Putting Adult Learning Principles to Work

Putting Adult Learning Principles to Work

Adult Learning Principles for Job Training Image

If you’ve studied different ways to make the training at your work place better, you’ve probably noticed a few things. The first is that a lot of the ideas are presented in difficult, specialized language that you wouldn’t hear at the water cooler. And the second is that it’s not always clear how to put these different ideas to work. And hey, to expand that, maybe you’ve noticed that employees often don’t remember or apply the training on the job.

Let’s see if we can help you with those problems so you can make your job-training programs better. Specifically, we’ll list and define six adult learning principles and give you some tips on how to put them to work in your training.

Understanding adult learning principles will help you create training materials and a training program that helps adults learn. Without this understanding, your training program won’t be as effective.

Once you’ve got these adult learning principles down and know how to use them while designing, developing, and delivering training, there’s more to learn and do. But this is certainly a great place to start. 

Principles of Adult Learning (According to Knowles)

Adult learning principles are things that all adult learners have in common. These adult learning principles first listed by Malcolm S. Knowles state that adults1:

  • Are self-directed
  • Bring a lifetime of knowledge and experience to training
  • Are goal-oriented
  • Want training to be relevant and task-oriented
  • Learn when they are motivated to learn
  • Like to be and feel respected

So there you have it—six simple principles. How can you design training materials or training sessions that incorporate these six principles and that lead to better training, better learning, and the desired changes in knowledge and behaviors? Let’s look at some ideas for doing that.

Applying Adult Learning Principles in Your Training Program

Let's review those adult learning principles, shall we?

Adult Learners are Self-Directed

What would you rather do—be blindfolded and then be led through a maze as someone pushes you from behind, or remove the blindfold, see where you’re going, and walk yourself to your final destination? It’s the same basic idea with training. Whenever possible, adults want to be in control of their own actions and their own destiny.

How to Design Your Job Training Accordingly

  • Remember that trainers help employees guide themselves through the learning process.
  • When possible, allow employees freedom to take assigned training activities in the order they want to.
  • When possible, allow employees to take whatever training they want.
  • When leading instructor-led training, emphasize discussions, collaborations, and active learning exercises and minimize lecturing.
  • Provide training that allows employees to use leadership, judgment, and decision-making and that helps employees foster these abilities.
  • Involve employees in the development of training materials; seek their input.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to assess their own levels of learning.
  • Provide active training materials—discussions, hands-on exercises, problem-solving scenarios.

Important note: In some cases, employees have been conditioned to be passive learners. They won’t expect you to want their input. To change this perception, especially initially, you’ll have to make it clear to your employees that you value their participation and encourage them to participate in training and other forms of knowledge creation and sharing at work.

Adult Learners Have Life Experiences

When someone tells you something, do you drop it into your mind as if it’s the first thing you’ve ever heard or known? Or do you compare it to your own experiences, consider if it sounds true or not, object if it doesn’t sound right, and—if it sounds true–file it away with similar information, connecting dots in your brain and making it one part of a bigger picture? As you may have guessed, the second description is what adults do.

How to Design Your Training Accordingly

  • Ask for employee input when training materials are being developed.
  • During training, ask employees for their own opinions and experiences on the topic. This is a useful thing to do at all times during training, but especially when training begins.
  • Help workers connect their previous experiences to the new training materials.
  • When introducing new concepts and ideas, use similes, metaphors, analogies, and comparisons to things your employees already know.
  • Remember that each individual may have had different experiences and may hold different opinions; remain receptive to all.
  • Be prepared to address people whose opinions are different than the training and may in fact be correct.
  • Be prepared to respectfully address people whose opinions based on past experience are mistaken.
  • Incorporate the experience of your employees into your training program through On-the-Job (OJT) training, coaching, and mentoring programs.
  • Provide ways for employees to offer feedback on their training.

