Using Adult Learning Theory

Have you ever wondered why some training products are more effective than others? Training your end-users how to use a new application should be pretty straightforward, right?

We’ve thought a lot about this question. The conclusion we came to shouldn’t surprise you—the effectiveness of a training product has little to do with the technology it utilizes or the number of features it contains. We all know that even the coolest-looking product can be completely ineffective as a training tool. Instead, the factor that ensures the success of any training solution is solid design based on the principles of instructional design and adult learning theory.

Adult Learning Theory
Adults learn differently than children. That statement may sound like common sense, but you’d be amazed at how many training companies try to fit adult learners into the traditional learning mold designed for children. The child education model, also referred to as pedagogy, places the ultimate responsibility for learning on the teacher. The teacher determines what the student should learn and how and when the material is taught, and has the final say on whether learning has occurred. The pedagogical model is based on the assumption that the teacher is an expert and that students have little to offer to the learning environment.

Adult learning theory, on the other hand, recognizes that adult learners bring a wealth of experience to the training environment. In addition, adult learners have a complex set of needs and presentation requirements that must be fulfilled for learning to occur. One of the most respected names in andragogy—the theory and practice of adult learning—is Malcolm Knowles. In 1970, Knowles wrote a book titled “The Modern Practice of Adult Education” that introduced the four principles of adult learning. Thirty years later, this book is still the leading resource for adult education theorists. (The real question is why every training company doesn’t follow these basic principles.)

Knowles’ four principles are at the heart of Knowledge Impact’s design model. All of our training deliverables have been designed to ensure compliance with these four basic tenets. The following outline describes how Knowledge Impact designed our deliverables to comply with these adult learning principles.

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
    • Interview “power users” identified by the client to gain background information and determine the scope of the training.
    • Provide multiple navigation controls that empower students to pursue their own learning path.
    • Include review questions and exercises throughout the training that provide students with immediate feedback on their learning progress.
    • Include mastery tests for clients that are concerned about certification.
  2. Experiences (including mistakes) provide the basis for learning activities.
    • Include simulations that give students the opportunity to perform tasks in a safe practice environment and then apply their new knowledge immediately.
    • Provide multiple levels of feedback that guide students to the correct actions.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
    • Customize all deliverables to reflect the client’s business processes.
    • Work closely with clients to build workflows, examples and scenarios that represent the day-to-day lives of their end-users.
    • Include best practices that detail the client’s preferred business processes.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.
    • Include simulations that present the student with role-based scenarios built around the real tasks they’ll need to perform on the job.
    • Place tasks in a real-world context to create learning that the student can use immediately.

In these days of economic downturns and tighter budgets, it’s important that the training solution you choose is the right one. The success of your company’s implementation depends on it. In fact, recent research shows that the failure rate for CRM projects will rise from the current 65 percent to more than 80 percent by mid-2003 (Gartner). Your best bet for a successful training solution (and thus a successful implementation) is to find training that is based on solid instructional design and adult learning principles.

— May 2003 – Annette DiLello and Kelly Vaast

Annette DiLello, director of product development at Knowledge Impact, has more than 12 years of experience in education, application training and e-learning technologies. She is responsible for leading the product development team at Knowledge Impact in researching and designing new products, services, tools and methodologies.
Kelly Vaast is a project manager at Knowledge Impact, where her focus is designing instructional methodologies, researching and testing new tools and managing a team of three. She has more than six years of experience in instructional design, usability and e-learning technologies.

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About KappaDiva
Learning Leader Tech Ed Advocate Empassioned Educator Perpetual Student Professional Learner Chief Learning Officer Tonya is a learning leader, instructional design, performance support and multimedia communications professional, with nearly 20 years of experience in healthcare, information systems, instructional design and training, web and creative design, internal and external marketing, PR and communications, social media, service excellence, leadership development and non-profit operations management. She is currently Director, Staff Learning & Development, Teach For America; President, A2ATD; principal and Chief Learning Officer of Kappa Beta Technology & Instruction; grad student at The University of Michigan; and author of the Learning Leader Blog (,) an emerging technologies resource for 21st century educators. She current is living in Macomb County, MI, with her cat and several Mac and iOS devices.

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