Principles of Adult Learning

Those of us in the training profession often make reference to the principles of adult learning. We talk about it to our stake holders and subject matter experts, we put it on our resumé and mention it to each other in discussions about training.

Do we really know what those principles are? I have attended many sessions over the years that included the so called principles of adult learning as part of the course and I have seen similar yet unique lists of these principles for almost every course that I have been on. In most cases we turn the page in our work books and that's the last place it's mentioned. Here are some examples from my past that I have gathered up in one spot for the purpose of comparison.

The local college where I took an Adult Teaching course used this list:

  • Adults must want to learn

  • Adults will learn only what they feel is a need to learn

  • Adults learn by doing

  • Adult learning centers on problems and the problems must be realistic

  • Experience affects adult learning

  • Adults learn best in an informal environment

  • Adults want guidance, not grades


A company my former employer hired had this list:

  1. Adults like active participation in their learning experiences.

  2. Achieving goals is the adult learner’s responsibility.

  3. Adults have a wealth of experience and like to share what they know.

  4. New knowledge and skills must be integrated into previous learning. Information that conflicts with previous knowledge or values will be integrated more slowly.

  5. Understanding how learning will be useful (WIIFM) gives adults the necessary motivation.

  6. Learners need to practice in order to perform a skill or solve a problem.

  7. Self-esteem is a critical component of learning.

  8. Adults learn better when they are having fun.

  9. Energy level and interest influence attention span.

  10. To maximize retention, adults need small chunks and frequent summary of information.

Note: WIIFM = What's In It For Me (in case you didn't know).

Another such company had this list:
Adults need:

  • A clear introduction including objectives, benefits, and an agenda

  • An opportunity to express themselves and share experiences

  • A variety of methods

  • The appropriate level of challenge

  • A comfortable learning environment

  • Immediate feedback concerning their progress


Here is a list provided by an individual hired to train us at the same company:

Adults want...

  • A sense of accomplishment

  • To save time

Adults bring...

  • Experience

  • Established behaviours

Adults expect...

  • Efficient use of their time

  • To know the end goal and the process


An American university used the following (I removed the subtext as it was rather long winded):

  • Adults are autonomous and self-directed.

  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base.

  • Adults are goal-oriented.

  • Adults are relevancy-oriented.

  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work.

  • As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect.


Of course I can’t talk about adult learning without mentioning Malcolm Knowles. He has written entire books on this subject, however the following main points summarizes what he has said:

  1. Adult learners need to know why they are learning, what they are learning, and how they will learn.

  2. Adult learners move from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.

  3. Adult learners accumulate a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

  4. Adult learner’s readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of their social roles.

  5. Adult learner’s perspective of time changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly their orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.

  6. Adult learners are internally motivated to learn by its intrinsic value and personal payoff.


After reading all these versions, I felt inclined to re-write it into my own language, and in such a way I might find it useful when I am either conducting training, or designing training. Here is my attempt:

Paul Wilson's Principles of Adult Learning

  • Show your adult learners respect by providing them a comfortable learning environment where training has a clear benefit, objective, and agenda.

  • Organize your training into easy to manage sections with clear summaries at the end of each section

  • Adults bring experience to the classroom. Use this experience in your lessons. Adults can teach one another through group activity or discussion. Adults must see how new learning fits into their prior experience

  • Adults will become motivated to learn when training can show value by providing solutions to problems they have a vested interest in. Adults will focus on those aspects and set their own goals for learning

  • Remember that adults learn by using a variety of methods and learning is retained when it is enjoyable. Adults are self directed and cannot be told when it's time to learn.

Of course like Knowles I expect that I may go back and revise mine a little over time. He had over twenty years to consider his. I've just really thought about mine for a couple of days. If you feel I've missed anything or got something completely wrong, feel free to let me know.