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CIBO Certified Crop Advisor Pathway:

Sustainable Agriculture Through Sustainable Learning


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Anne Fairfield-sonn

Source: Ag Innovation Series 

An Educator’s Guide to Best Practices for Adult Learning

Learning empowers farmers to make sound decisions and beneficial changes to enhance the sustainability of their farms. The purpose of this guide is to help educators and farm advisors effectively facilitate learning for farmers, agricultural service providers and others working to improve agricultural sustainability.

In this guide we introduce five best practices for adult learning you can use to enhance learning in your educational programs. The five best practices are:

  1. Make content relatable
  2. Engage positive emotions
  3. Give learners choice
  4. Identify mental models
  5. Provide opportunities for practice and application

These best practices are grounded in adult cognitive psychology and neuroscience research. Because the practices are based in human biology, they are applicable to all adult learners. The guide is intended to complement, not replace, other resources you may have on adult education and learning. Its value lies in its singular focus on the application of adult learning research to agricultural education contexts, and it is chock full of examples you can relate to.

The examples we use to illustrate applications of the best practices come primarily from Extension educators and specialists in the Northeast SARE region, because most of our experience is based on working with educators from this region. As you read this guide, we encourage you to think about your work and the work of colleagues and to identify your own examples that illustrate these practices in use.

In this guide we describe how and why these practices work, and we share applications across multiple learning contexts, including workshops, on-farm field days, online courses and one-on-one instruction. Employing these best practices can improve both learning outcomes for participants and your satisfaction as an educator. Our hope is that with practice you will become confident in trying new things and that your skills as an educator will continuously grow.

In the following sections we cover each best practice in detail. First, we describe the science behind the practice. This allows you to enhance your curriculum and activities for your setting, to understand why an activity did not turn out as you planned and rework your approach, and to modify your instruction “on the fly” to adapt to unpredictable situations. Then we provide strategies and examples for how to apply the best practice. To wrap up, we provide a set of prompts to help you review the content and reflect on how you can apply it to your own educational contexts. We recommend spending time on these review sections while the content is still fresh in your mind.

We present the best practices in an order we believe facilitates learning them. However, when you apply the practices you will most likely emphasize some practices over others at different stages of the learning process. And you may use a few practices simultaneously depending on learning goals. Later in this guide, we devote a section to how you can apply the practices before, during and after learning interactions to ensure you are providing optimal support to the adult learners with whom you work.

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Imagine You’re Building a House

Profile: Nevin Dawson, Northeast SARE (University of Maryland Extension) 

Nevin Dawson used a simple analogy to convey the implications of excess tillage on soil health during educational programs he ran for farmers and agricultural service providers. Adapting an idea he first heard in a presentation by USDA NRCS staff, Dawson created an animated slide that compared building good soil health to building a strong house. Soil organisms like fungi, bacteria and other micro- and macro-organisms contribute to building a strong, resilient soil structure, akin to a strong “soil house of bricks.” Tillage can undermine and break down soil structure, just as a bulldozer can knock down a solidly built brick house. This simple analogy turns an ordinarily complex concept, soil health, into one that is more easily understood and meaningful.


SARE project: Building soil health in Maryland through agricultural service provider education (2017)

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Relatable Analogies When Learners Have Limited Experience

Profile: Dan Severson, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension

How do you make new information relatable to beginning farmers when many of them are coming from a non-agricultural background? Dan Severson and his colleagues ran into this challenge when they hosted a series of beginning farmer workshops starting in 2017. Many of the new farmers who enrolled in the course did not have a farming background, so their agricultural experiences were limited. To facilitate learning, Severson and his colleagues started out by using analogies to familiar experiences.

One topic that was foreign to many participants was interpretation and implementation of soil analysis reports. The educators made the analogy that interpreting and following soil report recommendations is like reading a recipe and baking a cake. You need the ingredients in the recipe in the right amounts to make a good cake—leaving out the baking powder will result in a deficient cake. Likewise, soil pH at the right level and nutrients in the right amounts are needed to produce good crops; a pH that is too low or inadequate nitrogen will result in less than optimum production.

