Adult learning theory: If you aim to sell online courses or other types of education to adult lifelong learners, you need to give yourself a crash course in this topic. Today.
One of the downsides of any rapidly growing market is that a lot of junk gets fed into it. The market for lifelong learning is certainly no exception. There is plenty of snoozer content out there. (I’m betting you have sat through a dull Webinar or two yourself.) Even the stuff that manages to keep your attention is often very light when it comes to delivering true educational value.
Naturally, this represents an opportunity for you.
A reasonable understanding of how adults learn and some effort to adhere to solid adult learning principles as you develop your offerings will stand you head and shoulders above much of the competition.
You’ll see me come back to this topic a lot over time, but a great place to get started is with the principles of adult learning articulated decades ago by Malcolm Knowles, considered by many to be the father of adult learning theory. Here are Knowles’ six principles (taken from his classic The Adult Learner) along with my brief thoughts on how to apply each one as you are creating online courses and learning products.
1. Start with “Why”
Adults need to know why they need to learn.
Seems obvious enough, but we often forget about the “what’s in it for me” (aka WIIFM) when we create and deliver our learning products – in other words, we don’t translate essential adult learning theory into practice.
What are the outcomes learners will actually be able to achieve based on the expertise you provide? What positive change will you help them create?
Keep these questions in mind not just during your promotions or the initial introductions to a course. Make the effort repeatedly throughout the learning experience to tie points back to what the learner wants (and hopefully is getting!) through your offering. Just as importantly, encourage learners to make the connections themselves. Along these line, I like the following quote from Ellen Langer’s excellent book The Power of Mindful Learning:
There are two ways a teacher can make facts or ideas seem personally important. The most common approach is to shape or interpret ideas so that their relation to the lives, interests, and curiosities of the majority of students is readily apparent. When critics of education clamor for relevance, they are usually speaking of this sort of relevance. The second approach is to change students’ attitudes toward the material, that is, to teach students to make the material meaningful to themselves.
For more on Langer’s perspective on learning, check out this Leading Learning Podcast interview I did with her.
2. Share Responsibility
Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions – they have a psychological need to be seen by others as capable of self-direction.
This aspect of adult learning theory always makes me think of the poet William Butler Yeats’ statement that education is not about “filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.” It’s where the trendy topic of “engagement” comes into play.
Adults don’t want to just be read to or subjected to hours of PowerPoint. Offer options in how they can engage with your content, whether that means different formats (audio, video, text), different ways of interacting with you (structured, as-needed), or other variations. And provide good opportunities for adults to “explore” through resource links, discussion forums, and other tools that help them embrace self-direction.
Doing these things will help ensure that learners follow their own motivations, not just yours, as they participate in your learning offerings. The more they are able to connect their own motivations to the experience, the higher value they will perceive.
3. Leverage Learner Experience
Experience is often the best foundation for adult learning activities – often the “richest resources for learning reside in the adult learners themselves.”
Experts have a way of seeming like they have all the answers, even if they know they don’t. Avoid that mistake.
An essential aspect of applying adult learning theory is to give your learners opportunities to share their experiences and to draw upon these experiences as they engage with the content you provide. Simple things like asking people to post their biggest current challenges or greatest past learning experiences in a discussion forum – or even just submitting them through an online form – can provide fuel for a lot of meaningful and engaging interaction. And, of course, this is a form of “listening to the market” that helps you better tailor your content to learner needs over time.
4. Make It Relevant
Adults tend to be most interested in learning that has immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives.
Yes, it’s true. We tend to prefer spending our time learning things that we can actually use. Be sure to provide exercises and activities that prompt learners to tie what they are learning back to their own live and work. And, where possible, provide checklists, worksheets, and other tools that they can actually use in the context of their lives and work
All of that said, don’t make the mistake of thinking all learning has to be aimed at the concrete and practical. It is often the case, for example, that we want to learn things that help to support and enhance our self image. We want to be thought of as the kind of person who understands classical music, for example, or who is “certified” to do whatever we do. While achieving these ends may involve concrete, practical skills and knowledge, much of the relevant value – and the corresponding motivation – is emotional or psychological.
5. Keep It Life-Centered
Adult learners tend to be life-centered (or task-centered, or problem-centered) rather than subject or content-centered.
This is really an extension of the point above, in my mind. Most of us, once we have a mortgage and a car payment on our hands, have limited interested in knowing stuff just for the sake of knowing stuff. Google can handle that.
As a result, when we are engaged in the process of learning, we don’t simply want more information or content. We want to do things with that content that seem meaningful. This is one of the reasons the case study method is so popular in business schools like Harvard’s. Give your learner’s cases. Give them brief assignments that enable them to apply their new knowledge in the context of their own lives. Don’t shy away from testing them occasionally. All of these approaches help you move beyond content, beyond just adult learning theory, and into application of learning.
6. Tap Implicit Motivation
Adults are typically more responsive to internal motivators (job satisfaction, self esteem, quality of life, etc.) than external motivators (promotions, higher salaries, etc.)
Yes, it’s that whole motivation thing once again – and it is a core part of adult learning theory. As Dan Pink made so clear in his best-selling book Drive, most of us just aren’t all that motivated by the material rewards or empty titles that have been the main tools managers (and many teachers) have relied on for eons.
You have to get at learners’ implicit motivations – the aspirations and emotions that are driving them from inside, rather than focusing on the explicit motivations that typically align with grades, prizes, money, and other external rewards. Circle back to point #1 above – you have to get at the “why” to really understand motivation.
This is why I put so much emphasis on “listening” in Leading the Learning Revolution. You have to listen before, during, and after the creation and delivery of your products if you want to really understand the internal motivators.
Malcolm Knowles would no doubt be both stunned and thrilled if he saw what is now possible when it comes to the creation and delivery of lifelong learning experiences. At the same time, he would recognize that his fundamental Adult Learning 101 principles still apply in spades. If you want to create great learning products – the kind that lead to lifelong relationships with your lifelong learning customers – these remain one of the best starting points.
P.S. – A few additional resources:
- If you want to explore Adult Learning 101 further, check out my interview with Harold Stolovitch, author of Telling Ain’t Training – a book every serious course developer should read
- For an even deeper dive into Malcolm Knowles’ principles of adult learning and andragogy, check out An Essential Guide to Andragogy for Learning Businesses on Leading Learning
- Also check out this summary of key points from Make It Stick: The Science of Effective Learning – another must read book for course developers
- Finally, incorporate the practices – and encourage your learners to incorporate the practices -covered in 5 Powerful Lifelong Learning Strategies for Your Toolbox