As designers of learning for corporate environments, we often use the phrase “adult learning theory” to describe the principles that underlie our work. What do we mean by that?

The shorthand answer, of course, is WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). We want to design training that is directly relevant to our learners, training that they can immediately use back on the job.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the assumptions of adult learning theory and explore ways in which to apply it to the design of corporate eLearning.

The Principles of Adult Learning Theory

The “father” of adult learning theory was Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997). He called his theory andragogy (the design and delivery of instruction for adults), to distinguish it from pedagogy (the design and delivery of instruction for children and adolescents).

There are six assumptions that underlie the andragogical model of learning:

  1. Adults need to understand the value of learning something. Learning must be relevant to their lives in some way.
  2. Adult learners are self-directed and want to be perceived as such. They resist efforts of others to impose learning upon them
  3. In contrast to children, adults bring their own life experiences to learning.
  4. Adults also bring a “readiness to learn” to the learning experience. Learning takes place for adults at developmentally appropriate times (for example, when they receive a promotion).
  5. Adults are motivated to learn those things that will help them in their lives. Instruction for adults is best presented as offering improvement to their personal or professional lives.
  6. Adult learners are extrinsically motivated and goal-oriented. They learn for the purpose of improving job skills, getting a raise, increasing self-esteem, and so forth.

For more details on andragogy, see the classic text on the subject.


The adult learner brings unique challenges to the learning environment. With work responsibilities, family commitments, and community activities, adult learners typically have little time to pursue formal learning.

We all know that learning in the workplace is driven by considerations of time and efficiency. Training is time-consuming and expensive to develop and administer. Employers want to minimize the amount of time spent in training, while employees want the time they spend in training to be of immediate value.

At a deeper level, adults often find great personal meaning in their work. Adults usually make tremendous investments in their careers – pursuing degrees and other educational qualifications; working long hours; forming working relationships with colleagues and clients; at times fighting political battles for power, recognition, and advancement. Much of the adult worker’s self-identity is closely tied to the workplace.

Designing for the Adult Learner

So how do you design learning that is meaningful for the adult learner? Here are a few guidelines.

  • Know your audience. While audience analysis is always an important part of the ID process, it is critical when designing instruction for adults. Because instruction must be relevant to learner needs, be sure to take time to understand the characteristics and needs of the target population.
  • Watch your tone. The language and tone you use should not “talk down” in a pedagogical manner. Instead, acknowledge the professionalism and expertise that your learners bring to the table.
  • Keep them motivated. Learning must be perceived to be of value to the adult learner, and it must satisfy some internal drive or need. Make clear connections between learning activities and the learner’s life. Make sure your learners know why they need this training and what benefits it will offer them.
  • Respect their time. Adult learners usually have a number of obligations that limit the time available to them to pursue learning. Workplace learning must not place an undue burden or take learners away from their jobs. Furthermore, to be perceived as of value, learning must teach skills the learner will use immediately. Make your learning objectives and strategies succinct and focused on behavioral change back on the job.
  • Let them practice. Give your learners opportunities to practice what they have learned, both individually and collaboratively. Help them make the connection between what they’ve learning in your course and how they’ll apply it on the job.

As you design and develop, remember that adult learners expect learning to have a practical, goal-oriented focus. They’re self-directed and don’t want to have training imposed upon them. Although there are certainly cases in which training is required of adults (for example, as a condition of employment or promotion), adults expect learning to have tangible effects on their lives: to qualify them for a position, to teach them skills that make their lives easier, to enhance their sense of self-worth.

With these considerations in mind, be respectful of your learners. Acknowledge their time, prior learning, and abilities. Never forget that the adult learner always has something to bring to the learning experience that will enrich it and bring value to other learners.

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