When teaching about direct marketing, the educators compared the importance of setting up an effective marketing display to staging a house for sale. You want it to be attractive and to invite entry, with the best features up front. Once you get people into the house, you want to maintain their interest so they linger and don’t leave quickly.


SARE project: Beginning farmer workshops (2017)

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Guided Reflections to Connect New Information and Past Experience

Profile: Olivia Saunders, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension

When learners come into an event with a high level of existing experience, knowledge and skills, giving them the chance to reflect can be a powerful tool for reinforcing new information and techniques. This was the case for Olivia Saunders when she designed an online education module to help beekeeping school instructors in New Hampshire improve their effectiveness as teachers. The beekeeping school instructors were not professional educators. Rather, they were expert beekeepers and longtime bee school instructors who volunteered to teach classes and had a considerable amount of experience to draw from. Saunders designed a program that helped participants link new content to their prior experience and knowledge.

After a series of reading and video assignments about how adults learn and effective strategies for facilitating learning, Saunders asked participants to reflect on their experiences teaching bee school and then respond to a series of questions. The questions included: • Can you think of situations in your own teaching where a strategy you used seemed particularly effective for helping learners “get it”? Using what you have learned in this program, explain why the strategy worked so well.

  • Can you think of situations in your teaching where learners struggled and you felt your teaching strategy was not “connecting”? Using what you have learned in this program, why do you think the strategy did not work well?
  • What feedback have you received on your teaching style—positive or negative?
  • Based on the feedback you have received and what you have learned in this program, what changes do you plan to make in your teaching strategies?

These questions were purposefully designed to prompt the bee school instructors to make connections between their experiences as teachers in the bee schools and new information learned in the online resources. Try this technique for yourself to help make connections between your experiences as an educator and new information you are learning in this guide.


SARE project: Tech transfer for New England beekeepers (2017)

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Using Small Groups to Make Cover Crop Strategies More Personal

Profile: Jason Challandes, Delaware State University Cooperative Extension

Cover cropping is a recognized way to improve soil health. It is also a strategy that must be customized to each farm’s soil, cropping system and management for it to work successfully. This is why, when Jason Challandes coordinated a multi-year education project for farmers and agricultural service providers on cover cropping, he made sure participants had the opportunity to share their experiences in small groups.

First, participants learned concepts and practical advice for application through workshops and field days. At the end of each meeting, Challandes offered small-group discussions that focused on farmer case studies to help participants apply what they were learning to their own situation. The discussion groups usually included a mix of farmers and service providers. In the small groups, participants discussed the cover cropping opportunities and challenges presented by the cases and their suggestions for addressing them. Analyzing cases prompted learners to draw on their existing knowledge and link it to new information to make critical judgments. Discussions often included participants’ stories of similar situations they had encountered. Small groups then debriefed with the whole group about their conversations.

This process helped farmers improve their ability to weigh multiple cover crop decision factors and helped service providers develop strategies for better advising farmers in the future. As one service provider said, “So much amazing information. Lots of great research and ideas to incorporate into local operations.”

Challandes later adapted this strategy for virtual learning. After a presentation by a content specialist about soil health/ cover cropping solutions in various farm settings, participants broke into virtual small groups with a moderator where they discussed case studies and developed questions to help farmers choose cover crops. The whole group then reconvened and moderators shared results from the discussions. Elements that Challandes considered keys for success in the virtual format included:

  • Informing participants in advance that there would be breakout discussion groups
  • Encouraging participation in breakouts, but allowing participants to listen only if they felt uncomfortable sharing
  • Recruiting breakout group moderators in advance
  • Providing a well-defined focus, goal or task for the discussion groups
  • Including ample time for both the breakouts and reporting back


SARE project: Cover crops and soil health training for agriculture service providers in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland (2017)

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A Dairy Farmer Expands His Mental Model About N Fertilization

Profile: Tom Morris, University of Connecticut Extension

Tom Morris has worked with quite a few dairy farmers who believed that corn yield was proportional to nitrogen fertilizer rates. It took negative experiences like years with low yields despite higher rates of nitrogen application, combined with mounting societal pressure to reduce nitrate pollution of water bodies, before farmers were open to adopting new practices.

