The Fundamental Principles of Adult Learning
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min read

The Fundamental Principles of Adult Learning

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Up until the mid-twentieth century, educators didn’t distinguish between adult and child learners. They taught their material with the same techniques, using the same pedagogy for students of any age group. 

This idea began to change in the 1970s, particularly with the work of Malcolm Knowles, a leader in the field of adult education throughout the 20th century. Adult learners are fundamentally different from infant or childhood learners, and they have different needs. 

Knowles draws a clear line between the science of teaching children and the methods used for educating adults, which he calls andragogy. 

The concept of andragogy—and the idea that adult learners are fundamentally different from childhood learners—has since become widely accepted among educators. 

Knowles built his ideas about andragogy around six core principles, that should guide how we build learning experiences for adults. 

Let’s take a look at each of these principles and examine what they mean for adult learning & development professionals: 

1: Adults need to know why they need to learn something

One of the first fundamental differences between adult and child learning is that adults don’t want to go into learning without a justifiable purpose. As Knowles puts it, “Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking it.” 

When you think about the differences in a child’s situation when they’re learning vs. an adult’s, this makes sense. Children are in school for hours each day for several years, with only a distant end in sight. Adults have more limited time and resources to dedicate to learning. If they don’t understand the value of what they’re learning, and how they can benefit from it, they’re less likely to want to dedicate the time and effort required. 

In the workplace

The “need to know” can show up in workplace learning in a variety of ways. Facilitators can make the case that employees need to master a skill in order to be considered for promotion or to do well on their end-of-year review, for example. 

Facilitators can also emphasize the negative consequences of not learning the material: let’s say your company is running a short, mandatory course on IT Security (Eduflow has a pre-baked template for cybersecurity courses). If employees don’t master the material, they could be vulnerable to phishing scams, or compromise the system security of your entire enterprise, which in turn could affect their standing at work. 

2: Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions

In The Adult Learner, Knowles talks about the idea that adults see themselves as responsible, autonomous beings: “Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives.” 

Adults will remember the teacher-student dynamics they followed as children, where a teacher imposed learning that they passively received. They are resistant to being in that position again. 

Self-direction and self-evaluation are essential aspects of adult learning. In order to be effective, learners must be able to identify their own needs and take responsibility for their own learning. This means that adults are responsible for managing their time and setting priorities. They choose what they study and how they learn it, but also how long it takes them to complete a task or project.

In the workplace

For adult learners, this self-concept of being independent doesn’t necessarily mean that all adults learn the same, or that all of them only want to take part in self-directed learning. But it is important to allow for freedom and autonomy, so they can choose how they want to learn, and create the possibility to claim more independence if they want it. Part of the role of the adult educator is also to help shift learners into this new mindset and help them understand that they are now responsible for their own learning. 

Asynchronous, cohort-based courses are a great tool for autonomous learning like this. They have a guiding framework and set requirements, but they don’t impose a set time or place for learning—participants can make the course work for their schedule. And the format also gives learners the flexibility to participate as much or as little as they want to, as long as they meet the minimum requirements. 

One workplace learning trend that goes against the idea of self-concept is when learners aren't able to fast-forward, rewind, or pause videos in their training programs. This happens all the time—especially in mandatory training and compliance training—and is very frustrating for adult learners.

Read about more online learning trends here.

3: Adults are a learning resource for their peers 

Adult learners have more diverse individual experiences than child learners. They’ve been around longer to accumulate those experiences, and they have more experiences to build on. This greater experience has two important implications for adult learners: 

The adult learners themselves are a resource for learning. Adult learning should emphasize learning techniques that make use of the experience of learners, with group discussions, peer-to-peer collaboration, and problem-solving activities, instead of transmitting information one way, from the teacher to the students. 

Adult learning should be personalized and individualized. Because adults have such different experience backgrounds, learning techniques should be tailored to them in order to be effective. 

Want more ideas for learning activities? Check out our blog post on collaborative learning to learn more

In the workplace

Adult learners’ experiences are a great resource in the workplace. More senior employees who have been with your company have more experience of your internal processes, and they can share that knowledge with their peers. By the same token, new employees can share insights and knowledge they’ve gained from previous positions. 

The best way to tap into learners’ experiences in a professional setting is to set up as many opportunities for collaboration and mentorship as possible. The more employees can share their experience, the more your organization stands to benefit. 

4:Adults are ready to learn what they need to know

Adults become ready to learn things as they become relevant to their current needs and priorities. They prioritize different learnings at different points, depending on the context. 

In other words, adult learners have a readiness to learn the things they need in order to cope with real-life situations. 

An adult who doesn’t drive is much less likely to want to learn how to change a tire, for example. It’s not learning that applies to their real-life situation. But an adult driver who just purchased their first car is much more likely to prioritize knowledge about changing tires and general car maintenance because it’s useful in their life context.  

In the workplace

Knowles gives a great workplace example of readiness to learn in The Adult Learner: “Bench workers are not ready for a course in supervisory training until they have mastered doing the work they will supervise and have decided that they are ready for more responsibility.” In other words, workplace training should be adapted to where the individual is in their career. But he also points out that readiness to learn can be stimulated with exposure to role models, career counseling, and simulation exercises. 

Having clear learning objectives in mind when building courses can help designers focus on what’s important and cut out irrelevant information.

5: Adult learning is solution-oriented

In school, learners tend to learn about a subject. They learn about all the different aspects of mathematics like algebra, statistics, or calculus without always needing to know why or how this would help them to become better at being teenagers. 

Conversely, adults want to learn something that will help them solve problems or achieve specific goals. Adults want to learn things that will help them perform tasks, and they are more likely to absorb new knowledge and skills when their application to real-life situations is clear. 

In the workplace

It might sound obvious, but if you want to create solution-oriented learning at work, you need to start by looking at the problem you want to solve. That means thinking about the goal first, and creating experiences that relate to real-world problems and scenarios from there. Tools like scenario-based learning and discussion questions to apply what they learn to their own context and challenges can also help. 

Check out our self-directed course on writing discussion questions that actually spark discussion.

6: Adults need internal motivation

For adults, the strongest motivations to learn are internal: things like job satisfaction, self-esteem, self-actualization, and quality of life are their biggest priorities. External motivators like raises, promotions, accolades, and pressure can still have an impact on their desire to learn, but they won’t be as potent as internal factors, according to Knowles. 

In the workplace

Internal and external motivators can be intertwined, especially at work: a person may learn new skills in order to get a promotion because they know that promotion will improve their quality of life in the long run.  

One strategy is to encourage employees to develop their own professional development plans. A professional development plan can guide them to reflect on their internal motivators and remove barriers that would get in the way of them achieving their goals. 

Create more effective learning experiences by understanding adult learning

Knowles's research on adult learning gives us a valuable framework to understand how, and why, adults engage with learning. At the end of the day, employees are responsible for setting their own learning goals, choosing their own journey to get there, and deciding for themselves how well they are doing. 

Understanding these core principles can help you develop learning experiences that are more engaging for your employees and more successful for your company.

Are you ready to start designing more engaging adult learning? 

Put these adult learning principles into place. Start designing a course using Eduflow today!

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