Teaching Adult Learners

Tips for Teaching Adult Learners

When designing a training course for adult learners or creating learning activities for the course, keep in mind the main principles of by Malcolm S. Knowles and others in the field of Andragogy.

Teaching Adult Learners

Below are adult learning principles and suggestions on how to apply those principles when teaching adult learners.  


Learning Principles #1

Adults bring life experience and knowledge to the learning environment.

Adults learn best when they can relate new information with previously learned knowledge, information, and experiences.  However, because of those prior experiences, adults tend to develop biases and assumptions that usually make them more resistant to new ideas and concepts.


Application of Principle

  • Allow leaners opportunity to share their knowledge and experience.
  • Ask learners what they already know about the topic.
  • Create learning activities that use the learner’s past experience or knowledge.
  • Allow an opportunity for the learner to reflect on and evaluate their own experience in light of what is being taught.



Learning Principle #2

Adults want to know why they should learn. 

Adults are motivated to learn if they know the benefits of learning and the costs of not learning.


Application of Principle

  • Develop “a need to know” for the learners by making a case for the value of the learning.
  • Explain the benefits of learning the topic.
  • Discuss the downside of not learning the topic.
  • Help learners answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”



Learning Principle #3

Adults want to be self-directed, autonomous learners.

Adult learners have a self-concept of being in charge of their own lives and being responsible for their own decisions.  They have a need to be seen and treated as being capable of taking responsibility. Self-directed learning provides learners with the opportunity and freedom to choose the means of acquiring knowledge that is best suited to them.


Application of Principle

  • Provide the learner with the ability to make choices and to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • Ask participants what they want to learn.
  • Share power and decision-making roles with the learners.
  • Collaborate with the learners on developing learning objectives and in instructional planning.
  • Avoid lecturing and telling everything to them by acting as a facilitator of learning rather than a director or leader.
  • Design activities that encourage them to explore the topic on their own.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to direct their own learning through guided inquiry and self-facilitated small-group discussions.
  • Provide learner with guides and outlines to help develop and focus their self-directed efforts.



Learning Principle #4

Adults have self-pride.

Adults need their experience, beliefs, knowledge, questions, and ideas acknowledged and valeted as important.  Additionally, adults do not want to fail or look like failures. 


Application of Principle

  • Create a safe, welcoming learning environment.
  • Design training to minimize each learner’s risk and embarrassment.
  • Create a culture of empathy, respect, approachability, and authenticity.
  • Create an environment that honors and respects everything that is appropriately shared.
  • Make it safe for learners to express their confusion, anxieties, doubts, and fears.



Learning Principle #5

Adults are goal-orientated and task-orientated.        

Adults will be motivated to learn as long as they believe the learning is useful to help them perform tasks or solve problems in their life.  They are more interested in learning about topics that are relevant to their jobs or personal lives.


Application of Principle

  • Provide clear goals and objectives of what they will achieve by the educational course.
  • Present knowledge, skills, or attitudes in the context of their application to professional or real life situations.
  • Allow them to apply the obtained knowledge and skills in a practice session.
  • Share examples and stories that relate the learning content to participant’s current activities and tasks.
  • Ask learners to share their own examples of how the topic relates to their job functions or lives.



Learning Principle #6

Adults want to immediately apply what they are learning.

It is important for adults to apply the new information shortly after learning it.  They want to “try out” or practice applying the new knowledge.  In addition to applying learning immediate after instruction, adult learners’ want to know how the new information will help them to perform tasks or solve issues they might encounter in the near future.  In other words, they do not want to learn about something today that they will not apply for several weeks or months outside of the learning environment. 


Application of Principle

  • Provide practice exercises to ensure that learners are able to fully absorb and remember the subject matter.
  • Allow learner to apply what they have just learned shortly after learning it.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to get immediate feedback to their learning.
  • Allow learners time to learn from their mistakes and understand how to correct them.
  • Encourage learners to self-evaluate and assess their own learning and performance.
  • Provide opportunities where the learner can apply the new knowledge on the job or in their life.



Learning Principle #7

Adults have preferences for the way in which they learn.

Some individuals prefer learning by observing (visual), some prefer learning by listening (auditory), while other prefer learning by doing (kinesthetic).        


Application of Principle

  • Recognize that not all learners prefer the same teaching method or technique.
  • Use a wide variety of methods in training delivery to tap into all learner preferences.
  • Combine all three learning modes into one activity (when possible).
  • Vary activities to engage attention and sustain concentration.
  • Encourage activities where learners actively participate in their learning by demonstrating (visual & doing) and discussing tasks (auditory).



Learning Principle #8

Adults learn best through collaboration.

Adult learners accumulate knowledge most effectively when they are active participants in the learning process.  Most adult learners enjoy learning from each other in a group setting. 


 Application of Principle

  • Create an environment where people learn with others while sharing what they already know.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to share ideas, questions, opinions, experiences, and concerns.
  • Create collaborative activities that requires learners to apply critical thinking skills to their questions and responses.
  • Use active learning exercises to facilitate interaction and cooperative learning.
  • Use role plays, debates, questioning, and problem solving as learning activities.




Teaching Strategies for Adult Learners

Adult Learning Principles

Strategies for Teaching Adult Learners

Adult Learning

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