This quote from a discussion Morris had with Frank, a dairy farmer, illustrates a mental model of fertilizer application based on the erroneous assumption that more is better:

“The year before when we had so much rain, I was very concerned about losing yield from nitrogen loss in the field, and I want, you know, to get maximum yield. I don’t believe in losing yield especially if it only takes more nitrogen. This year, we didn’t have as much rain and the corn looked great. I know you said we should take some corn stalk samples to see how much nitrogen accumulated in the stalks … and we took the samples. The stalk results were really high, and you recommended I cut back my nitrogen by 20–30 pounds per acre. But I can’t do that and risk getting a low yield. I don’t care how much nitrogen is in the stalks; I’m after maximum yield.”

The following year Frank had lower yields that he could not explain, and the corn stalk results showed excessive nitrogen at harvest. He was puzzled and sought out assistance again, asking Morris many questions about what, besides nitrogen, could be the reason for the low yields. After much discussion, Frank decided to pay more attention to weed control, planting dates and compaction, and he began to routinely use new methods, such as the corn stalk nitrate testing, which was cost-shared by NRCS. He used the test results to adjust manure and fertilizer applications for groups of fields.

Frank saw his fertilizer bill drop, and his corn yields did not suffer. His old assumptions about yield and nitrogen management foundered. Frank later joined a group that Morris was facilitating with local farmers who were in various stages of adopting these nutrient management methods for corn crops. Through sharing experiences, Frank continued to gain new knowledge of and appreciation for the variety of nuanced factors that can come into play when making decisions to maximize yields and to apply profit-maximizing fertilizer rates. In this way his mental model of fertilizer application expanded and became more complex, enabling Frank to more effectively address problems that might arise.

Incorporating Deliberate Practice and Application of Knowledge and Skills in a Wholesale Market Training Curriculum

Profile: Violet Stone, Cornell Cooperative Extension

For direct marketing farmers, making the decisions to enter new wholesale markets requires much planning and, in most cases, new knowledge and skills. To help them through this process, agricultural educators and service providers in New York led by Violet Stone developed a comprehensive curriculum and teaching manual and delivered it through a series of regional workshops. The curriculum, called Baskets to Pallets, contains multi-component modules on a variety of needed skills. Each module in the guide is rich with deliberate practice and application opportunities for farmers. Here is a sampling from the course’s marketing module:

  • Farmers first learn tips for approaching prospective buyers and listen to recorded interviews from buyers about their product needs. Next, they divide into small groups and conduct a buyer/seller role-playing exercise where they practice introducing themselves and making their pitch to a buyer. Members of the small group provide peer feedback. Volunteers from small groups then repeat the role play for the entire group and receive feedback from all participants.
  • After learning about sell sheets (which communicate information about a farm and its product offerings for wholesale buyers), branding and labeling, farmers work in small groups to critique sell sheets from example farmers and discuss key features about the farms and the products that the sell sheets were communicating. They also critique sample product labels for messaging and regulatory compliance. Following these activities, farmers create labels for their own products.
  • After learning about different forms of collaborative marketing relationships, how to form them and keys to relationship success, farmers in small groups work through a checklist for evaluating collaborative relationships and a questionnaire designed to assess prospective partners. They also try their hand at constructing a mutually satisfactory contract using an example worksheet.
  • Small groups also discuss problem scenarios with collaborative marketing, such as inadequate post-harvest handling capacity and dealing with variability in certification and credentials among farms. The small groups come up with possible solutions. The larger group then offers the small groups feedback and additional thoughts on their ideas.


SARE project: Baskets to Pallets: Preparing small- and mid-scale farmers to enter food hubs, groceries, restaurants and cooperatives (2014 and 2017)

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Putting It All Together

The following case example illustrates how one educator has applied all five of the adult learning best practices before, during and after a learning event. You will note that the educator applied multiple best practices in each timeframe and applied some practices more than once.

Profile: Seth Wilner, New Hampshire Cooperative Extension 

Farm Financial Management Course: A Case Example of Adult Learning Best Practices in Use

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