Four Principles of Adult Learning and Why They Impact Training Design

Most of us have heard the term “pedagogy,” the method and practice of teaching. But did you know that how adults learn is inherently different from how children learn?

“Andragogy” is a term first used by German educator Alexander Kapp in 1833 to describe the practice of adult education. In the 1980s, Malcolm Knowles, an American educator, adopted and expounded upon this notion suggesting four principles that should be applied to adult learning:

  1. Adults need to be 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-centered rather than content-oriented.

What does this mean for you as you design online learning?

  • Give the learner freedom to choose their learning path.
  • Build on what they already know. We make connections between what we are learning and our prior knowledge and experience.
  • Make it clear why the new information is relevant and important to the learner.
  • Have learners share their knowledge with each other, if possible.
  • Design realistic scenarios and have the learner solve real-world problems.
  • Let the learner make mistakes and learn from them.

Thinking about learning from this point of view may be a fundamental shift for you. Think about ways you can ask your learner to do more, while you talk less. Let’s help our learners to solve problems as they would on the job and make mistakes in the (virtual) classroom and not in the field.

Effective Learning Practices (IREC) 
The Objective of Education Is Learning, Not Teaching (Wharton article and 15-minute podcast) 
7 Top Facts About The Adult Learning Theory (eLearning Industry) 
More on adult learning theory from the U.S. Department of Education (Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy)

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