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The Fundamentals of Adult Learning

Although learning has always been a part of the human experience - often through necessity as much as desire or aspiration - some broad principles for guiding and facilitating adult learning in particular have emerged over the past 40 years. Drawn from the work of Malcolm Knowles, Stephen D. Brookfield, and others, these core principles, along with implications and suggestions for the learning and teaching environment, are outlined in table 4-1.

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Table 4-1: Key Principles of Adult Learning and Their Implications for Teaching/Training Design

Adult Learning Principle Implication for Teaching/Training Design
Adults bring life experience and knowledge to the learning environment. This experience and knowledge includes work-related, family, and community events and circumstances.Adults learn best when they can relate new knowledge and information with previously learned knowledge, information, and experiences.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to reflect upon and share their existing knowledge and experience.
  • Create learning activities that involve the use of past experience or knowledge.
  • Ask learners to identify the similarities and differences between what they are learning and what they already know.
Adults tend to prefer self-directed, autonomous learning?but this is often not an expectation of educational institutions and society.
  • Design training around participants' needs and goals.
  • Ask participants what they want to learn. Learners learn best when they establish a specific learning objective or goal for themselves.
  • Provide learner action-planning tools and templates to help develop and focus their self-directed efforts and facilitate learning.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to direct their own learning through guided inquiry and self-facilitated small-group discussions.
Adults have self-pride and desire respect. They need their experience, beliefs, knowledge, questions, and ideas acknowledged as important.
  • Because learning involves risk and the possibility of failure, design training to minimize each learner's risk and embarrassment.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to share ideas, questions, opinions, experiences, concerns, etc. and to create an environment that honors and respects everything that is appropriately shared.
  • Create flexible training programs that honor participants by accommodating their contributions and questions as much as possible.
  • Make it safe for learners to express their confusion, anxieties, doubts, and fears.
  • Provide opportunities for "small wins" and little victories in the learning process - to build competencies incrementally.
Adults want practical, goal-oriented, and problem-centered learning that can immediately help them deal with life's challenges.
  • Ask learners to identify what they would like to learn about a topic.
  • Establish clear learning objectives that make the connection between participant's needs and the learning content.
  • Share examples and stories that relate the learning content to participant's current challenges. Ask learners to share their own examples that make this linkage.
  • Engage learners in identifying the challenges they face and the value of learning to addressing these challenges.
  • Follow theories with practical examples and applications to demonstrate the relevance of the learning.
Adults desire feedback on the progress they are making at learning something new.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to get immediate feedback to their own learning through case examples, role-playing, quizzes, and responses to trainer questions.
  • Encourage learners to self-evaluate and assess their own learning and performance.
  • Praise any level of learning improvement and encourage continued learning.
Adults have preferences for the way in which they learn. Some prefer learning by doing (kinesthetic), others prefer learning by observing (visual), while still others prefer learning by listening (auditory).
  • Recognized that not all learners will respond to a given teaching method or technique.
  • Use a wide variety of methods that tap into all learner preferences in training delivery.
  • Use all three learning modes (kinesthetic, visual, and auditory) in every 20-minute teaching interval.
  • Make trainers aware of their own learning preferences and make them wary of favoring this approach in their own teaching.
  • Free learners to learn in the style that best suits them by using small group work, dyadic discussions, and individual activities.
Adults learn best through collaboration and reciprocity - an environment where people learn with others while sharing what they already know.
  • Provide a low-risk environment for learning while capitalizing on the different levels of knowledge and skill within a group by using small group work and didactic discussion.
  • Strengthen learner self-esteem is strengthened through team-based learning, based on mutual trust and respect.
  • Use small-group learning to more accurately reflect participants' interdependent and collaborative work environment back on the job.
Adults are motivated to learn by a wide variety of factors. These are the most common: personal aspirations, externally imposed expectations, internal desire or interest, escape from a situation (boredom or fear), growth and advancement, and service to others.
  • Inquire into the reasons participants are interested in learning.
  • Invite learners to identify the link between learning and the satisfaction of a personal need or a reduction in an external stress or threat.
  • Make a connection between the learning content and each learner's long-range objectives (in work and life).
  • Ask participants to discuss in dyads and small groups the short- and long-term benefits of learning the program's content.


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About the Author
Linda Russell is a co-founder and co-director of Russell Consulting, headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. For more than 20 years, Linda has provided consulting and training services in areas such as leadership, strategic thinking and planning, change implementation, employee quality of worklife surveys, organization development, performance coaching, and performance management. Linda has a bachelor of arts degree in social work and completed graduate work in rehabilitation counseling. She specializes in designing and implementing quality of worklife surveys and in facilitating team and organization development interventions.
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