iStock_000018676959XSmallLet’s take a deeper dive into these six principles and show how to apply them when developing training for your staff. Each principle will be described and then the implication to trainers is explained — in other words, what you might do as a trainer to meet the principle.

  1. First, adults have a need to know why they are being asked to learn something new.  Children are satisfied by your simply asking them to learn something, but adults need a sufficient enough reason for them to learn (read that – sufficient enough reason to THEM, not to YOU).  The material adults are asked to learn must be relevant and applicable to their current tasks.  While children trust what they are learning to be useful sometime in the future (even when that learning is high school calculus or history of the French Revolution), adults expect what they are learning to be immediately useful – and in a meaningful way.

    APPLICATION: Understanding that adult learners have a “need to know,” the trainer should look for every opportunity to explicitly link the actual training to the benefits of the training – early and often.  Explain to the participant what they will gain from the training, and the value it is to them. 

  2. The second principle of adult learning is the role of the learner’s experience.  Adults bring a rich background of experience to their participation in a training program.  They tend to filter every learning activity through their own personal experiences and history – they are grading the training before being graded by the training.  Adults learn most efficiently if they can relate new information to their own experiences and bring them to bear upon the content of the instruction.  While children have little or no experience upon which to draw and are relatively “blank slates,” adults have substantial experience upon which to draw and likely have fixed viewpoints (political views not withstanding).

    APPLICATION: Your students’ background of experience can be a rich source of examples from which to base examples and case studies.  You must connect the dots and show the parallel between the new and the familiar.  Discussions, problem-solving exercises, and case studies can be drawn directly from your participants’ experience to help build relevance.  New learning linked to prior experience makes the learning even more relevant to adult participants.  Reinforcing the learning by encouraging the participants to connect it to personal experiences improves retention too.

  3. The third principle of adult learning has to do with the learner’s self-concept.  Adults want to take charge of their lives—just like teenagers want to take charge of their lives – but the difference is that adults accept responsibility for what they do (and that’s what I tell my kids too)!  Allowing adults to be self-directed in how they learn increases their commitment to learning.  In other words, involve them directly in the learning experience.  While children rely on others to decide what is important to be learned, adults decide for themselves what is important to be learned 

    APPLICATION: Your challenge as a trainer is to encourage and empower them to learn—to create a shared responsibility for the learning.  When adults enter a workshop, they tend to return to a learning style that is comfortable to them, the one they were taught as children—passive learning.  Don’t let them sit and attempt to learn passively.  Provide them feedback about how you see them learning and give them opportunities to explore their own learning styles.  Look for opportunities to help them participate in the learning experience by using their preferred learning styles.

  4. The fourth principle about adult learners is that they are particularly ready to learn new information that can be applied instantly to their immediate situation.  This is referred to as the principle of the readiness to learn.  Learning that can be applied to potential future situations is not of particular interest to them. 

    APPLICATION: You can force a child to learn a new concept by using an authoritarian approach (“Just learn it!”), by threatening them with an exam (“This information will be on the test!”), or by explicitly linking a new concept to an interest of theirs.  Typically, the authoritarian or exam approach doesn’t work well with most adults…heck; it doesn’t really work that well (from a retention standpoint) with children!  Adults like to listen to their favorite radio station - WII-FM - the “What’s In It For Me” station.  If you’re playing WII-FM, you’ll get them in the door and in a seat.  The ability to link the information being presented to their specific need to use that information today is paramount to successfully training adults. 

  5. The fifth principle describes adult learners as “life-centered” in their orientation to learning.  They are interested in learning to solve problems or to complete tasks they encounter every day.  Much of training today is subject-oriented or subject-centered.  In contrast, adults learn best when the training is task-oriented or task-centered.

    APPLICATION: For example, if you were to teach a child about temperature and food safety, you would probably focus on facts for them to remember: what temperatures are safe under which conditions and for which types of foods.  To make this topic life-centered or task-centered for adult learners, you would design the training to refer specifically to foods they would actually encounter in a typical day.  You would discuss situations they might find themselves in such as how to make a decision about whether to keep or discard foods based on refrigerator temperatures as opposed to the green mold growing inside the Tupperware.  In other words, you would draw your examples for an adult learner from their everyday lives.

  6. The last assumption about adult learners is motivation.  Adults are more likely to respond to internal motivators like self-esteem, accomplishment, and satisfaction than to external motivators like promotion or increased salary.  The most effective incentives are those that come from within—such incentives will sustain the adult learner’s interest in learning the longest.

    APPLICATION: This understanding of adult learners is a very important tool for trainers.  It suggests that you should always be looking for ways in which an adult learner can experience the successful completion of a goal.  For example, to encourage the completion of a large goal, break it up into smaller, sequential goals and have the adult learner check off on a checklist the completion of each small goal.  The satisfaction of completing the smaller goals will keep the learner on the path to completion of the larger and complete goal.  Likewise, to teach a long lesson, break the lesson into smaller lessons and follow the delivery of each smaller lesson with an acknowledgement of success.  The internal satisfaction of completing the smaller lessons will serve as a driver to complete the whole lesson.

Now that you know the six principles of adult learning theory, there is no excuse for treating your staff like children while training them!  Use these principles to train them like the adults they are and see your results improve.  We’d love to hear how this paper might have impacted your training methods, so please contact us with any stories you’d like to share!  Until then, remember to take care of the customer, take care of each other, and take care of yourself!

1Knowles, Malcolm; Holton, E. F., III; Swanson, R. A. (2005).  The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (6th ed.).  Burlington, MA: Elsevier

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