Principles of adult learning to use for employee development

Close up of a female teacher writing on a whiteboard while teaching
Close up of a female teacher writing on a whiteboard while teaching

Employee development is essential for long-term success in today’s competitive business environment. By incorporating principles of adult learning into their employee development programs, employers can give their staff and organisations the best chance to succeed. 

By facilitating effective and sustainable training and education, employers can bolster their employees’ skills and knowledge, and add value to their organisations. With the proper training and education in adult learning, employers can create a more developed workforce and ultimately improve their return on investment (ROI). 

What are adult learning principles?

Also known as andragogy, the principles of adult learning are a set of guidelines popularised by Malcolm Knowles that aim to optimise learning experiences for adults. Andragogy follows five basic premises:  

  1. Self-concept 
  2. Experience 
  3. Readiness  
  4. Orientation 
  5. Motivation 

Knowles argues that, unlike children who are still developing cognitively, adults have fully developed brains and thus learn differently. Adults are more likely to be self-directed, goal-oriented and motivated by practical concerns. They also have more life experience to draw upon, making it easier for them to make connections between what they are learning and how it fits with their experiences. 

When designing adult learning experiences, these principles are important to keep in mind to ensure that the content is engaging and applicable to real-world situations. 

1. Self-concept

As children become adults, they are more secure in the concept of who they are and what they want. Adult learning should cater to the sense of self-concept in adults. 

Adults are self-directed

Adults tend to be autonomous and self-motivated with a clear sense of what they want and need out of their learning, so they appreciate being allowed to learn at their own pace and in their own way. They already know what habits and methods work for them, so allowing them to apply their tried-and-tested strategies, and maybe uncover new ones, rather than enforcing a strict schedule or learning method, can help optimise their learning. 

Since adults are usually working alongside their education, allowing adults to manage their learning can be beneficial for adult learners who often have limited time to study. It also allows them to tailor learning to their own professional needs. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Employers can encourage self-directed learning for adults by employing flexible education styles. This could be done by allowing learners to choose in-person training, remote learning or opportunities to learn through experience. Employers could also give learners the option of asynchronous education, so they can complete training on their own time and at their own pace.  

For example, if employees are being trained to use a new software program, employers can give them time to work with the program independently or in small groups. 

Adults should have control over their learning environment

The principles of adult learning suggest that adults learn best when they have a sense of control over their educational environment. This means that, ideally, they should be able to choose what they want to learn, how they want to learn and when they want to learn. 

Additionally, adult learners usually have other commitments they need to uphold. Having a sense of control over their educational environment can help them manage their learning while balancing other commitments. This may mean the difference between online or in-person learning, along with other factors. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

One method for allowing employees to have control is letting them choose what topics they want to learn. For example, employers could allow employees to select from various learning options such as courses, seminars, readings, or experiences based on their interests and needs, rather than mandating that all employees complete a particular training course. 

Another way to provide a sense of control is to give employees input into the instructional methods used. For example, employers could allow learners to choose between online and offline learning materials or between more traditional lectures and hands-on learning experiences. Employers could also innovate through co-designing learning experiences with their employees. 

By giving employees some control over their learning environment, employers can create more engaging and effective learning experiences that are better tailored to the needs of individual learners. 

Young women listening to speaker during presentation

2. Experience

Employees have a diverse range of experiences and knowledge that can affect how they learn. Adult learning should acknowledge that:  

Adults can draw on applicable experience 

Adults can use their life experiences to make sense of new ideas and concepts and to learn new skills. Adult learners may build on their experience by transferring existing skills to new contexts or applying prior knowledge to solve problems.  

The wealth of knowledge and experiences adults have can be harnessed and used to their advantage. They can streamline their education and avoid re-learning basic concepts by drawing on previous experiences to use in current situations.  

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Unfortunately, many employers fail to take advantage of their staff’s experience when it comes to learning and development. Rather than building upon adults’ existing skills and knowledge, employers often start from scratch, teaching their employees the basics without considering what they already know. 

Overlooking existing skills is not only a waste of time and resources but can lead to frustration and boredom on the part of employees. 

By starting with what employees already know and building on that foundation, employers can create more effective and engaging learning experiences that will ultimately lead to better results. 

Adults may better remember information if it is presented in various ways

Adults are more likely to remember information if it is reinforced through multiple senses. For example, if adults hear a lecture on a topic, they are more likely to remember the information if they are also given a handout featuring key points and have opportunities for discussion.  

Multisensory learning experiences engage more of the brain and provide a richer, more memorable experience. Adults also often have different skills and experiences, so employing varied methods and schedules could appeal to a wider audience. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Providing multisensory experiences and various options can help learners stay engaged, which can help them absorb and retain the material.  

Employers could use a more interactive approach that includes group discussions, hands-on activities and real-world applications, rather than presenting new information exclusively through more static modes of delivery such as lectures or seminars. 

3. Readiness

Education should be relatable, achievable and applicable. Employers should recognise this when creating relevant, productive learning materials.  

Adults like to relate learning to their experiences

Another one of the fundamental principles of adult learning is that adults prefer to learn from their own experiences. This principle is based on the idea that adults are more likely to be engaged in learning activities if they can see how they relate to their own lives. When we see the relevance of our learning, we are more likely to pay attention and retain the information. 

That is why adult education programs often strongly emphasise experiential learning. By giving adults opportunities to learn through doing, they are more likely to engage with the material and come away with a deeper understanding. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Instead of teaching employees new concepts in a vacuum, employers can provide opportunities for employees to learn through direct experience. For example, rather than lecture employees on team-building principles, employers can create opportunities for employees to work together on projects and solve problems as a team and reflect on those experiences. 

