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Adult Learning Theory: When all else fails, return to the basics

When I started working in this field, I was just doing things that seemed like the right thing to do — common-sense things like making training active for learners, keeping it simple, and making sure it was relevant. What I did not know at the time was that there was educational research, theories, and other science-based support for doing what I was doing by instinct.

One of the first classes in my doctorate program was a learning theories class, and it was, by far, my favorite class. And let’s be honest, shall we? I was super happy to know I had not been screwing up all the learning I developed BEFORE attending the class. I mean — WHEW!!

We learned about dozens of learning theories, we wrote about even more, and even with all of that, we left the class barely scratching the surface of what is out there.

But you know what? You don’t have to know them all to get started as an L&D professional or as a person asked to assist in training development.

If you are a subject matter expert (SME) who has been voluntold to participate in a learning and development project OR are an SME who has moved to a learning and development position OR are a new instructional designer (ID), Adult Learning Theory will never lead you astray.

Meet Malcolm

Malcolm Knowles was a pioneer in the field of adult learning (andragogy). He highlighted several things about adult learners that make them unique and that adults therefore should be approached differently from children when attempting to teach them something.

These became the Six Principles of Adult Learning.

If you let these principles guide a workforce L&D course or initiative and keep these foundational principles in mind as training is developed, you will see the common-sense part of it. None of these are groundbreaking or even surprising. If you stop, put yourself in the place of “learner,” and think about the things that engage you when you are attending training, you are going to nod your head and say, “Malcolm was right!”

PrincipleExplanationWhat it Looks Like in Learning
Need to KnowRelevancy. Adults want to know why they need to learn something, and they want only what they need.WIIFM: What’s in it for me? Answer this question for the learner.
Learner Self-ConceptAdults are self-directed and feel responsible for their own decisions.Allowing adults the opportunity to direct their training path; access to training materials on-demand; or offering in-person, VILT, and elearning options.
Learner ExperienceAdults enter every educational activity with more life/work experience than kids do.Content that is focused on the task at hand without extra information that is “just in case” or “nice to have.”
Readiness to LearnAdults come to courses ready to learn things they need to know to deal with real-life situations.Whether they are pursuing a degree or certification, or attending a training program mandated by work, they come to educational activities looking for things they NEED TO KNOW to be successful.
Orientation to LearningAdults prefer life-centered, task-centered, or problem-centered activities when learning.Relevant, real-life, task-focused learning events. Lots of scenario-based activities that allow them a place to practice new skills.
Motivation to LearnAdults respond to some external motivators (better job, promotions, more $$$), but are actually more motivated by internal pressures (increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, etc.).Appealing to these motivators with relevant information that is easily accessed.

Do you see how some of these intersect? See some of the repetition in some of these? Keep it relevant and task-centered. Sound familiar?

There is a lot of talk about skills gaps and moving focus to training “skills,” etc., flying around right now. Frankly, I feel like L&D has been talking about this for years, but it has not been prioritized.

There is a whole lot of good, relevant workforce learning out there buried in a bunch of other noise that is not going to lead to success for learners when they leave the training event. How can you avoid this?

Tara’s Tips

  • Know your audience. And if you don’t know, ask the questions!
  • What are the actual outcomes for THIS learning event? That is all that needs to be in the content.
  • When developing a course/lesson/program, ask yourself: “What’s in it for my learner?”
  • Incorporate critical thinking and problem-solving in your learning. Let adults work out the answer by providing tools and resources.
  • Use COMMON issues in scenarios. Selecting that one thing that happened that one time a decade ago (just in case) will have learners leaving your training looking for that issue and that issue only. Instead, teach them the skills to solve common issues, and they will grow to be able to solve those outliers when and if they come up.
  • You don’t know what people are going through outside the office or training room — be kind.


I joke that learning theories are both my love language and my toxic trait. It is not a joke. It is 100 percent legit. Whether it is Malcom Knowles, John Dewey, Benjamin Bloom, or others, I am a big fan. It never hurts to have a little research-based information to back up ideas for training approaches.

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But wait, there's more!

This podcast episode is all about Adult Learning Theory. Don’t miss it!

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