Diving Into Adult Learning Theory

Among other things, adult learners need to find relevance in the learning content. When they know how it all fits into their own learning goals, they’ll be more interested in learning more.

Welcome to 2021! Last year, this column was devoted to explaining a few of the basics, with a special focus on the ADDIE model. I hope the information was helpful, made sense, and provided useful methods for application in your work.

In case you missed one or more of the articles, here are the links:

A: Time to Analyze

D: Design is More Than Skin Deep

D & I: The Magic of Develop and Implement

E: Evaluation Time

This year, I’d like to continue the discussion of theory, practice, and methods that inform the decisions made to craft effective learning content. First up: Adult Learning Theory

Andragogy: Many credit Malcolm Knowles and his 1970s addition to the definition of the term: “The science of understanding (theory) and supporting (practice) lifelong education of adults.” However, it should be noted that the definition originally was formulated by German teacher Alexander Kapp in 1833 (Nottingham Andragogy Group, 1983). Kapp developed it to explain Plato’s education theory. (Hmm…It appears there is a long history and tradition to uphold!) Regardless of whether you credit Knowles, Kapp, or others, the principles make sense and should become a part of your overall design and development practices going forward.

When searching for further information or references, expect to find a variety of different lists and explanations. Sometimes the list is five items and at other times, six. The number of items doesn’t matter. The various lists and sources say essentially the same thing. Meaning, adult learners:

  • Bring their life and work experience with them to the learning content. Life and work experience are the lens they will apply to the learning. Think translation when learning another language.
  • Want to be considered the expert. Fail to treat them with a level of respect at your peril.
  • Are largely self-directed and intrinsically motivated. When they perceive the value, they will do what it takes to succeed.
  • Need to find relevance in the learning content—early and often. When they know how it all fits into their own learning goals, they’ll be more interested in learning more.
  • Are goal oriented. Outcomes and expectations need to be stated clearly up front and throughout the content. They also want to determine how the content applies directly to their work.
  • Are practical. Activities should be steeped both in the job tasks and overall work situationally.

Be sure to assess whether the learning content meets the needs of the learners:

  • Design learning content this way from the outset.
  • Develop a checklist of standards. Use it when planning the content to ensure all aspects are accounted for as the content is being developed.
  • Ask all learners to rate or assess their experience and provide evaluative feedback that is based on the items listed above.

Thanks for reading and see you next month!

Dawn J. Mahoney, CPTD, owns Learning in The White Space LLC, a freelance talent development (“training”) and instructional design consultancy. She is passionate about developing people through better training, better instructional design, and better dialog. Mahoney asks the tough questions to ensure the training content is relevant to the work and performance expectations. She does this work because she loves to see the moment when the learning “dawns” on her learners. If you need help, get in touch with her at: dawnjmahoney@gmail.com.