older adults typically display a stable or increased capacity for self-regulation and sustained attention by inviting individuals to set personalized goals and timelines for learning and performance. Dr. Kanfer also noted that it is important to consider how innovative technologies (e.g., conversational agents) can sustain learning motivation by delivering more personalized learning experiences. 

For a more extensive review of the research related to adult learning and work motivation, we encourage you to see this recent publication that Dr. Kanfer co-authored with her long-time collaborator Dr. Phillip Ackerman in American Psychologist. Dr. Kanfer also concluded her presentation with a preview of some recent research her lab has conducted on a “whole person” model of training efficacy and learning outcomes among working adults engaged in Georgia Tech’s Online Master’s Program in Computer Science (OMSCS). You can learn more about this work as it unfolds on Dr. Kanfer’s lab website and at the Georgia Tech Work Science Center.


by Dr. Megan Powell Cuzzolino, Next Level Lab Senior Project Manager