Top Adult Learning Principles All Corporate Education Should Apply

Learning and development programs should definitely pay attention to adult learning principles if they want to generate learners’ engagement and satisfaction.

Apply adult learning theories to your L&D programs

Three main fundamental principles of adult learning have emerged from academic research.

Andragogy vs Pedagogy

There is a clear difference in teaching styles between adults and children.
Andragogy is the art and academic discipline to help adults learn, while Pedagogy describes the discipline of teaching to younger audiences and focuses on the essential stages that a younger learner must go through before moving on to the next level.
Malcolm Knowles is known to have developed an adult learning theory that has popularized andragogy in the corporate world.
The main differences between andragogy and pedagogy are :
Learning Objectives
Andragogy (A) encourages adults to learn on their own terms and develop necessary skills for personal and professional development.
Pedagogy (P) supports children by helping them progress from one stage to the next, ensuring they achieve their full potential.
A: Adults learn best through a hands-on approach that enables them to be self-sufficient and empowered.
P: Children are dependent on adults to facilitate and structure their learning.

Learning Resources

A: Professionals rely a lot on their experience and others’ experiences to learn a new skill.

P: Students are dependent on the teacher for all learning resources. The teacher’s role is to create and incorporate engaging methods for knowledge retention.

Learning impacts

A: addresses real-life problems and is much less theoretical. Adults prefer problem-based learning.

P: is focused on specific subjects that pertains to a given curriculum. This curriculum usually includes more theory and less practice.


A: Adults are usually self-motivated to learn new skills (for professional progression, for personal self-esteem, to gain confidenc or professional recognition, etc.)

P: Younger learners are mostly driven by external sources (parents, teachers, diplomas to access a job market, etc.)

Learning techniques

Learning by doing works best with adults in a professional environment. Project-based learning is also a good technique to address adults needs.

Pedagogy relies much more on theories to give students a general learning framework.

Teacher’s Role

A: the instructor acts as a mentor or a facilitator who encourages best practives, and collaboration with learners and their colleagues.

P: the teacher is the subject expert and gives a general structure to the students’ learning journey.


To better meet adults learning needs in application of angragogy´s findings, instructors should:

  • Collaborate with learners to determiner their learnings needs, objectives and interests;
  • Use real-world examples in learning materials;
  • Prefer hands-on training activities;

Adult learners

Self-directed learning (SDL)

As its name implies, Self-Directed Learning is the informal process of acquiring knowledge and skills without following a formal training program.

Learners set their goals and learning objectives and choose the learning program, resources and evaluation that best fit their preferences.

SDL has become ubuquitous in today’s information age, where all knowledge is accessible at the reach of fingertips.

The key benefit of SDL is that learning can easily be incorporated into daily routines and occur both at the learner’s convenience and according to his/her learning preferences.

Learning activities may include:

  • isolated activities, such as researching information on the Internet;
  • group activities: communicating with experts and peers, as in a traditional classroom.


In the corporate world, instructors can use SDL at their advantage by encouraging learners to:

  • Self-assess their skill levels and learning objectives;
  • Participate in the elaboration of the learning program goals, strategies and evaluation criteria;
  • Encourage to learn decision-making strategies and self-evaluation;
  • Reflect on their learning process.

Transformative Learning

Transformative learning (TL) is a learning environment that will have an impact on adult learners’ view of themselves and the world. Learning is not limited to acquiring a new skill, but will rather change learners’ views and beliefs.

It is a paradigm shift at the individual level.

TL is more adapted to adults as they have constructed their views and beliefs from past experiences. Younger learners with less background and a shorter life experience have usually not formed so strong beliefs.

American sociologist Jack Mezirow elaborated the theory of transformative learning from his experience in adult literacy. This explains why this type of learning is often seen as a tool for emancipation.

In his theory, Mezirow describes 10 steps that will transform the learner.

These steps involve notably:

  • self-criticism and self-reflection: questionning one’s beliefs and views
  • role modeling: being inspired by others that have crossed the chasm
  • acquisition of new skills and roles
  • building confidence in these new roles

Learners’ taking action steps are a key element of this theory that lead to the transformation of their life or work conditions.

Some benefits of TL are:

  • better problem-solving abilities: as the process of TL involves a lot of critical analysis and self-reflection, learners are geared toward a problem-solving posture
  • self responsability: action-oriented learning that changes’ one’s views and life generates more active and self-motivated learners
  • better adaptabilty: learners that undergo a transformative learning demonstrate their capacity to adapt to new work or market conditions and apply new concepts. In today’s world constant transformation, the ability to adapt quickly is key soft skill.