Adult Learners Are Goal-Oriented

When do you go to your computer and Google something? When you’ve got a problem you want to solve, or something specific you want to know? Or do you just do it randomly? And when you go to Google, do you tend to type in a specific search, or do you click the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button?

If you’re like most adults, when you sit down to learn, you’re trying to learn something specific and you’ve got a specific goal in mind to learn that. Maybe it’s to learn how to fix an appliance at home, or maybe it’s to take online courses so you can get a degree and a better job. But one way or another, you’ve probably got a goal of your own when you sit down to learn. That goal-oriented behavior is a critical adult learning principle.

How to Design Your Training Accordingly

  • Provide training that leads to a clear, desired goal, such as a raise, new job opportunity, new skill, better self-esteem, more responsibilities, or safer work conditions.
  • Explain during training how the training will help lead to the desired goal; help your employees see “what’s in it for them.”
  • Ask employees during training how the training will help them achieve a goal.
  • When training is over, have employees create a small list of action-items of things from the training that they can apply at work.

Adult Learners Want Training to be Relevant and Task-Oriented

In high school, you sat through large “chunks” of content, such as Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, even if you weren’t interested in every topic covered and even if you couldn’t immediately apply the stuff you were learning in your everyday life.

Your average adult isn’t willing to do that. They want job training to be focused on completing specific tasks instead of covering huge subjects like Chemistry. And they want their training to be relevant to their daily life NOW (or very soon), not useful four years later.

How to Design Your Training Accordingly

  • Create training programs that focus exclusively on the material the employee needs to know; get rid of additional material.
  • Create learning activities that are task-based or that emphasize problem-solving. This article on the Task Analysis for Job Training will help.
  • Provide training that the learner can immediately transfer to completing a task or solving a problem in his or her work.
  • Provide training with a clear relation to the employee’s current job or desired future job.

Adult Learners Learn When They Are Motivated to Learn

Do you eat when someone tells you to eat, or do you eat when you’re hungry and feel like eating? Probably the second. Adult learners are the same way—they will learn when they want to learn and see value in learning. They are much less likely to learn if those conditions aren’t present.

How to Design Your Training Accordingly

  • Provide training in small “chunks” shortly before the time it’s needed on the job; avoid providing a large amount of training with the expectation that workers will keep it all in mind until sometime in the distant future.
  • Include explanations of how the training is relevant.
  • Follow guidelines above, including keeping training focused on relevant tasks.
  • Try to provide training on mobile devices, which makes it easier for employees to access training on their own schedule.
  • Provide training so workers can view it in a self-guided, voluntary manner, even if it’s not assigned. This article on the 70/20/10 training model may help with this.
  • Read this article about helping to create a motivated workforce.

Adult Learners Like to be and Feel Respected

Adult learners are adults. They want to be treated with respect and feel respected during training. Seems logical enough, no?

How to Design Your Training Accordingly

  • Always be polite and respectful to employees.
  • During training, ensure that a supportive, respectful atmosphere is always maintained.
  • Don’t assume you know everything and they know nothing; welcome all opinions.
  • Create training that’s focused on the needs of the learner.
  • Follow all the other rules and suggestions listed in this article.


It’s critical to create training materials that are learner-centered, but it’s also very easy to forget this and create training that neglects the needs of your employees.

Two simple things you can do to make your training program more learner-centered is to (a) remember that your employees are adults and then (b) make sure your training materials are designed to match the specific needs of adult learners. If you do this, you’ll see positive results in your training program and in the performance of workers on the job.

For more information on a similar topic, check out our article on how employees can learn to learn and the importance of being a lifelong learner in a changing economy.

If you’re in safety training, you may also find this article on adult learning principles for safety training helpful.

Notes: 1. The adult learning principles listed here are drawn from the original work of Malcolm S. Knowles. Knowles’ adult learning principles are sometimes known as andragogy (from the Greek words for “man” and “leading”).

Want to Know More?

Reach out and a Vector Solutions representative will respond back to help answer any questions you might have.