Adult learning principles – and what makes them relevant

Part of being an effective educator, facilitator or content leader involves understanding how adults learn best. Andragogy is a theory that holds a set of assumptions about how adults learn. Specifically, andragogy places value on the process of learning. It uses approaches to learning that are problem-based and collaborative rather than didactic or rooted in lecture, and also emphasizes more equality between the instructor and the learner.

Andragogy as a study of adult learning originated in Europe in the 1950s and was then pioneered as a theory and model of adult learning from the 1970s by Malcolm Knowles (an American practitioner and theorist of adult education who defined andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn”). Today, just about every professional development guru serving the association community has shared their spin on adult learning principles.

From a staff perspective, these principles become important when identifying qualified professional speakers or when coaching home-grown subject matter experts to deliver content in a meaningful and engaging way. For those who don’t make their career on the speaker circuit (but sometimes find themselves in front of an adult audience delivering content), knowing these basic principles provides direction when organizing, building and delivering a dynamic learning session.

Following are the six principles of adult learning as identified by Knowles (and then grounded within the context of association learning by yours truly):

1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed. Adult learners resist learning when they feel others are imposing information, ideas or actions (or when content leaders appear unprepared, inexperienced or inauthentic). To encourage more self-directed and intentional learning, as well as to foster the learner’s internal motivation to learn, content leaders should:

  • Develop interactive learning exercises that are challenging, but not overwhelming;
  • Show genuine interest in the thoughts, opinions and questions of their audience;
  • Provide feedback to learners, as appropriate, that is both constructive and specific; and
  • Support the disparity in learning styles by employing a variety of learning methods.

2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences. Adults like to be given the opportunity to use their existing foundation of knowledge and apply their various life experiences to their own professional development. Therefore, content leaders should:

  • Welcome opportunities for learners to share their interests and experiences;
  • Draw correlations between past experiences and current problem-solving challenges;
  • Facilitate opportunities for reflective learning; and
  • Examine existing biases or habits that may influence future learning or skill development.

3. Adults are goal oriented. Adult learners become ready to learn when they experience a need to learn in order to cope more satisfyingly with real-life tasks or problems. To facilitate a learner’s readiness for problem-based learning and increase his or her awareness of the need for the knowledge or skill presented, content leaders should:

  • Provide meaningful learning experiences that are clearly linked to personal/professional goals;
  • Share real-life case studies that connect the dots between theory and practice; and
  • Ask questions that motivate reflection, inquiry and further research.

4. Adults are relevancy oriented. Adult learners want to know the relevance of what they are learning to what they want to achieve. To support learners in their quest for seeking and identifying relevancy, content leaders should:

  • Ask learners at the beginning of the learning experience what they expect to learn;
  • Check for meaning, understanding and relevance (to the context of work) throughout the learning experience;
  • Identify what skills, knowledge or expertise learners gained as a result of participating in the learning experience; and
  • Determine how learners might apply what they learned in the future (and in the context of their everyday lives).

5. Adults are practical. Through hands-on exercises and collaborative brainstorming, learners move from classroom and textbook mode to hands-on problem solving where they can recognize first-hand how what they are learning applies to life and the context of work. To support this transformation, content leaders should:

  • Clearly explain their rationale when presenting new ideas or innovative solutions;
  • Be explicit about how the content is useful and applicable to the learners’ work;
  • Promote active participation by allowing learners to try new things, offer suggestions or share healthy skepticism rather than simply observe; and
  • Provide ample opportunities for repetition to promote skill development, confidence and competence.

6. Adult learners like to be respected. Content leaders can demonstrate respect by:

  • Taking an active interest in the development of all learners;
  • Acknowledging the wealth of experiences that the learners bring to their work;
  • Regarding learners as colleagues with unique perspectives and valuable life experience; and
  • Encouraging the expression of new ideas, reasoning and feedback at every opportunity.

So, my question to you is this: How could you leverage these adult learning principles when vetting professional speakers? What opportunities exist within your organization to better coach subject matter experts in the principles of adult learning? The next time you are called upon to serve as a content leader, how will you approach the development and delivery of your session differently?

3 Responses to “Adult learning principles – and what makes them relevant”

  1. 1 Patricia Isenberg
    August 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm

    Thanks for this succinct summary. May I use this for an upcoming train the trainer seminar. If so, how would you want the attribution to read?

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meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

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