7 Adult Learning Principles Every Online Educator Should Know

Sam Thompson
Updated July 25 2021
How Virtual Events March Marketing Forward
Sam Thompson
Updated July 25 2021

Andragogy, a term popularized by Malcolm Knowles in 1967 in the US, is an adult learning theory that distinguishes itself from pedagogy. The differences largely depend on the differences between a child and an adult. Where children typically require direction in the form of a teacher and curriculum, adults typically prefer to direct themselves and have more say in their learning path.


Broadly speaking, andragogy refers to the principles and methods of adult education. Here we will refer to adult learning within the workplace as opposed to, say, adult education for a hobby or for learning’s sake.


Whether there is such a distinction between childhood learning and adult learning can be a source of debate. Rather than draw a line of distinction between the two, adult learning principles or learning principles, in general, maybe better thought of on a spectrum rather than partitioned between child and adult. For this post, we’ll explore seven adult learning principles that draw on the unique qualities of adults to reflect, analyze, comprehend, organize, and synthesize knowledge.


1. Adults Got To Want To Learn

Adults have to want to learn to make learning sustainable. With kids, you can light the fire with rewards or discipline. Kids are motivated to succeed at the promise of approval or the fear of disapproval. With adults, it can be a bit more tricky. You’ll need to sell your course with an enriching experience. Offer instruction that relates to real-world examples that will enable your learners to apply your lessons immediately to their job. If you provide them real value, then you can be sure they’ll sign up for the next course.


Adults are better at self-motivation than adolescents. This is especially true with millennials in the workplace. Millennials currently make up over 50% of the workforce and will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Millennials consistently rate opportunities to learn new skills as a top benefit in their employment and list a lack of training as a reason to start searching for a new job. Even though the benefits of learning in the workplace may be self-evident, providing a good answer to “what’s in it for me” can be all the internal motivation one needs to continue taking your course.



2. Adults Need To Know Why

With so many things going on at home and at work, taking on another task is just something that needs an explanation. As kids in school, maybe the boldest of us would raise our hands and ask, “Why do I need to know this?” The best answer I ever heard was, “Because.” while the honest answer probably would have been, “You don’t.” Neither of those answers suffices for adults with a job to do – especially because learning is not instead of their daily tasks but in addition to it.


Sometimes we need to explain why things are important. If we expect adults to take an extra hour to complete a training task, then we can at least provide them clear reasons why we are asking them to complete these tasks. Informing adults with a real reason why they need to know something motivates them to know it.


To encourage employees to complete a learning program, be ready to articulate why it’s important for your adult learners to fully understand the material. For your internal GDPR training courses, you can make it clear that understanding the principles of GDPR will enable your company to continue doing business with customers in the European Union while failure to understand and comply with them will result in lost business opportunities. To encourage soft skills courses to be picked up, perhaps you have data that shows that completion of such courses results on average with better performance and accompanying promotions.


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3. Adults Learn By Getting Their Hands Dirty

We all learn by doing. Theoretical exercises can be interesting, but they are largely a waste of time if they won’t be implemented. Think of the meetings you have participated in. The number one thing to do is to set action items otherwise you have had a discussion to simply have a discussion and it’s a waste of time. It’s not productive. In that same vein, your adult learning courses should strike at the practical. How can the skills you teach be immediately applied to improve their own workflows?


Instead of having your learners memorizing facts and figures, get them actively involved in their learning. Utilize role-playing activities in breakout sessions and hands-on tasks to help create concrete experiences. Task-oriented learning is a great way to align your program with their own workplace realities. By providing learners a space to apply their learning in interactive sessions, you are building a real bridge between the theoretical and the practical.


Active learning provides opportunities for practice, collaboration, and reinforcement of theory. Adults learn better by engaging their peers through collaborative activities. Not only does learning by doing increase retention (assuming we accept Dale’s Cone of Experience), but collaboration and discussions help improve critical and creative thinking which in turn pushes trainees to problem-solve more effectively.


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4. Adults Don’t Memorize, They Solve Problems

Learning is often an exercise in confidence-building. When presented with a problem without a known solution, workers may feel inadequate and lack the confidence to face the challenge before them. Such challenges can hinder their performance at work. Your training programs should arm them with the tools to effectively problem solve.


Focus training activities on problem-solving – identifying the problem, considering alternatives, decision making, and implementing a solution. Posing realistic questions and problems to encourage problem-solving is more effective than rote learning. Do we really expect a manager to stop an employee and ask them to recite the employee handbook by memory? You can simulate real work experiences and show learners how they can apply such lessons to their actual work rather than practicing a learning technique that isn’t very practical in the workplace.


For example, let’s say you are working with sales staff to better navigate objections to an accepted offer. Instead of having them memorize a sales script, help them practice problem-solving. Have a few trainees take on roles – one a customer, the other a salesperson – to simulate a sale. Providing your learners a space to work through this flow can help them deliver better results in their sales calls.



5. Adults Are Experienced For Better or Worse

Adults have more experience than children. This academic, social, and professional experience can help launch you into new concepts more efficiently than starting from scratch. Understanding the experiences your learners have can help you craft an effective curriculum by making it relatable and relevant to them.


On the other hand, you may also come in conflict as some experiences may have lead to wrong conclusions or incomplete information. Here you’ll have to help them reflect on their understanding and develop new ideas based on new information that adds to their experience.


Everyone makes mistakes. We need to learn from them. Adults are encouraged to learn from their mistakes by exploring how their experiences lead to real consequences. By tying their experiences in making those mistakes to their eventual consequences they are less likely to continue to make such mistakes in the future.


6. Adults Want Some Ownership

Kids in school must do as their told. Their teacher leads the class and they follow a stringent curriculum. Adults relish their autonomy and we have to take that into account when delivering our learning activities.


Self-paced learning in the form of online courses provides adult learners the ability to have some ownership stake in their learning program. Work with them to set their goals and help them move through their learning journey to achieve their goals.


In synchronous sessions, encourage discussion, collaboration, and active learning. Instead of simply trying to impart wisdom to your learners, they are able to participate in their learning.


Provide ample opportunities for your learners to provide feedback. Allowing them to offer feedback and suggestions enables them to be part of the course development process. Post-training surveys are a great way to include learners in the development process.



7. Adults Are Not Kids

No one wants to be told what to do. Of course, this is true of kids (my kids aren’t even 5 and they already made that clear), but this is especially true of adults (my wife can attest to my stubbornness). Adults need to have options and be active participants in defining the direction of their learning journey. They want to be active in their learning as well as in planning their learning.


There’s a fine line between guiding someone and telling them what to do and you’ll need to practice walking that line. Provide learners options based on their personal needs or specific situation. The key is for them to be able to work better and more efficiently and have more confidence in facing the unpredictable challenges of the workplace. Helping them personalize their learning path with some direction is an effective way to guiding them down the road without pulling them by the arm.


Whether the adult learning principles of adult learning theory are specific to adults or more relevant to a spectrum of learners we encounter, it’s important to remember the goal of adult education in the workplace is to help people perform at their best. To do this we must be thoughtful in our approach as we build course curriculum. We need to meet each learner where they are, understand their pain points, and help motivate them through meaningful, contextual courses that have clearly defined goals. Taking into account these principles when building your courses will certainly help in delivering value to your learners as well as to your organization.

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