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Adult learning theory

Adult learning theory

Table of Contents

    We tend to take for granted that we know how to learn. 

    Companies do the same with their employees. 

    But, as always, here comes science to throw a wrench in the works. 

    Do we really know how to learn? Are you wasting time and money on learning experiences and training programs that simply do not connect with adult learners? 

    Tough questions. Luckily, adult learning theory can provide answers. 

    That’s what we’ll be diving into in this guide.

    So, get ready to have your preconceptions shattered as you discover:

    • What adult learning theory is
    • How adults learn differently from children 
    • Why adult learning theory is important for organizations 
    • The different adult learning theories (you knew there had to be more than one)
    • How to apply the assumptions of adult learning theory to e-learning 

    Let’s get right into it! 


    What is adult learning theory?

    Adult learning theory, also called andragogy, is a field of the learning sciences that explores how adults learn and the methods and principles used in adult education. 

    The German educator, Alexander Kapp, coined the term ‘Andragogy’ in 1833, but the beginnings of andragogy as a science trace back to the 1960s and the American education expert Malcolm Knowles.

    Put another way, andragogy and adult learning theories are the art and science of teaching adults. 

    Any learning process and environment that targets adult learners can apply the insights from adult learning theory. 

    This is the biggest contribution that Knowles and his theory brought to the learning sciences and instructional design. The idea is that adults have different needs when they learn compared to children.

    The implications of this are wide, especially for companies where most adult learning happens. Think upskilling, retraining, onboarding, compliance training, and more.

    Since the 1960s, when adult learning theory was first formulated and popularized, there has been a lot of research into how adults learn, and several new theories emerged as a result. More on that later. 

    For now, the important thing to remember is that you’re not teaching kids in your company (phew!) but adults. So, knowing about the different adult learning theories can be a real advantage when you design learning experiences

    Up next, we take a look at how adults learn differently than children.


    How adults learn differently from children

    When companies are setting up their learning and development strategy, they often make one critical error. 

    The learning activities and processes are too much like the traditional classroom. This learning experience design flaw leads to disengaged learners and poor outcomes.

    We’re using the word classroom slightly metaphorically here, so yes—the Zoom webinar counts too. 

    Who do you find in a school classroom? School children, of course. 

    So, pedagogy is the science of teaching children. It’s a much older science than andragogy, and it’s about learning activities and methods that best help children to learn. 

    How are children and adults different when they’re in a learning environment? 

    First off, adults tend to have an internal motivation for learning. External factors motivate children, on the other hand: Parental expectations, grades, and just the fact that schooling is mandatory for children. 

    Inside the classroom, children are in age groups, meaning they have a similar level of knowledge and experience. This isn’t true for adult learning groups that can have people of different ages and life experiences. 

    Adults may also be less inclined to take instructions in education the way children are. 

    In general, compared to children in learning environments, adults:

    • Require a higher level of control—adults want to decide when what, and how they learn 
    • Learn better when they can bring past real-life experiences into the learning process
    • Don’t respond well to mechanical learning and memorization and learn better when they can use critical thinking and through hands-on projects
    • Need to know how the learning material applies to their lives and can benefit them immediately through real-world problem-solving 

    In the next section, we look at why adult learning theories are important to achieving the learning goals of your organization.


    Why are adult learning theories important?

    By this point, we’ve absorbed why adults learn differently from children. But why does that matter if, for example, it’s your company’s partner training program?

    Understanding adult learning theories allows you to design better learning experiences for your learning programs. 

    By doing so, you’ll satisfy adult learners’ needs and achieve better learning outcomes. 

    Human resource departments, managers, L&D teams, and anyone else involved in an organization’s learning and development initiatives should understand the learning needs of adults. 

    Implementing the principles of adult learning and being mindful of adult learning styles will ensure your training programs connect with employees. This is the way to help learners achieve the desired learning outcomes. 

    In a nutshell, because adults learn differently than children, an organization needs to deliver training content that is aligned with the adults’ life experiences and motivations. 

    If you treat your employees like children during training sessions, you’ll get nowhere. 

    These days, learning and development are a high priority for workers everywhere, especially millennials. According to a LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report, 94% of employees would stay in their current company if it gave them learning opportunities.

    As you can see, learning and development are crucial for employee retention. But you won’t retain employees if your training programs don’t satisfy their learning needs.

    Next, we’ll look at five different theories and the insights they provide into adult learning.


    5 adult learning theories to implement

    Over time, the principles of adult learning theory gave rise to many different theories on how adults learn. 

    Here we will look at five of them. Keep in mind, though, that there’s no such thing as one true theory of adult learning. All these different frameworks offer interesting and actionable insight into how adults learn.

    When you’re building your learning programs, you’ll draw from all of them.


    Theory #1: Andragogy

    Throughout this guide, we used adult learning theory and andragogy as synonyms. However, while andragogy is the first and most well-known of the adult learning theories, there are others. 

    But right now, let’s look at andragogy itself and why it’s so influential. 

    The main point of andragogy, which is how it got its name, is that adults learn differently from children. We’ve already covered how in the previous section. 

