When it comes to training, most companies recognize that everyone learns a little bit differently. Some people learn better through lectures, while others need a more hands-on environment to grasp a new concept or idea. For many years, training programs have incorporated various training methods for precisely that reason.
While this variety has undoubtedly helped make training more effective, these same programs can remain rooted in the mistaken assumption that adults learn much in the same way they did as children. Once adults are around 25, their brains begin to learn differently.
To make your training program worthwhile and effective, you need to adapt your strategies to fit your team of adults.
Understanding andragogy, or Adult Learning Theory, is a critical part of improving team training so you can make the best use of your resources, increase your return on investment, and empower people to meaningfully learn.
In this guide, we'll define Adult Learning Theory and give you some ideas on how you can incorporate these principles into your learning strategy.
Defining Adult Learning Theory
In 1968, Malcolm Knowles set out to define the ways adults learn differently from children. Knowles' Adult Learning Theory focuses on establishing the characteristics of adult learners and exploring how they gain new skills and knowledge.
Since his first publication, he and others have continued refining and adding to Knowles' Adult Learning Theory. Ideas like self-directed learning, experiential learning, and collaborative and cooperative learning stem from this theory.
Whatever the adaptations may include, the theory's core principles provide a solid foundation that you can use to adapt your training and development programs to reach the full potential of your teams.
Let's look at some of the core ideas that make up Knowles' Adult Learning Theory.
5 Assumptions in Knowles' Adult Learning Theory
While Knowles first laid out his theory of adult learning in 1968, he continued to research and adapt his ideas. In 1980, he laid out what he described as his four assumptions about adult learners. He would add a fifth assumption in 1984.
According to Knowles, these five assumptions made up the primary differences between child and adult learners, which would then help to guide educators to adjust their approaches when training adults.
For the most part, children have "dependent personalities," which means that they rely on others to take the lead when it comes to instruction. This dependence is why the classroom approach works in childhood education—an instructor shows children where they should focus their attention.
On the other hand, adults tend to have fully developed concepts of the self. As a result, adults tend to be much more self-directed when learning.
While it is essential to have an expert or trainer to serve as a guide, for the most part, adult learning works best when people are in charge of their training—or at least feel like they are playing an active role in the training process.
Adult Learner Experience
Unlike children, who come into the education process as blank slates, adults have an increasing collection of past experiences that they can draw on during the learning process. This collection of knowledge, references, and other experiences gained throughout their lives can be a powerful tool for adult learners.
This foundation allows them to make connections. These internal links people can create in their minds drive Adult Learning Theory. Each new skill or process must fit within their existing internal framework to be deeply understood and applied. Adult learning is the process of figuring out how to fit new bits of information into that current context.
Readiness to Learn
For most of childhood, education instills specific knowledge—like reading, writing, and mathematics—and training critical thinking skills. The idea is to give students a solid base of knowledge to provide them with the skills they need to succeed later in life.
On the other hand, adult learning focuses typically on learning for a specific reason, like work or personal development.
In essence, adults learn when they want to. This motivation is usually rooted in a desire for advancement. Trainers can leverage this desire for self-improvement by showing that training can directly benefit a person's ability to advance.
Orientation to Learning
Unlike children, whose understanding of time is less anchored to their experience in the world, adults perceive time to be a genuine factor in learning. This time pressure leads adults to seek ways to maximize the value of their experiences in whatever ways they can.
For this reason, Adult Learning Theory suggests that adults prefer training and education that focuses on topics that are immediately applicable to their lives rather than theoretical solutions to abstract issues.
Adult learners are less interested in gaining a deeper understanding of a particular subject and more curious about solving specific problems that are highly relevant to their experience.
Motivation to Learn
This assumption of Adult Learning Theory is perhaps the most significant because it underpins all the other assumptions.
For children, the motivation to learn tends to come from external sources, like teachers, parents, and other adults. While some students do have internal motivation, even these learners are driven, at least in part, to satisfy the expectations of adults.
For adult learners, motivation tends to be more internal. On some level, the authority of a trainer or teacher is less visible than it is in a childhood classroom. Adults have a more fully developed sense of self, and they find themselves driven by their interests.
This internal motivation can take many forms. A desire for self-improvement, for instance, can be a powerful motivator, as can the potential for promotions at work.
Some people even find motivation in defying expectations, especially when told that their goals are unrealistic. Whatever the reason, internal motivation is perhaps the most crucial assumption of Knowles' Adult Learning Theory.
4 Principles of Adult Learning Theory
While Knowles' four assumptions are the most frequently cited part of his theory of adult learning, another essential part of his work comes in the form of four principles that should guide trainers. These principles incorporate the lessons learned from his assumptions and help guide instructors to create programs that will be effective for teams.
Let learners be stakeholders in their own training
Adult learners are independent, self-concerned individuals. They often have limits on their time, attention, and energy. When they have to attend training that they don't feel is relevant, trainers face an uphill battle trying to get learners to buy into the program.
The best way to handle this problem is to allow adult learners to help plan their training and provide a means to evaluate their education programs.
Ask your employees which skills are essential to them and incorporate their suggestions into your training program.
As stakeholders in the planning process, adult learners are more likely to take ownership of their education, motivating them to participate fully in the process.
By allowing your employees to have a voice in evaluating their training experience, they won't feel detached from the result of the training.
Since adult learners are motivated less by pleasing an instructor and more by achieving their own goals, adult learners benefit from setting their own goals and playing a role in determining whether they've hit those targets.
Experience is the cornerstone of ALT
Because adult learners have more positive and negative experiences in their past, their training should rely on those experiences.
For adults, good training involves tying existing skills into new knowledge bases and integrating newly learned skills into prior successes and failures. Using this context as a guiding force in developing training programs makes employees more likely to retain the training.
Make training as immediately relevant as possible
While many adults enjoy "learning for learning's sake," this kind of education is usually relatively informal. Reading books, watching documentaries, and taking courses in subjects that interest them—these hobbies are valuable but are of limited use when it comes to developing training programs.
The challenge for employee training programs is to highlight how each skill will be immediately relevant to the adult learner. Focusing on abstract problems is not only less likely to capture an employee's attention, but it's also more likely that the employee will forget the information before they use it.
Instead, make sure to emphasize the way that every element of your training curriculum is directly applicable, ideally by allowing teams to use their new skills as soon as possible.
Focus on solving problems, not creating content
By the time most learners are adults, memorizing long lists of information is no longer an effective learning method. You might be able to retain some information that way, but for the most part, adult learners perform better when they can focus on specific problems and how they can better learn to solve them.
Rote memorization doesn't provide long-term benefits for anyone, especially in today's world, where people can quickly access information online.
By focusing on solving problems rather than producing more content, you emphasize the importance of learning processes. When you combine a problem-based approach with an emphasis on relevancy, your training programs will be very effective.