What You Need to Understand About Adult Learning Theory

Picture yourself attending two training sessions. In the first, you sit quietly in your row as the instructor lectures on the benefits, nuances and applications of the topic. In the second session, you sit at a table with a group of peers as a facilitator introduces the topic, elicits several responses about the group’s current challenges, has each individual complete a self-assessment, shares the key points, has everyone interact in small groups and then asks each person to record their personal goals relating the topic to their present work situation. Maybe there is also a resource (like a discussion guide) for participants to use with their teams once they return.

Which session did you learn more from?

Regardless of your function or industry, learning plays a key role in business effectiveness. No one was born knowing how to do any job – and even with all the preparatory training we’ve received over the years (e.g. college), the speed of change demands that we continually learn better ways. (I know I, for one, don’t want to receive the same surgery a “seasoned” surgeon was trained on three decades ago!) So whether you develop training as a profession or you request it as a professional, it’s worth understanding how adults learn best.

Business People Learning

Malcolm Knowles was an American educator who shaped much of adult learning theory (“andragogy”) with his publications in the 1980s. His works are considered best practice today. What is most important to understand is what makes adult learning distinct. Here are Knowles’ four adult learning principles – and some tips to be mindful of:

Learner Involvement

According to Knowles, adults prefer to be involved in their learning process – planning, goal-setting, evaluation, etc. In other words, they desire an active role, not a passive one. Because every adult’s situation and experience differs, what one learner takes away may be completely different than another. It’s important for educators to facilitate goal-setting among learners and attempt to design the learning process to capture application on an individual level. In many cases, it can also be helpful for educators to position themselves as fellow learners rather than instructional experts.

Bottom line: If you’re not collaborating with adult learners, you’re missing the boat.

Learner Experience

In formative years, education is geared toward learning something new for the future. For adults, their acquired knowledge and experiences provide a starting point – both successes and mistakes. As a result, “trainers” are rarely the only experts in the learning environment. Peers bring expertise as well. In fact, in a recent organizational assessment I recently conducted of several groups of executives, the top rated learning opportunity was “interacting with peers on common problems and sharing best practices.” If your adult learning environment doesn’t include peer interactions of past & present experiences, you’re missing a huge opportunity.

Bottom line: Interact with and incorporate learners’ experiences into the framework of the learning environment.

Relevance & Impact to Learner’s Lives

The topics most ripe for adult learners are those that can have immediate impact on business or personal life. Remember, children learn for the future, adults learn for the present. Because of this, learning assignments should relate to an adult’s stated goals. When learning is relevant and impact is clear (e.g. a sales professional can learn how to close 20% more deals), the learner is inspired and motivated internally.

Bottom line: Adults want to learn when the topic makes them more successful now.


Content is no longer king in adult learning – problem-solving is king. If your team has elected to conduct training, ensure the training addresses the actual problem – don’t just settle for off-the-shelf content, even if it’s good. (Incidentally, many learning needs can be solved in ways other than formal training). Since content isn’t king, learners are more apt to learn by doing than by passive listening. Simulations or practice scenarios go a long way.

Bottom line: The learning solution should be specific to the problem or opportunity.

It’s easy to get learning wrong, even if you have the best intentions and pay top dollar. But the best learning environments – the ones that really result in change – incorporate adult learning theory into the bones of the learning experience.

Are there any learning opportunities you might need to approach differently?

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.