How to apply TL principles in a learning experience:

  • Give learners chances to learn about new perspectives: often professionals with years of work experience will have habits and strong beliefs on how things should get done. For instance, using digital tools can impact greatly how professionnal view their job.
  • Challenge learners’ assumptions: let them experience that others may have very different opinions, or encounter others whose opinion has shifted.
  • Vary learning activities to give learners the opportunity to discover other points of view (interviewing people, analyzing case studies etc,)
  • Adapt to participants’s learning preferences: experiential learners will prefer experimenting real-life situations or simulations, intuitive learners will prefer games or brainstorming.
  • Create conditions for critical discourse and debate

Group of adult learners

How to Apply Adult Learning Principles and Assumptions to Your Employee Training

Adult learners are different from traditional students in many ways. They have more life experience, and they learn best when the material is relevant to their needs. As an employee training manager, you can apply adult learning princip to make your training more effective.

According to adult learning theory, adults want to be self-directed and take responsibility for their own learning. They learn best through experiential learning, which means they learn best by doing.

To apply adult learning principles to your employee training, you may use these techniques:

1. Make learners are involved in planning and designing the training.

2. Use a variety of teaching methods to cater to different learning styles.

3. Make the material relevant to the learner’s needs and experiences.

4. Encourage the learner to take responsibility for his or her own learning.

5. Allow for plenty of opportunities for practice and application.

By using these techniques, you can ensure that your employee training is more effective and tailored to the needs of adult learners.

What’s in it for me ?

Professionals should not be told authoritatively to take a course or attend a conference.

Instead, a clear explanation should be given on the impact this will have on their job or carreer. Adult students are not as their younger counterparts who may take classes for the only sake of passing a degree.

If you want you adult learners to be engaged, give them valid reasons why they should be.

Keep all learning relevant

Now that learners understand should attend a course, make sure that its content is relevant to its learning goals.

Particularly in a work environment, learners want to acquire skills that will more their career forward.

As they come with a background including higher education and work experience, they will attach much importnce to the learning outcomes.

They will have a critical look at adult learning programs, learning goals and even sometimes training materials.

Respect learners’ pace

Adapt to your participants’ abilities, preferences… and work schedule !

Applying the Self-directed learning principles described above, make sure to give as much flexibilty as possible to your participants.

Pre-recorded e-learning or shorter presential classes are training methods that will give your participants the ability to better choose what and when they learn.

Offer engaging learning activities

Whereas younger students will bare with top-down lectures or long (and often boring) documents, adults need more stimulating learning activities to remain engaged.

Make sure to include one or many of the following activities:

  • role playing
  • classroom interactions : polls, open questions that may orient the rest of the learning program
  • individual activities, such as quick writing assignments
  • gamification: include games such as those used in micro-learning

Include real-life tasks

In corporate education, learning is geared toward better efficiency at work.

Therefore participants expect to put their new skills in practice, in the safe environment of the classroom (be it virtual).

As the experiential learning theory states, they will better retain an information they have put in practice several times.

Build on their experiences

As all participants come with educational and professional backgrounds, they will be much more receptive to new concepts if you relate them to what they already know or do.

A good way to create this link might be to ask them to explain what they already know or do before explaining the new concept you want to introduce.

They will feel more engaged and valued.

Use mentorship to inspire learners

Mentors are colleagues who have already taken the path envisioned by a learner.

They have the “authority” of “having done it” and usually inspire trust and respect.

They will “advise” more than they will “instruct” as would be done in a course let by an instructor who may have studied the subject matter but not experienced it on the field.

Setting mentorship programs in addition to or place of traditional courses curricula might be a good way to transmit knowledge or train on new skills.

Repetition is key to learning

According to Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, we forget new content in:

  • 1 hour: 50%
  • 24 hours: 70%

Therefore it is essential to set-up a spaced repetition system to make sure learners will actually acquire the knowledge and skills they have been trained for.

Spaced repetition is the principle to send regular reminders to learners. It boosts their knowledge retention dramatically.

Mobile learning and micro-learning are great ways to set up spaced repetition at scale.

Rewards and recognition boost motivation to learn

Several studies have shown that rewards boost learners’ motivation to learn.

These rewards can simply take the form of gamified badges and leaderboards delivered after responding to a quizz.

Furthtermore, delivering rewards at unexpected times (i.e. not necessarily at the end of a learning block) make them even more effective.

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