What is Adult Learning Theory and Why Is It Important?

We often take for granted that people know how to learn. After all, we all had to learn while in school, right? But that can be a dangerous attitude to take when it comes to corporate training initiatives. School curricula are built on theories about how children and teenagers learn (and how much time they can dedicate to learning). Have you ever considered whether adults learn in the same way? (Spoiler: They don’t!)

That’s where Adult Learning Theory comes into play. Knowing how adults tend to learn, you can tailor corporate training programs to take advantage of qualities adult learners have—like their eagerness to learn relevant material, their need to connect with experience, and their motivation to improve themselves.

To grasp adult learning theory and how it can be applied, it helps to contrast how adults learn from how we learned when we were children.


How Adults Learn is Different from How Kids Learn

A lot of corporate training is based loosely on models of education found in schools. That’s unsurprising, as school is the first and longest exposure we have to a learning environment. But we have to remember that the reasons adults learn are different from the reasons kids learn.

In school, students learn because they are placed in an environment that prods them to do so. They are placed in a classroom, matched with other students who are roughly the same age and same level of expertise and expected to do nothing but learn for the majority of the time they are there. Most of the motivation is external, meaning that children go through this process to please their parents and teachers (at least until they mature and see the value of learning itself).

Once we graduate, things are different. When adults choose to learn something, it is because they see value in those things. For example, we might pick up a hobby because we find it interesting or relaxing. Or we might learn a skill that will help us advance in our careers. It’s our interests and ambitions that drive learning.

In corporate learning, that difference is sometimes forgotten. When that happens, training is based on a school model where people are grouped together and required to learn content. It’s no wonder that model doesn’t work:

  • After spending years in school, adults don’t want to have “homework” in the form of training courses.

  • Adults have different levels of expertise, and so any classroom will have some learners who are struggling to keep up, and some who are bored because they already know the material.

So how do we make training something that adults WANT to do, and how do we make it effective?


Adult Learning Theories

Those very questions—how to make training something that adults want to do, and how to make it effective—are what drive the field of research known as Adult Learning Theory.

If we are using labels honestly, there are several different adult learning theories in the research literature. Some of these include:

  • Transformative learning. True learning experiences should somehow change the individual—at least, that’s the central claim of transformative learning approaches. In practice, it recommends starting with learning experiences that appeal to your specific audience, and then moving on to activities that challenge assumptions and explore other points of view.

  • Self-directed learning. This approach acknowledges that the majority of the learning that adults do is outside the context of formal training, and so the emphasis is on augmenting those informal learning experiences. This can be through providing content, helping individuals plan their learning, or evaluating learning experiences after the fact.

  • Experiential learning. Experiential learning makes the case that the essence of adult learning is making sense of experiences. Adults learn best when they learn by doing. Learning activities thus make heavy use of role-playing, simulations, and so on.

  • Andragogy. Andragogy combines many of the insights from the above theories. This approach starts by recognizing the differences between adults and children and designs learning experiences from there. For example, learning experiences are created with the assumptions that adults come to the table with their own set of life experiences and motivations, can direct their own learning, tend to learn better by doing, and will want to apply their learning to concrete situations sooner rather than later.

There are more, and many variations on these, too. It is a mistake to think of any one of these as the correct theory. Each provides insight into the ways in which adults learn. Conversely, not all adults learn in the same way, and it is important to find approaches that blend several theories so that they can work for the majority. 


From Adult Learning Theory to Instructional Design

So let’s suppose you are creating a corporate training program (or looking to purchase one) based on proven adult learning theory, using video for both mandatory in-house and self-directed learning. How do you tie together the principles of adult learning with the nuts-and-bolts of creating training materials that work?

This is where instructional design comes into play. There are plenty of methodologies for instructional design out there: ADDIE, SAM (Successive Approximation Model), Agile, just to name a handful. But these describe the processes used to create instructional materials and courses. For any of them to be effective, they need to start from a firm understanding of how adults learn in the first place.

Our own approach to adult learning does not pick and choose among theories but uses a blend of them. For example:

  • Our video content seeks to engage learners where they are, slowly building on past knowledge and bringing in new facts and points of view, ending up with sustainable changes in behavior—much like transformational learning.

  • Our LMS, Thinkzoom, allows for just the flexibility needed for self-directed learning.

  • Courses come with plenty of concrete examples, with information that students can use immediately, as emphasized in experiential learning.

Great... But what does all this look like in practice? Glad you asked:


Creating Training that Works, the ej4 Way

Remember, how adults learn on their own is very different from the ways children learn in a classroom. How do we leverage adults’ eagerness to learn relevant material, their need to connect with experience, and the overall goal of transformative change?

Here are seven ways we here at ej4 do just that in this process of designing our own off-the-shelf content!

1. Leverage technology that keeps them learning.

Format is huge, especially if you are trying to encourage adults to continually learn on their own. The format should be easy to navigate, should be repeatable, and should encourage learners to do more.

Think about how a streaming service like Netflix gets us to consume its content: It lets you browse easily, makes suggestions based on what you like, and lets you hit the “next episode” button as soon as you’re done. Imagine if you could get your employees to focus on your training content by using similar tools!

2. Use visuals wisely.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara determined that adding relevant visuals to words resulted in an 89% advantage of learning outcomes. This effect was greatest for learners with little background about a topic, meaning that, when adults with different levels of expertise encounter a piece of training content, those with less familiarity with a topic will be helped by visuals.

Relevance and moderation are important, however. Too many visuals can overwhelm what is being said (and why). Irrelevant visuals will interrupt learning, too. There is a happy medium.

3. Add appropriate audio.

There is ample evidence that audio descriptions can greatly enhance understanding when used to describe or explain complex visuals. Audio cues are also a great way to help learners make their way through a course—for example, intro music can be used to segue to different sections of a video, marking different subtopics. Sound effects are also useful to indicate a transition to a new concept, or the arrival of an important bullet point on the screen. 

4. Use conversational presenters that the learner can see.

Conversational presenters make content more relatable, engaging, and lively. The presenter does not even need to be a person (it can be a simple animated character, for example.)

5. Get the right (concrete) content.

We can process and remember only so much information when it is presented in an abstract way. Most people learn better through experience, but experiences are not something you can transmit via a computer screen. You can, however, make the content much more concrete by providing examples. In fact, learners prefer examples over explanations. That’s why we include lots of examples in all of our off-the-shelf videos.

6. Aim for consistency.

Ever drive someone else’s car and find it a weird experience? Or walk through a neighborhood you are unfamiliar with? Or navigate someone else’s home as a guest? (Just where are the napkins kept?) There’s something to be said for a consistent learning experience. With it, learners are better able to parse and organize the information they are getting. Without it, they are off their “rhythm” and distracted by the “newness” of the format.

7. Provide supplementary materials.

Some people can learn just by listening, but for others, it helps to take notes or review written materials afterward. To engage these learners best (without having them furiously writing things down), try providing prepared notes and supplementary materials. These have the added benefit that you can guarantee key information is accurate and complete.

I'd encourage you to sign up for a 15-day free trial of our Thinkzoom LMS where you can see all these examples put into practice. With access to our full library of training videos, you can experience first-hand engaging and unexpected visuals, audio cues that keep you focused, lively presenters, and more examples of content designed with adult learning in mind. 


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