    Andragogy contrasts with pedagogy, which is Greek for “leading children.” Conversely, andragogy is “leading adults.”

    The principles of andragogy are that adults come with their own set of past experiences, can learn new concepts and new skills through self-directed learning, and need to be able to apply learning to concrete real-life situations. 

    These principles don’t just apply to in-person learning. Whether you’re conducting training sessions in a classroom or through a Learning Management System (LMS), you can leverage these principles in your corporate training.


    Theory #2: Transformational learning

    In the 1970s, Jack Mezirow developed transformational learning (aka transformative learning theory). 

    It’s a theory focused on changing how learners think about the world around them and how they think about themselves as well.

    Transformational learning challenges assumptions through the use of learning methods such as dilemmas and real-world scenarios. This way, learners can learn something new by thinking about their preconceived notions on a subject. 

    Since transformational learning focuses on learning through rational thinking, it’s closer to cognitive learning theory than behavioral learning theory.

    Critical thinking and questioning are essential components of transformative learning theory. Through these, learners can evaluate their beliefs and learn from their realizations. 

    Working to challenge one’s assumptions and beliefs is both rewarding and difficult. Transformational learning is best suited to fields such as sociology or philosophy, but companies can incorporate some elements into their training. 

    Namely, that it is possible to change behavior by challenging assumptions. This is an important lesson for change management.

    If you deliver your training online, an LMS is a great tool for implementing transformational learning. Instructors can create discussion forums to encourage an open discourse and share a range of resources to challenge learners’ perceptions.


    Theory #3: Experiential learning

    The 1970s were fruitful years for education theories. From this period comes another adult learning theory—experiential learning

    Proposed by David Kolb, the theory states that life experiences shape adults. Therefore, the most efficient learning comes from experience, according to this theory.

    Learning through experience is one of the main differences between how adults and children learn. Adult learners show a preference for learning by doing. 

    That’s why experiential learning is so well suited to adult education. When people are learning by doing, they also understand the benefits much more easily than when learning is purely theoretical.

    Activities such as role-play and hands-on projects are the main parts of learning programs that use experiential learning as a guiding theory. 

    Experiential learning doesn’t have to happen in person. In fact, it works particularly well in e-learning. The best LMSs come with features to deliver and promote experiential learning in your organization. For instance, virtual role-plays for scenario-based learning. 

    Still, you should be aware of the limitations of experiential learning. The biggest challenge of experiential learning is accurately tracking learner metrics. Nevertheless, modern technology, such as the xAPI standard, can help with that. 

    Its more advanced tracking abilities interact with mobile applications, allowing it to monitor real-life training outcomes.


    Theory #4: Self-directed learning

    Self-directed learning is by no means a new thing. The Ancient Greeks even had a word for it—autodidacticism.

    We’re going to stick with the term self-directed learning, mainly because it’s easier to pronounce. 

    So, the concept of self-directed learning has been with us for a long time. Famous architects, such as Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando, are so-called autodidacts, to name but a few.

    It was again in the 1970s (which was the decade for education theorists) that educator Alan Tough first formalized self-directed learning as a theory and applied it to adult learning in institutions. 

    Today, many higher education institutions and even elementary and high schools encourage their students to do more independent study. 

    As per the principles of andragogy, we know that adults, in particular, like self-directed learning. Self-directed learning puts the learner in the driving seat. They set the learning objectives and the pace of the study, and they judge for themselves how well they’ve done. 

    Of course, your company’s training program cannot be fully self-directed; how would you measure ROI?

    But, encouraging your employees to learn independently from the instructor-led material gives them a sense of autonomy and control. Even something as simple as a knowledge base with additional resources in your LMS can do the trick.

    Some of the top LMSs, come with skills-based learning features that promote self-directed learning. For example, Docebo Skills uses AI to provide learners with training content to boost their soft and technical skills. Employees can choose the skills they want to develop, and the LMS does the rest. 

    It’s a great way to upskill employees and plug knowledge gaps in your organization. Plus, as we know, most adult learning happens on the job, not when HR says so.


    Theory #5: Project-based learning

    Similar to experiential learning, project-based learning is all about doing. Forget about the theory and embrace getting into the nitty-gritty of things with a project. 

    These projects can be individual or group projects that facilitate social learning

    Educators and philosophers, such as John Dewey, championed the idea when it emerged way back in the 1900s. 

    Today, project-based learning is a very popular learning methodology. You can see it in schools, universities, and even companies. 

    The best project-based learning draws on real-world scenarios and takes into account learners’ life experiences. 

    Thanks to its hands-on approach, it’s another learning method that appeals to adult learners. It’s also an effective way to train employees on technical skills. For instance, they can follow a step-by-step tutorial video on how to use new software.

    Up next, we’ll tell you how to apply Knowles’ five adult learning theory assumptions to e-learning.


    How to apply Knowles’ 5 adult learning theory assumptions to e-learning

    While it’s true that most of the assumptions of Knowles’ adult learning theory and other adult education theories come from the 1970s and the 1980s, this doesn’t mean they’re not relevant today. 

