Adults learn differently


Adults learn differently

Adults learn differently than children, and organizations that take this into account will notice that their learning programs are much more effective. We will explore the principles for teaching adult learners and share tips on how to motivate them.

How do you tailor education to the learning needs of adults? How do adults learn differently from children? And how does their life experience inform their learning processes?

These were the questions at the heart of Malcolm Knowles's pioneering theory of adult learning which transformed the education theory in the 1970s. The resulting principles have been hugely influential and are still the basis of the learning practices we use today. Knowles defined 4 principles and 5 assumptions concerning adult learning. Understanding these is the cornerstone of increasing motivation and enabling adult learners to achieve their learning goals.

Let’s dive into them.

4 principles of adult learning

Knowles suggested 4 principles that are applied to adult learning:

  1. Adults need to be (somewhat) involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centred rather than content-oriented.

5 assumptions of adult learners

A central part of Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory refers to five assumptions. Each one outlines the general way in which adults look on learning and how they prefer to train.

  1. Self-Concept
    As we grow older, we shift from being dependent to being more independent. Therefore, how we prefer to learn changes from being instructor-led to a more self-directed approach.
  2. Adult Learner Experience
    Adults have lots of experience from which they draw knowledge and references. We can take from these experiences and learn from them.
  3. Readiness to Learn
    Adults want or are ready to learn when there is a reason, such as when it’s directed towards growth and development related to their work.
  4. Orientation of Learning
    As adults, we want what we are learning to be applicable to our everyday lives, instead of being general learning about a subject. We want to learn practical skills that help us solve problems and work better.
  5. Motivation to Learn
    As children, we learn because of external factors, like parents and teachers. However, as adults we want to learn for our own reasons, for example, to progress in work or to boost self-esteem.

So much for the theory. When designing a learning program, what can you do with these principles and assumptions?

7 Tips to enhance adult learning

We like to share with you seven tips on how you can apply this to inspire your learners. Based on our experience we have written down 7 tips to enhance adult learning.

Tip 1. Build a blended learning solution

Engage your learners with a blend of learning experiences. For example, you can mix classroom sessions with online courses to make the learning process more personally interactive and enjoyable.

Tip 2. Link learning to expected results

Most employee learning programs teach a mix of skills, knowledge, processes, procedures, compliance issues, onboarding, and other organization-specific information. Consider the performance-based outcome that the employee is expected to achieve and use your knowledge of adult learning theory to select the method that best aligns to your performance needs.

Tip 3. Formalize your informal learning

Adults who are motivated to learn will benefit from self-directed learning activities. You can support self-directed learning by providing your learners with different kinds of learning content for self-study.

Tip 4. Build communities for practice

A community of practice can help you lead transformational learning initiatives or oversee project-based learning on organizational level. Each community should be led by a coach and supported by a team of colleagues with strong expertise in the focus area.

Tip 5. Incorporate microlearning

Microlearning is more than slicing and dicing a 20-minute module into a lot of 2-minute modules. Effective microlearning creates learning activities or assessments that deliver a full learning experience in just a few minutes. This will allow learners to master one aspect at a time as they increase their overall skill set.

Tip 6. Enable personal learning paths

It’s not always reasonable to make all employees follow the same end-to-end training path. At least an employee moving into a new role may upskill faster than a new hire, simply because they’re already familiar with the company culture and internal systems.

Tip 7. Align learning to needs, not wants

Business stakeholders often prefer the learning solutions they’re most familiar with, and that is highly likely to bridge gaps in performance or knowledge. It’s the job of a learning professional to identify the root cause of a performance or knowledge issue and recommend the best possible solution — which may not be what the stakeholder asked for.

When we are designing our blended learning journeys, we keep these principles of adult learning in mind. It allows us to propose “right fit” solutions tailored to the needs of your learners. If you would like to know more, do not hesitate to give us a call.

Arjan Toet

Arjan Toet

Source: The Adult Learner 9th Edition by Malcolm S. Knowles a.o.

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Ariane van Rossem

Account Manager

Arjan Toet

Learning Architect, Director