Social time in adult learning

11/03/2021

This week's guest contributor, Lauren Harris, is an industry triple threat in adult learning, working as a freelance trainer, teacher-educator and coach! She has extensive experience working in both the land-based and general further education sector as a lecturer, manager, advanced practitioner and coach. She has a passion for developing a organisational coaching culture and empowering practitioners at all levels to explore their creative and exploratory teaching and learning practice. In her article for The Adult Learning Hub, she shares about role of social time in adult learning & tips for trainers on how to more meaningfully incorporate this into their sessions.


'Social time'. The low-level disruptive chat that ate into my lesson time, distracting my learners from their learning and diverting me away from delivering my session. It became the bane of my working day, constantly fire-fighting the background chatter from within my class of teenage students, talking about tv, weekend plans and social media.

As I became more experienced, I stopped fighting and began to experiment with 'social time'. I began noticing, that not only did my learners love talking to each other, they loved talking to me. I wasn't being left out of the 'chat'. They were curious and sociable. We all are. We are of course human beings, whose need for social interaction is an essential psychological requirement. Those of us who have been through any teacher-education programme or psychology training, are aware of the initial teachings of Maslow and his "Hierarchy of Needs", where the deficit of friendships, belonging and relationships are thought to affect motivation.

I began to integrate purposeful 'social time' into my lessons, just five minutes here or there, with an incentive for my learners to focus on their learning and keep conversation focused on the task in-hand. These were differentiated from unstructured breaks. Sure, I noticed how much my learners loved this and how much more focused they were, but I don't really think I noticed the impact of this until I began working with adults in an online learning environment.

The move onto online learning this past twelve months has been revolutionary. It has broadened opportunities for many adults who would be otherwise unable to engage with learning due to time, travel, family or work commitments. It has allowed us as teaching practitioners to venture into a new digital landscape, where we are accustomed to working on zoom or teams, but our social interaction has been totally compromised. Whilst we can engage with our learners, and vice-versa, using these platforms, it is difficult to make the usual organic social connections through a screen.

Over the past year, I have delivered on courses where the restrictions of the pandemic has resulted in whole cohorts of learners never actually meeting in person, yet there they are, suddenly thrown into a breakout room, expected work with a peer through their screen. 

 Many of my adult learners have felt completely isolated working from home and have struggled with online peer-collaboration, because the usual social chat that is so organic in the classroom, is somewhat stifled online. 

We know from the concepts of social constructivism that social learning is imperative to the learning process and that learning is more meaningful when learners are engaged in social activities. Integrating social time into the delivery of an online (or even face-to-face) course or workshop can be lucrative, especially when we consider the theory behind social learning.

Here are my top tips for incorporating online 'social time' with adult learners:

  1. Ensure that whilst you maintain a positive relationship with your learners, do give them time as a 'cohort' to socialise, so that they can chat in a safe space without the tutor present. A single break out room after starting the session works well.
  2. For groups who are new to one another, a theme or image can work well to break the ice. I often start with a picture of a beach paradise and suggest they talk about what their 'paradise' looks like.
  3. Experiment with learning activities that allow for social collaboration and discussion.
  4. Reallocate break out rooms on a regular basis to ensure learners get to work with different members of their cohort.
  5. Social time doesn't have to be lengthy. 10 minutes at the start of the session is still useful.
  6. Don't rely on learners forming social time themselves outside of your course or programme. This happens organically in the classroom, but not online. The social time you provide will ensure this organic move into external social contact.

Lauren provides training, educational coaching, training and quality improvement consultation services across a range of different organisations. We are so glad to have her voice featured in this week's blog. If you'd like to get in touch with her, send her an email to connect or visit her website to learn more about her services.

Do you have a voice in the world of adult learning, like Lauren? We'd love to hear from you and feature your insights in an article. Email us here to get in touch!


The Adult Learning Hub is an app-based membership community, bringing together passionate adult educators and practitioners in academic settings, community contexts and corporate environments. Our purpose is to develop a more informed and flexible approach that meets the needs of diverse learners; to build on skills that allow us to remove barriers and facilitate meaningful learning, and proactively address workplace challenges as part of a supportive group of fellow educators, so that we can confidently navigate our rapidly evolving world of work and increase our impact for the learners we serve. 

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