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Top 4 Tips For Adult Learning Theory You Need To Know

You know how the saying goes: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. According to adult learning theory, this is simply not true.

Ripe with prior knowledge and experience, most adult learners are motivated to learn “new tricks” and acquire skills that will be useful professionally. Adult learning theory, or andragogy, helps explain the optimal learning strategies and approaches to use when creating training. The top four tips for teaching adults, according to adult learning theory, include: 

  1. Develop relevant learning objectives.
  2. Teach through active involvement.
  3. Enable learners to work independently.
  4. Listen to your learners.

Andragogy is a learning theory that describes qualities adults prefer in their learning experiences. Instructional designers use these qualities as strategies to develop training programs that resonate with adult learners and drive sustained behavior change. 

You may be asking yourself, “How do adults learn best?”

This article will define adult learning theory, provide four tips to help your organization engage your learners, and explore three examples of it’s application in training.

What Is Adult Learning Theory?

Adult Learning Theory, or andragogy, is a theory developed by Malcolm Knowles about how adults learn best. His theory asserts that learning programs must support the notion that adults are self-driven, learn experientially, and are motivated by internal factors, such as enjoyment or interest in the topic. 

Adult learning theory is essential to the instructional design process because it speaks to what will engage adult learners. Instructional designers must keep andragogy in mind when developing corporate training to ensure that programs are relevant to the targeted audience and effective in the long-term. An andragogical approach to learning has the following benefits:

  • Helps focus the content on adult learners’ needs, leading to higher knowledge retention rates and better-performing employees. 
  • Guides instructional designers in developing learning materials, like course maps, interactive content, knowledge checks, etc. 
  • Assists developers in choosing appropriate modalities that are accessible and navigable for adult learners.
  • Helps devise learning strategies with clear, problem-oriented objectives that motivate adults to learn. 

Knowles’s theory asserts that adult learning has five main assumptions about how adults learn and four principles for applying these assumptions.

5 Assumptions Of Adult Learning

Andragogy makes the following five assumptions about adult learning:

  • Self-Concept — Adults thrive in independent learning scenarios. As a person matures, they become more independent. 
  • Experience — Adults accumulate a growing reservoir of knowledge as they age and can refer to past experiences as resources for present and future learning. 
  • Readiness to Learn — Adults are attracted to learning most when they have developmental tasks to complete with clear objectives.
  • Orientation to Learning — As a person matures, their orientation toward learning shifts from subject to problem-oriented. 
  • Motivation to Learn — Adults are motivated by internal factors rather than external pressures.

These five assumptions clearly define adult learning characteristics separate from those of pedagogy, or learning in children. These assumptions specify the main focus areas that adult learners thrive in and can inform the design and roll-out of training programs. 

4 Principles Of Adult Learning

Knowles’s theory also maps out four principles of adult learning:

  • Adults need involvement in the plan and evaluation stages of their instruction. 
  • Experience and learning from mistakes provide the basis for learning activities.
  • Adults are most interested in learning programs that are of immediate value and relevance to their job.
  • Rather than being concerned with content, adult learning is problem-oriented.

The development and implementation of training programs for adult learners will succeed when these four principles are kept central to the design. 

4 Tips For Teaching Adults

  1. Develop relevant learning objectives — Learning objectives inform the actual design and activities included in your learning program. Learning objectives based on learners’ specific skills, needs, and interests are better suited to meet their demands. 
  2. Teach through active involvement — The adult learning theory states that adults learn based on experience and active participation in their training. Adults should complete programs that allow them to learn by making mistakes, reflecting on them, and fixing them. 
  3. Enable learners to work independently — Adult learners need the freedom to choose when and where they complete their training independently.
  4. Listen to your learners — Collaborating with adult learners is the best way to discover what methods, materials, and resources they find most helpful when learning. 

3 Examples Of Learning Activities For Adults

Now that you understand what adult learning theory is, you may be wondering how to apply this concept to your training program. Instructional designers want to create training programs with engaging activities that adult learners will remember. Let’s break adult learning theory down into three examples you can use for your organization’s training. 

Scenario-Based VR Robbery Activity

Adult learners thrive when they can complete activities autonomously. An example of an autonomous activity is a full virtual reality (VR) program where learners navigate a simulated robbery scenario. In this full immersive training, learners are placed in an environment where their decisions directly impact the robber and his actions. 

This program utilizes andragogy in several ways. This program is not only interactive and problem-oriented, but also corrects learners’ mistakes. Furthermore, learners are likely to be motivated to complete this activity because it utilizes an engaging technology they may have never used before. 

Onboarding Through Blended Learning

The adult learning theory states that adults learn best when a wide range of instructional design models are used to appeal to varied experience levels and backgrounds. This is where a blended learning program can benefit your organization’s training program. 

Blended learning utilizes multiple modalities to create a fully comprehensive program catered to different learners’ needs. For example, learners are onboarded through a personalized blended learning program that embraces both synchronous and asynchronous styles with the following modalities:

  • eLearning — Learners can start by completing an eLearning assignment on their own that teaches them of the organization’s history, culture, and values.
  • Instructor-Led Training (ILT) — Learners can participate in an ILT where they review what was taught in the eLearning activity, meet other employees, and hear from subject-matter experts (SMEs).
  • VR — The ILT can incorporate a VR activity that trains learners in their specific role. This training can be completed independently and is of immediate value to learners.

Technical Training With Augmented Reality

An augmented reality (AR) training activity on cash handling is a viable solution that embraces an andragogical approach through microlearning. Microlearning is training that focuses on one definable concept, skill, or process. According to andragogy, adult learners thrive when presented with clear, focused learning objectives. 

For example, in this scenario, learners are tasked with scanning a customer’s items at the register and completing the sale. This is a focused scenario where associates can learn the technical skills of point-of-sale training. If learners make a mistake, they can quickly learn from it by re-starting the program and trying again. 

Train Successfully With Adult Learning Theory! 

In this article, we’ve covered all there is to know about methods and techniques for teaching adults. We hope you understand adult learning principles in training and development, best practices for teaching adults, and tips to help your organization succeed.

Are you ready to start planning the optimal training program for adult learners at your organization? Get started here or check out more resources here.

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