For insight into how mature learners work, we turn to adult learning principles. The adult learning principles, aka Andragogy, pioneered by Malcolm Knowles, detail how adults approach learning and how we can help them along. It provides insight into the differences between the normal training process adopted for children and adult training and lets us know that the old ways of lecturing will not work. Adults require a more nuanced approach to learning. 

All through life, adults seek out learning based on their personal interests, wants, and needs. When properly motivated, this search for knowledge can extend to their professional lives too. This is where corporate training comes in. L&D focusing on corporate training properly infused with adult learning principles can be a force for transformation in the workplace. The outcome, if properly executed, would be increases in productivity and promotion of future-focused growth.

Five Fundamental Adult Learning Principles

Here are five important adult learning principles that should inform and influence your corporate training strategy:

1. Self-directing

Adult learners are self-directed and like to exercise autonomy in their learning. Over the years, they make the necessary shift from dependent to independent and come with their own set beliefs, values, goals and expectations. A self-paced learning structure allows adult learners to have some ownership of their learning process including involvement in planning and evaluation. They do not respond well to the stringent curriculum style used for teaching children.

Instead of largely leaning on an instructor-led learning path, they should be encouraged to make their own choices based on relevance to their goals. Start with identifying these learning goals and then work with them to create a personalized learning process. Request their involvement by asking for opinions and feedback throughout the duration of course creation and even after.

Specific strategies in corporate training

  • Request learner involvement in planning the curriculum, learning topics, session structure, and learning activities for a more personalized learning path.
  • Allow learners to volunteer for helper roles like timekeeping, note taking and discussion facilitation.
  • Provide occasional opportunities for learners to take on the role of the instructor and teach their peers.
  • Collect learner feedback through polls and surveys during and after learning sessions.
  • Anticipate and fill in gaps beyond what learners identify as their needs.

2. Utilization of experience

Adults have accumulated a wealth of experience and knowledge in their past. This experience extends through academic, professional, social and emotional aspects. They also come with a wide range of interests and skills. It’s important that you acknowledge all that your learner comes equipped with and plan their training experience around it.

These past experiences have already set a learning foundation, so assimilating new concepts will not prove too much of a challenge. You can help this along by encouraging learners to connect past experiences with current concepts and activities. It’s important, however, that you understand that the some of the knowledge and experiences they come with may be misleading or incomplete. Help them unlearn some of these concepts but prepare to be challenged on your ideas and approaches. Adult learners will demand an explanation from you for contradicting their previous knowledge on certain topics.

Find out what your adult learners know and what their needs and learning objectives are now. Use the information you get to design a learning strategy and curriculum in a way that is relevant and relatable to their experience. Take time to indulge the diversities they might have in needs, learning models and preferences when making these plans. After learning is complete, find out what they have learned from their training experiences.

Specific strategies in corporate training

  • Ask learners about learning goals before each session and each new topic.
  • Ask questions to find out gaps in learning that should be addressed in future learning sessions.
  • Take learning styles (audio, visual and kinesthetic) into account and let your training style involve a hybrid, multisensory approach.
  • Also acknowledge and incorporate learning preferences such as active vs reflective, practical vs theory, solitary vs group settings.
  • Decide when it’s appropriate to address challenges from individual learners as a group or privately.

3. Safety and respect

As with all kinds of learners, adult learners should be shown respect in every interaction and decision made. Acknowledging their contributions and acting on their feedback is one way to show it. Their experiences and previous knowledge should also be acknowledged and respected.

A collaborative learning experience with their facilitator is the most desirable scenario.

Be courteous and treat them as equals. Learning their names and making sure to use them in interactions can help them connect and engage better with you. Foster a safe and comfortable space for sharing of ideas with peers and instructors alike. Show that all feedback is valued by actually considering and putting them to work.

Also, of note, the change that comes with learning can cause some anxiety for your adult learners. It’s important that you are patient with them and go the extra mile in boosting confidence and soothing any anxieties they might have about learning new concepts.

Start with informing learners regularly about new topics, what they can expect to happen during learning sessions and what your expectations of them would be. Do this as early as possible before each session so they have adequate time to prepare. Model the sort of behavior and the level of involvement you desire from each of your learners. Let them use this as a guideline for learning sessions going forward. Provide support where you can and recruit peers in group activities for where you might fall short.

Specific strategies in corporate training

  • Make a point of greeting learners by their names before each session begins.
  • Before each learning session, communicate the topic, purpose, agenda and objectives to learners as early as possible.
  • Encourage and validate contributions during the learning session.
  • Establish regular feedback loops throughout sessions to assess learner takeaway, correct any misguided learning that may be occurring and address any questions or concerns.
  • Incorporate and facilitate more group activities to help soothe anxieties learners might have about solitary learning and individual activities for when the reverse is the case.
  • For group sessions, inform learners about what would be expected of them. Let them know what they would be required to do and how much they would be required to share.
  • Allow learners an opportunity for them to decline participation to soothe rising anxieties.

4. Relevance

Adult learners seek out learning based on personal needs. They only care if it relates to them and their current experiences and can provide immediate solutions to their issues. When it’s clear that the established learning programs will directly contribute to helping the learners achieve their learning goals, you can expect to see more inspired learners that are motivated to engage in activities and successfully complete projects.

Before embarking on learning design, assess individual learner needs. Cater to trends but also customize the learning program to address the disparities when possible. Use scenario-based learning to sell your learners on the relatability of your learning content. This can involve using real-world examples as case studies and allowing learners to draw from their own personal experiences. Plan practical exercises that align with the realties these adult learners will face in their workplace. Creating learning opportunities that are relevant to your learners inspires their internal motivation and makes learning worthwhile for them.

Specific strategies in corporate training

  • Find out what your learners want to know and plan learning content around it.
  • Let learners know ‘what’s in it for them’. Be explicit on what they stand to gain from partaking in training sessions.
  • Use scenario-based case studies and role playing to bring learning to life to help them remember what they have learnt.
  • Facilitators can draw from their own personal experiences to provide examples that learners can relate to.
  • Discuss learning takeaways with learners and ask how they plan on applying them to their own real-life situations.

5. Social learning

For a well-rounded adult learning experience, social learning needs to be thrown into the mix. Adult learners perform best in informal settings where they can engage in activities and exchange ideas with their peers. It’s the facilitator’s job to foster an environment where social learning can occur naturally.

Collaboration between learners is important. It meets their needs for associations and friendships. Plan learning activities that involve peer-to-peer interactions and collaboration. Activities should involve practical projects they can collaborate on and some healthy competition that will fuel their internal motivation.

Specific strategies in corporate training

  • Have learners take time out to introduce themselves and get acquainted with each other.
  • Form breakout groups within the classroom and plan paired activities including group study and discussion sessions.
  • Have facilitators on hand for certain group sessions.
  • Encourage learner bonding and conversations outside class. You can even go ahead and schedule time for it.

We have to be thoughtful in our approach in training adults for the workplace. Luckily, adult learning principles shed light on what motivates mature learners. By adopting these principles and designing a curriculum that acknowledges and incorporates their goals and pain points, we provide valuable training. The goal of employing these learning principles in adult education is to make learning more attractive to adults and offer solutions where it’s most needed – in the workplace. Relating this to workplace experience will help employees perform at their best thereby increasing productivity and efficiency.