ATD Blog

Why Managers Should Understand Adult Learning Theory

Monday, May 19, 2014

To be effective as a facilitator you need to understand how adults learn best. Adults are defined as those 18 and older, and they have special needs as learners just as teenagers and children have their own needs. This is the same age of the work force; therefore, understanding adult learning theory is equally relevant to managers.

Involve adults in the learning process

Malcom Knowles pioneered the field of adult learning and he identified that adults are self-directed. As a result, facilitators and managers should actively involve adults in the learning process.

Adults want to be there. They want to work. They want to learn. Ask them what they want to learn and have them become responsible for their own learning. Engage in job expansion and job sharing. This is highly motivating to those adult employees who may be getting bored or easily distracted.

Use life and work experience

Adults have life experiences encompassing family, work, and previous education. Use the adult learner’s experience and build on that base. Relate their experiences to the theories being taught and engage them in sharing their knowledge. Have longer employed or more knowledgeable employees mentor younger employees.

Appeal to goals


Adults are goal oriented and know what they want to accomplish. They want to be in an environment that is organized and has clear learning outcomes. Show how training will help them reach their goals. In fact, engage the adult learner in creating training goals! How about engaging adult employees in work or productivity goals!

Relate learning to actual work

For the adult learner, learning must be applicable to their work or other relevant responsibilities. Concepts and theory should relate directly to their interests and be useful to them in their work. Take the time to explain what they are doing—and why. What does the end product look like and what is their role in creating that product.

Explain how training will be useful to them on the job, or how what is being learned can be implemented. Use various methods for mastery such as demonstration, and then practice (see one, do one, teach one), role play, activities, and movie clips, etc.

Show respect


As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Managers and facilitators should acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the workforce and trainings.

The focus on adult learning theory carries the potential for greater success and requires a greater responsibility on the part of the manager and facilitator. Adult learners come to work and training with certain expectations. If they can be shown that the work itself and the course benefits them logically and practically, they will perform better, and the benefits will be long lasting.

For more on adult learning theory, check out my new book, Learning for Leadership: A Facilitative Approach to Training Leaders (ASTD, 2104).

Learn everything you need to know about adult learning principles with ATD’s new Adult Learning On Demand Certificate. Enroll today and start your program immediately!

About the Author

Yael Hellman earned her doctor of education degree in institutional management from Pepperdine University. Her innovative training programs in leadership, healthcare, and education have served the greater Los Angeles community for several years. Dr. Hellman brings not only academic knowledge of leadership theory, but also hands-on experience teaching organizational and human resource management in both business and public sector settings.

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