Adult learning is the foundation upon which organizational learning takes place. Malcolm Knowles (1998), a noted authority on adult learning theory, suggests that educational professionals who consider the particular needs and considerations of adult learners will experience greater success in developing and delivering content, along with higher levels of learner comprehension, retention, and satisfaction. This post presents a basic and general overview of the primary considerations of adult learners.
Motivation to learn. Adults need to know several things before effective learning can take place. They need to know how the learning will be conducted, what they will learn, and how what they learn will be of intrinsic value. Engaging the adult learner as a collaborator in planning and facilitating the learning process generally results in more participation and engagement, greater understanding and retention, and a higher level of learner satisfaction.
Prior experience of the learner. When presented with the opportunity to learn, adults have biased opinions and established mental models about both the topic and the method of instruction, based on their prior experience in the workplace and with educational endeavors. These preconceived ideas can assist with but also detract from the learning experience. The onus and responsibility is on the adult learning practitioner to facilitate a mindful approach among adult learners to recognize and make explicit their biases, as well as to incorporate experiential learning techniques in order to activate and synthesize past educational and work experiences with new knowledge.
Readiness to learn. Adults are more likely to be open-minded to learning when something in their life situation changes or creates a need for new knowledge. This readiness can vary across adult learners based on their individual differences in experience and prior knowledge. Pratt (1988) suggests the conceptual existence of two fundamental dimensions (self-directedness and support) to describe an adult learner’s readiness to learn. By assessing and addressing the amount of direction (in the mechanics or logistics of learning) as well as the level of emotional support adult learners need in order to prepare for learning, adult learning professionals will greatly improve the odds of an effective and successful learning experience.
Applying new knowledge experientially. Adults generally prefer an authentic context for learning, situated toward practical problem solving, rather than generic education or training focused on a topic or subject. Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning provides a framework through which adult learning practitioners can devise and deliver an educational experience that appropriately resonates with learners.
Understanding the adult learning process and planning instruction accordingly will increase the likelihood of the learning meeting (or exceeding) the expectations of the learner, and that the learner will retain and effectively use the knowledge gained from the process.
Knowles, Malcolm S. The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 5th ed. Woburn, MA: Butterworth–Heinemann, 1998.
Kolb, D.A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood-Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
Pratt, D.D. “Andragogy after Twenty-Five Years.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 57. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.