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How to Incorporate Principles of Adult Learning into Training

Posted by Melissa Grey Satterfield on 10/17/13 4:00 AM
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Chances are, if you’re a training professional, you’ve probably heard the name, Malcolm Knowles. Born in 1913, Knowles was an American educator well known for the use of the term “andragogy.” While “andragogy” might sound like a scary medical term, it is actually the art and science of how adults learn.


Nearly 30 years ago, Knowles developed a set of core adult learning principles that serve as a foundation for the instructional design and delivery of training. Your goal, as a trainer, is to create a learning environment that implements all of these principles—so that you reach all of your learners! The principles of adult learning should be built into the instructional design of your course to make sure the training is motivational, interactive, and relevant—making your job as the facilitator easier!


Below is a brief explanation of each principle, with some tips on how to apply it in the classroom. As you read through them, reflect on some of the courses you’re currently delivering and see which of these principles are already in use.



Adults are accustomed to being autonomous and self-directed. They have expectations and wants that need to be met.

Classroom application: Allow your participants to create their own ground rules at the beginning of the training course. Let them roll dice or choose a playing card to determine break times, rather than you dictating the amount of time. Finally, since adult learners are self-directed, allow them to discover things on their own and even make mistakes.



Adults bring considerable experience with them. They like to speak, participate, and contribute to the proceedings. They dislike long lectures.

Classroom Application: Harness the experience of your adult learners. Incorporate peer-mentoring by pairing up those with more experience with the newer, less knowledgeable trainees. Use icebreakers that will reveal shared experiences (e.g. give learners five minutes to list things that they all have in common).


Time Orientation

Adults have a here-and-now viewpoint. They wish to focus on current issues, rather than material that may be useful in the distant future.

Classroom Application: Only teach tasks that the attendees will use in their current role. Ensure your trainees use the skills within 30 days of the training by following up with their manager or supervisor. Studies show that when learning a new skill, if it’s not used within 30 days, ninety percent of it will be lost.



Adults want courses that focus on real-life problems and tasks rather than academic material. A strong how-to focus is desired. They become restless if their time is being wasted.

Classroom Application: Teach tasks rather than topics. Maintain a brisk pace and schedule, omitting nice-to-know information—focus on what the learners need to know!



Adults see learning as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. They must know what there is to gain, and they must see progress being made.

Classroom Application: Point out why it’s important for the trainees to learn the content. Focus on how they’ll benefit personally, and what will happen back on the job if they, or their peers, don’t learn how to do the job properly.



Adults have something to lose. They have a strong need to maintain their self-esteem, and need to feel heard.

Classroom Application: Make sure that adequate climate building is done before working on the course content (e.g. icebreakers, energizers, and brainteasers). Most people need to feel safe, secure, and comfortable before they can give their full attention to learning. Create early practice sessions that are easier and more prompted than later sessions. As learners gain proficiency, more complexities can be added to the practice session.



Adults are accustomed to being active. They should be given an opportunity for active participation whenever possible.

Classroom Application: Build practice sessions throughout the course rather than just at the end, and use frequent small-group sessions. Include opportunities for learners to express themselves, work together, and be active.


How many of these principles are you currently implementing? What additional tips do you have for incorporating them? How are you building the above principles into your virtual classroom trainings? I look forward to hearing from you!

Dealing with Difficult Participants

Melissa has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. She graduated from the University of Nevada where she studied broadcast communications. During her college years, Melissa worked as an on-air personality for several radio and TV stations in Las Vegas. She’s always been a bit of a performer, which is probably why training is such a good fit for her. Before coming to Langevin, she was a senior training specialist and course developer for an organization based in L.A. Melissa knows the challenges trainers face, as well as the rewards that come with improving job performance. Her training mantra is summed up best by something she learned during her very first Langevin workshop, “Never do for the learners what the learners can do for themselves.” When not in the classroom, Melissa loves travelling, relaxing at the beach, cooking, and hosting dinner parties.

Topics: facilitation, adult learning principles, tips-for-trainers, instructional design

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Our very own world-class course leaders share their experiences, tips, best practices, and expertise on virtual training, instructional design, needs analysis, e-learning, delivery, evaluation, presentation skills, facilitation, and much more!

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