Consider Adult Learners

Consider Adult Learners

In nearly every job description for a learning and development professional, the following competency is listed:

  • Knowledge of adult learning theory.

However, in my 17 years in the learning and development industry, I have rarely seen adult learning theory applied in corporate training programs. Let’s take a look at the assumptions of the andragogical or adult learning model and you can analyze your own learning programs.

  1. Adults Need to Know Why: Before an adult will put any effort into a training program, he or she wants to know why it’s important. Any trainer will tell you stories when someone came into class and said, “I don’t know why I am here. My manager sent me but I don’t think this is relevant for my current job.” That trainer knows that unless that person makes a very quick connection to the objectives of the course, they are not going to participate and could be a distraction for the rest of the class. The same is true for an online self-paced course. If the busy adult learner does not perceive in about 30 seconds that the course content and activities will bring value, they will shut it down. So what do we do in the training industry to combat this problem? We make training mandatory which goes against the assumption of how adults learn. A better solution would be to design courses and curriculum in such a way that every learning event is relevant to the adult learner and will help them to solve a problem that very day or shortly after the training event occurs.
  2. Adult Learners take Responsibility: adult learners arrive at a point in their life when they feel a sense of responsibility for setting goals and achieving them. As a result, adults who have arrived at this level of maturity would prefer to have some control over their learning. When we attended grade school as a child, we were told what to learn and when to learn it. In the U.S. a school board, far removed from the classroom, selected our curriculum. When we advanced through high school and onto college we began to take more responsibility for selecting learning that would have a direct impact on our careers and money making potential. Most corporate training curriculum are built to align with defined job functions or business objectives. A chemist or an engineer can not decide to take courses on accounting on company time. It does not fit into their defined curriculum. Much of corporate and government training curriculum is mandatory. Reminders are sent out to please complete a course. When companies effectively integrate talent management with business objectives, they move towards accepting adult learning principles. However when all of the focus is on the business performance objectives, corporate learning curriculum resemble the grade school model of our childhood.
  3. Adults build on Experience: As we gain more experience in our careers, we build expertise. A person with foundational knowledge will view a new problem or task differently then someone who is seeing it for the first time. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Experience and competency is an advantage because one can build upon that foundation. If a person has 20 years experience as a manager in a large corporation, he or she can take that experience to manage a small business. However, deep competency in one area can also be an obstacle to learning. If the problems presented in the training are perceived as trivial or not sufficiently challenging, the person may choose to simply use old methods, rather then consider new ways of solving and old problem. When we design training programs for adults we need to take these principles into consideration. The learning has to be sufficiently challenging and adaptive to different levels of experience and competency. This level of learning can be achieved in simulations that adapt to different levels of skill. If the learning is building off of many years of experience, the learning has to be highly experiential and not informational.
  4. Adult developmental stage will impact readiness to learn: Not all adults are in the same stage of cognitive and emotional development. A new MBA graduate is an adult by definition but may not have passed through all of the stages of cognitive and emotional development. Some of the development will come through experiences inside work and other will come from life experiences outside of the workplace. Developers of adult learning programs need to take this principle into consideration. How might this principle impact a new employee orientation program for example?
  5. Adults are task centric not content centric: This concept posits the assumption that adult learners prefer to learn by doing rather then soaking up information through a lecture. Learners at all levels need information. Information is now at our finger tips through the internet and literally at our finger tips through mobile devices. By designing learning to be experiential and task centric, the learner is discovering the relevance of the learning during the event. This ties back to some of the other assumptions. John Dewey argued that learning in childhood should also be experiential to ensure successful learning. Dr. David Merrill concluded after years of research in learning that “information is not instruction.”
  6. Adults have different motivations to learn: Training developers need to understand that adults are not motivated to learn in order to advance their careers, but more importantly to be happy. As a manager I would frequently ask my staff members if they were happy with what they were doing. If they were not happy I would look for problems with motivation or gaps in skills. In many cases motivation was a result of a lack of challenge. When a person starts to play a game, if the game is not challenging and the person is not advancing at an acceptable pace, the game is perceived as boring. As a result the person quits. The game of life is the same way (the real game of life). If we are not continually challenged and advancing we get bored and what to stop playing the game. This assumption is connected to talent management and retention goals.


Knowles, Malcolm S., Elwood F. Holton, and Richard A. Swanson. The Adult Learner: the Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005. Print.

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