Stephen Covey once said, “The key to success is dedication to lifelong learning.” Absolutely!
But what can help adult learners commit to lifelong learning and upskilling? The key lies in
leveraging the principles of adult learning to design engaging and effective trainings.
Adults differ from children in their approach to learning and the way they learn. This is because
adults bring with them a wide range of experiences, skill sets, motivations, knowledge, well-
formed opinions, and preferences. This led to the introduction of the term ‘andragogy’ that
describes methods and practices applied for adult education. Malcolm Knowles elaborated the
concept of andragogy and suggested six assumptions to consider while designing adult learning
Knowing how adults learn helps drive more value to businesses and have a greater impact on
learners. Let’s look at the six principles of adult learning and apply them to the concept of
The Six Key Adult Learning Principles:
Adult learners need to know why they are learning to understand the value it offers them. Once it is clear that the content they are learning offers sufficient value, they will be more engaged with the content and motivated to learn.
- Application in Instructional Design: Consider listing the learning objectives at
the beginning of the course whenever learners are introduced to a new course.
This helps learners know right away if the course is for them or not. You can
employ formal, informal and/or creative ways to do this depending on the target
audience and the industry they are in.
- Example: In a language course, the learning designer would typically indicate
the prerequisite level of language skill; topics are covered in the course; and the
time and effort estimated to complete the course. In addition to these, add
benefits of the course such as fluent conversation, impeccable language skills for
a presentation, clearing some exam or attaining some certificate, etc.
Unlike children, adult learners come with a wide variety of experiences that
shape who they are and what they know. It is important to consider learners’ prior
knowledge as a basis to course design and then build upon it.
- Application in Instructional Design: Before you start designing your course,
consider who your learning audience is and what they already know. This will
help you make informed decisions on what to include in your course and what
needs to be left out or made optional.
- Example: The courses you design for onboarding staff will be different from the
courses you design for upskilling your staff because onboarding learners will have very little experience with the company, whereas the upskilling learners will already have some experience with the company.
Adult learners learn best when they can make their own decisions
autonomously and direct their own learning. This is why the most engaging course
material generally includes decision-making activities that require the learners to think
through and make a decision before proceeding.
- Application in Instructional Design: Include pathways for learners to choose
from based on their expertise to encourage them to self-direct their learning. It
helps learners feel they are in control and responsible for their own learning.
- Example: Having optional Click & Reveals that provide further information to the
learner if necessary for extra support.
Adult learners feel motivated to learn when they know there’s an immediate application of their learning through real-world challenges. The fact that the time and effort invested in learning something has a direct payoff is a significant factor in this motivation.
- Application in Instructional Design: Conduct a thorough needs analysis before
developing the course to determine what learners need to learn and why, and
use that information to laser focus your content.
- Example: During the COVID-19 crisis, workplaces had to move online on a short
notice, so employees had to quickly learn how to effectively work remotely.These employees had a sense of readiness to learn new tools and processes.
Adults learn best when the learning material is focused on a specific and immediate problem they need to solve, as opposed to generic and irrelevant material.
- Application in Instructional Design: Determine learners’ pain points and
immediate problems during your needs analysis phase and identify what the
learners must know to address them. Address the ‘What’s in it for Me’ at the
onset of a course.
- Example: In a course on digital marketing, have the learners learn through a
real-world project, such as building and promoting a website. The project being
live, realistic and related with immediate feedback mechanisms will be a great
motivator compared to learning concepts in abstract.
Adult learners learn best when they are intrinsically motivated, i.e., feeling the urge to learn from within. The intrinsic motivators could be in the form of knowing what will give them more opportunities to grow personally or professionally.
- Application in Instructional Design: Ask questions about what is intrinsically
motivating for the learners during the needs analysis. It could be as generic as
being able to convert prospects into leads or as specific as being able to manage
their time better for an effective work-life balance.
- Example: In a company, employees may be required to take a course on
management if they want to move into a supervisory role. If employees are
intrinsically motivated to advance their career and know how a supervisory role
can bring them more success, they will be more motivated to take up the course.
Implementing these principles of adult learning to instructional design promotes better decision-making when designing effective and engaging learning experiences. A lot of resources go into building learning materials. Some foresight, planning and deep understanding of how adults learn can go a long way in making these learning materials impactful.