Easy Principles of Adult Learning for Online Use

During my career I have seen the principles of adult learning expressed many different ways. I decided some time ago to write them out the way that I find them practical for my use. You don't have to agree with my interpretation of them, however I hope that you do. I've tried to express them in the simplest terms possible in the following points:

  1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed. Adults should be given control over their learning. This can be achieved in online learning by offering a variety of methods to learn. I'm not talking about learning styles, but rather simply offering choices for your learners. For example, learners could have the choice of reading a passage, or watching a video on the same subject. Also avoid restrictions in even something as simple as navigation of the course materials. If the adult learner would like to learn about the third topic first, this flexibility should be allowed. Adult learners should be given something to do rather than just letting them listen to narration or read text on the screen. Eventually adult learners who are continuously being lectured to or even being forced to watch videos for a long period of time will tune out. Having adult learners complete a variety of activities, even when they don’t know the solutions yet, is far more engaging than simply listening or watching.

  2. Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge. Adults should be allowed and encouraged to reflect on their own knowledge and experience.  Trial and error type exercises will help adult learners to tap into their intuition and experience, even if they have to guess at the correct answers.  This keeps the training active and keeps the learners involved. When adult learners get the answer wrong, the course design should use the opportunity to turn feedback into a teaching point, rather than just stating their answer is incorrect. Case studies and scenario based activities are a great way to do this.

  3. Adults are goal oriented. Online courses should be organized and have clearly stated objectives.  Knowing details like, how long the course will take, what topics will be covered and how the learners will be tested, help adult learners align the course to their own goals. Having clearly stated objectives that state the expected performance helps them stay motivated.  They will see how the learning will be applied back on their workplace. 

  4. Adults are relevancy oriented. Adult learners need to see a reason for learning something.  Early in the course a page should be dedicated to the benefits of the course.  Isolate why the course is of benefit to the organization, but also what learners will get out of the course as well.  If a benefit is provided that they can identify with, their motivation to successfully complete the training goes up.

  5. Adults are practical. Online learning should be focused on what adult learners need to know back on the job.  Any material that is outside the learning objectives should clearly be indicated as optional or even avoided.  A method for learners to skip optional content should be made available. Adult learners may not be interested in knowledge for its own sake. Scenarios from their job should be used when possible so the relevancy is clear.  If scenarios are not applicable to adult learners, they will lose motivation for the course.  

  6. Adults need to be shown respect. When writing for adult learners, a conversational style should be used as someone would speak to a colleague.  The narration should never speak down to adult learners. Writers sometimes like to show off their knowledge of the English language. Obscure word usage should be avoided as it can come across as condescending. When creating exercises in training, the goal should be to create activities that test the learner’s knowledge and skill, not create activities that are tricky or test for something outside the course objectives.