The 8 Fundamental Principles Of Adult Learning That Every Learning & Development Professional Should Know

The 8 Fundamental Principles Of Adult Learning That Every Learning & Development Professional Should Know

As professionals in the vocational education and training space, it is essential that we understand the unique learning requirements of our adult learners to ensure that our training interventions are effective.

The process of engaging adult learners in a learning experience is known as Andragogy.

The term was originally used by Alexander Kapp (a German educator) in 1833, but was later developed into an adult education by the American educator, Malcolm Knowles who arguably stands as one of the most influential writers in this field.

Knowles distinguishes adult learning from the ‘pedagogical’ approach of child learning in a number of theoretical ways. In my book ‘The Fundamental Principles Behind Effective Adult Learning Programs’ we explore how these theoretical concepts of adult learning apply to the way we design and develop our training programs and facilitate the learning experience; but here I have briefly summarised them.

It is believed that we take on the components of an adult learner between the ages of twelve to fifteen years old. Therefore, variations of these principles of adult learning have become prevalent talking points in the development of training and curricula in recent years and are increasingly becoming more widely used in the goals of schools, colleges, training organisations, universities and, slowly, businesses to enable students and staff to become effective lifelong learners.

In order for adults to learn effectively, training needs to be designed in a way that meets the following core principles of adult learning:

1. Self-Directing

The first difference Knowles proposes is that adults are autonomous and self directing, meaning that they live under a large degree of self-governance and to their own laws, beliefs and values.

They need to know the benefits, values and purposes of a learning program. They need to know why they are learning what they’re learning. If they cannot appreciate the purpose or value, they will be reluctant to engage in the learning intervention.

2. Learn by doing

Adults learn through direct experience; therefore, their training and learning interventions must include active and practical participation and offer implementable techniques and methodologies that will immediately improve their every day lives.

3. Relevance

The content of a training program must be meaningful and relevant to the adult learners, their lives and their business. They have to very clearly see why and how this is important to them personally and how it applies to their life.

The immediate use of the learning needs to be clearly understood by the learner. If they can’t see how they personally can apply the learning to their own life and roles, it is suggested that motivation towards the training intervention will be significantly reduced.

4. Experience

Adult learners need to be able to draw upon their past experiences to aid their learning. Training needs to be contextualised to use language that they are familiar with. We need to select case scenarios and examples that they can relate to, as well as refer to their direct past life, work and social experiences to bring the meaning of the learning into their world as they understand it.

5. All of the senses

Adult learners need multi-sensory learning and teaching methodologies. We must ensure that our learning interventions have appropriately proportioned delivery techniques that meet the needs of audio, visual, reading/writing, kinaesthetic, dependent and independent learning preferences.

6. Practice

Adult learners are often engaged in learning because a problem needs to be solved. Practicing skills in a controlled environment allows them to grow self-efficacy in new tasks that prepare them to act autonomously outside of the learning environment. The more an adult learner can practice new skills, competencies or the application of knowledge, the more transformational impact the learning intervention will have.

7. Personal Development

The intrinsic, personal desires and ambitions of an adult learner need to be considered when planning and delivering adult learning programs. As learners get older, their cause for participation in learning programs often moves from external drivers (such as getting a promotion), to internal drivers, like simply learning out of pure pleasure or interest in learning something new.

8. Involvement

Effective adult learning programs have planned for learner feedback and consultation. Adults need to feel as though they have a sense of responsibility, control and decision-making over their learning. They need to be involved in the planning, evaluation and consultation of their own learning process to be fully on board with its successful execution.

In terms of education, this requires the flexibility of the learning situation, the learning program and most importantly, the educator to actively involve the participant in a way that allows them to have a degree of control over what they do, or, in fact, how much they learn.

In my eBook, we take a look at the basics of what these principles mean for the learner, the educator and the overall considerations that need to be made in order to prepare an effective learning program.

What does lifelong learning mean to you?

How does your training institution or business encourage lifelong learning?

Sarah Cordiner


Sarah is facilitating a FREE breakfast meeting workshop for learning and development professionals in Perth on Monday 21st September in partnership in partnership with Rhodes Business School.

Date: Monday 21st September 2015
Time: 08:00–09:30am
Where:Saxons Training Facilities Perth
1/140 St Georges Terrace. Perth

Breakfast, tea and coffee will be provided


This is a regular breakfast meeting hosted in a workshop style for Learning & Development Managers, or those working in a similar capacity. This is a great opportunity for networking and sharing best practice with other L&D Professionals from various businesses and industry sectors.

In this workshop we will cover:

1. The basics of conducting a Training Needs Analysis to ensure you are conducting the right training
2. The basic principles of workforce planning for identifying the right training needs
3. How to initiate the skills and knowledge gap-filling strategies
4. The basics of instructional design and development for conducting in-house training

This workshop is hosted by partnership:
Rhodes Business School and MainTraining.
Presenter: Sarah Cordiner


Please feel free to invite your colleagues by sharing the registration link with them:

If you cannot attend in person but would like to be sent a free video recording of the event, please register through the link with the email address you’d like us to send the video to.

If you would like to get a copy of Sarah’s eBook ‘The Fundamental Principles Behind Effective Adult Learning Programs’, CLICK HERE