    Far from it, actually. 

    By integrating these assumptions into your learning and development programs, you can create learning environments and experiences that resonate with your employees. 

    After all, your employees are adults, and you should treat them as such.


    Assumption #1: Self-concept

    As we get older, we become more independent. Children need a lot of instruction and react to it positively. Adults, less so.

    Therefore, when you design training programs for adult learners, you should minimize instruction while maximizing self-directed learning. 

    One of the basic LMS features is that it can offer support and guidance just when the learners need them. So, most online courses can be pretty self-directed. Learners can choose between different modules and take quizzes in their own time. 

    Implementing a form of blended learning is a great way to give autonomy to adult learners. For instance, in a flipped classroom model, the learners study the theory on their own and then have discussions and projects as a group with instruction. Or, you can be fully online and have instructors available through chat and discussion forums to offer help only when needed. 

    Discussion and group projects that require minimum teacher supervision are also great methods to enable self-directed learning and satisfy the adult learner’s need for autonomy and control.


    Assumption #2: Adult-learner experience

    There’s one way in which teaching groups of children is easier than doing the same with adults. Children in the same school grade will have mostly the same life experiences. 

    This is not the case when you’re creating training programs for a group of workers. Some of them could be millennials—some could be boomers. 

    As such, they’ll have different life experiences and different knowledge and competency levels in various areas. For instance, if your group skews older, a lot of gamification may not be the most effective teaching method. 

    It’s a good idea to survey your learners before the training program to gauge their knowledge levels and technical competencies. 

    Adult-learner experience goes beyond just what technologies you’ll use during the course. It will also dictate the style of the learning content. Including funny memes in presentations might work great to engage Gen Z employees, but it likely won’t do much for your employees over 40. 

    In brief, when designing a learning experience, always take into consideration the past experiences of your adult learners.


    Assumption #3: Readiness to learn

    When we are children in school, we’re not given reasons to learn. Learning is mandatory. 

    Of course, as we get older, we begin to realize the value of learning. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. 

    Adults, generally, are ready to learn if they believe that the material will be useful for their personal and professional growth and development. 

    To apply this to your educational content, consider including the social features of your e-learning platform. Discussion groups, online forums, etc., are a great way for your learners to have social proof of their learning. 

    The same goes for activities that encourage them to use social networks such as LinkedIn. Not only can they share their achievements, but they can also build their professional networks and connect with others who share the same interests. 

    For instance, employees can share their certificate from their latest training course and add it to their list of skills and achievements. Some LMSs, such as Docebo, allow learners to share their learning activities on social networks directly from the platform.


    Assumption#4: Orientation to learning

    Adults seek new knowledge when they have a problem to solve. 

    Younger learners accept that the material they’re learning may not be immediately useful to them. In some cases, such as with cursive writing, they accept that it will never be useful.

    But mature learners are different. They need to know why they are learning something and how it will be immediately useful.

    So, when you’re presenting a new training course, whether it’s product training or corporate compliance—you need to convince your learners that these things will be useful to them. 

    Explain how the training materials will help with the real-world situations and problems they encounter. Offer real-world examples and scenarios where the knowledge you’re offering has helped people grow professionally.  

    Stats are always a good idea. If you can prove that sales reps get more in commissions after they’re done with your sales training, that’s just the kind of stuff that adult learners like to hear. 

    If you’re using an LMS, an easy way to do this is by writing a persuasive course description. It should tell learners what will do, why they’re doing it, and how it will improve their lives.


    Assumption #5: Motivation to learn

    Motivation is key for adult learning. Adult learners need to know why they are learning and how it will benefit them. 

    Adults haven’t been in school for a long time, so structured learning doesn’t necessarily come easy to them.

    Without motivation, your learning and development programs will just not be very effective at all.

    This is why you must explain the reasoning behind every module and exercise. How will it help the learners work more efficiently, collaborate, and sell better?… 

    Take a page from the book of learning experience design—effective learning experiences are engaging and meaningful.

    Being told you have to complete an e-learning course because you simply have to doesn’t spark motivation. 

    Remember that as children, parents and teachers expect us to learn. Our motivations are primarily external. If we don’t learn properly, we get bad grades. 

    But as adults, there aren’t many external motivations to take an online course. Sure, we may receive a few passive-aggressive messages from HR reminding us to take that compliance course, but that’s about it. Our motivation is internal and comes from knowing what we’re learning is meaningful and will help us in a significant way. 

    Time to recap everything we’ve learned.


    Now over to you

    Adult learning is a lot different than childhood learning. That’s why there’s a whole science about it. 

    Treating your adult learners like children will only frustrate them and make them switch off.

    Adult learning theories help educators and learning experience designers to create educational content for adults that is meaningful and engaging. 

    By following the principles of adult learning theory, businesses can create training programs that motivate their employees to participate. In the long run, this benefits both the companies and the employees. 

    After all, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In this case, the honey is making clear how the learning activities benefit adults in their professional and personal development. 

    If you’d like to learn more about adult learning and how crucial it is for today’s organizations, take a look at our glossary.