By using experiential learning methods, employers can create more engaging and effective professional development programs that really stick. 

Adults learn best when the learning experience is enjoyable

One of the essential principles of adult learning is that adults learn best when the learning experience is enjoyable. After all, who wants to sit through a dry lecture or read a boring textbook? However, there is more to it than just ensuring that the material is interesting. Adults enjoying themselves are more likely to be engaged and focused on the task at hand. This means that they are more likely to pay attention and retain what they have learned. 

When adults are having fun, they are usually more open to new ideas and willing to take risks. As a result, they are more likely to experiment with different approaches and find creative solutions to problems. 

Ultimately, making learning enjoyable is not only good for adult retention rates but also helps adults to develop new skills and expand their knowledge. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Employers can make professional development more enjoyable for their employees in many ways, such as using games and simulations. They can also use humour and real-world examples to keep employees engaged. By making learning and development more enjoyable, employers can ensure that their employees get the most out of the experience. 

4. Orientation

Education must be practical and future-oriented, meaning educators should use evergreen teaching methods for adult learning.   

Adult learners are goal-oriented

One of the most important principles of adult learning is that adult learners are typically very goal-oriented. They often have specific results in mind when they undertake learning, whether completing a degree, learning new skills for their job or simply expanding their knowledge. This forward focus can help motivate adult learners and keep them on track. 

Because they are typically more aware of the consequences of their choices, adult learners are often more willing to make sacrifices to achieve their goals. For example, they may be more likely to take a less-than-ideal class schedule or spend extra time studying to complete their degree in a timely manner. 

Understanding the goal-oriented nature of adult learners can help educators tailor their teaching methods to better meet the learner’s needs. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

When creating training content, ensuring a clear connection between the material and the goals that employees are trying to achieve is vital. Otherwise, employees may not see the relevance of their learning and may be less likely to put forth the effort to complete the training. 

Employers should provide opportunities for employees to apply what they have learned to help them better understand how they can use the material to achieve their goals. 

Adults process new information through reflection

Adults need time to process new information, which can be challenging in today’s fast-paced world, where we are constantly bombarded with knowledge and expected to immediately incorporate it into our lives. However, research has shown that adults learn best when they are given time to reflect on new information. Rather than focusing on cramming information, adult education should facilitate long-term knowledge and growth. 

Providing adults with opportunities for reflection and discussion can help make meaning out of the new information and integrate it into their existing knowledge. Only then will they be able to apply it effectively. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training? 

Employers can use the orientation adult learning principle in employee development training by incorporating reflection into the training experience. After each professional development session, employers could provide employees with a prompt or question that asks them to reflect on what they have learned –  encouraging learning through experience. 

Alternatively, employers could give employees time at the end of each day to journal their thoughts and impressions from the day’s session. 

By giving employees reflective opportunities, employers can ensure that employees can process and internalise the new information they are learning.  

Group of people learning together

5. Motivation 

Adult learners are driven by factors beyond professional development. Understanding that can help employers come up with fulfilling educational experiences. 

Adults are motivated by a sense of achievement

One of the fundamental principles of adult learning is that adults are motivated by specific achievements. It means that adults are more likely to engage in learning activities if they feel they will be able to accomplish something tangible. For example, adult learners might be more motivated to attend a financial planning class if they know they will be able to complete a budget at the end of the course. 

Similarly, workers attending a professional development session on new software might be more motivated if they know they will be able to complete a project using the software at the end of the course or how they might use the software to improve their day-to-day work. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Employers can apply this principle in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious way is to provide learning opportunities to help employees improve their skills and knowledge in specific areas. By setting clear goals and providing feedback, employers can help employees feel a sense of achievement. 

Another way to apply this principle is to encourage opportunities for employees to use their new skills and knowledge in the workplace. For example, giving employees additional responsibility, offering them the chance to work on special projects or providing them with opportunities to share their expertise with others. 

By giving employees opportunities to apply their new skills and knowledge in meaningful ways, employers can help keep them motivated and engaged in their learning. 

Adults value community and social support

The principles of adult learning propose that adults learn best in an environment that is supportive and nurturing. This means that a sense of community is essential for adult learners. When adults feel like they are part of a group, they are more likely to be engaged in the learning process. 

Social support can be crucial for adult learners. When adults feel like they have someone to turn to for help, they are more likely to persevere through challenging material. By creating a supportive environment for adult learners, we can help them reach their full potential. 

How can employers use this principle in employee development training?

Employers who want to foster a culture of lifelong learning can focus on creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable asking questions, seeking help and sharing ideas. Employers can promote this sense of community by encouraging networking and collaboration inside and outside work. They can also provide opportunities for employees to connect with mentors and coaches who can offer guidance and support. 

By creating a supportive learning environment, employers can ensure that their employees have the necessary resources to continue developing their skills throughout their careers. 

Why reference adult learning theories for employee development?

Taking an evidence-informed approach, such as through adopting adult learning theories, can create a more effective education and yield value for the organisation. The benefits of this approach extend beyond the tangible outcomes of improved productivity and profitability to the intangible benefits of workers who are engaged and motivated to continuously learn and develop their skills. 

In turn, resulting in a more agile and adaptive organisation better able to meet the ever-changing needs of the marketplace. 

Ultimately, applying the principles of adult learning to employee development is an essential ingredient in organisational success. 

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