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How Grown-Ups Learn

There are 7 key principles in adult learning and we want to help you understand them and their importance…not only regarding the learning itself, but also to the long-term retention of information.

There are 7 key principles regarding adult learning theory that are important to recognize, especially as it relates to eLearning. Over the past several years, eLearning has come to be recognized as a powerful way to impart continuous learning and development to business professionals.

According to eLearning Industry, Malcolm Shephard Knowles put forth a theory that distinguished adult learning from childhood learning. He used five main assumptions and extrapolated four principles to make adult learning more effective. Here are 7 aspects regarding adult learning that you should consider before investing in learning and development for the professionals in your organization:

1. Adult Learners Have a Well-Established Sense of Self
In childhood, we model ourselves off of our parents and siblings. As teenagers, we pull away from family to mimic our friends and peer groups. It isn’t until adulthood that we pick and choose from these two states.

We begin to develop a sense of self and know that we are distinct and separate from those around us. Of course, some people have a better developed sense of self than others. With regard to learning, this means we want a say in how and what we learn. Otherwise, we quickly lose interest in the topic.

2. Past Experiences Play a Pivotal Role in Adult Learning
Kids go to school with a good deal of knowledge, but it is not necessarily academic. They vaguely know how to share and speak. There is lots of space for fresh data. Adults, on the other hand, have a world of experience behind them. In order for them to get the most out of learning the curriculum, they must feed off of past knowledge to launch new concepts. Leveraging this is the most powerful way for adult learners to buy into the new knowledge and to make good use of it.

3. Adult Learning is Purpose Driven
Kids go to school because we as parents tell them they must do so (and it’s the law!). Adults learn because they see the relevance. They consciously decide to pick up a new skill or polish an existing one. The new learning must be goal focused. Learning must be tied to real-world applications. We must show adult learners how the new knowledge will help them overcome challenges or enhance their job performance.

4. Adult Learning Relies on a Readiness to Learn
Adult learners recognize that they must be willing to learn in order to find success in the process. If they see value in what they are learning, it makes them more receptive to study the materials, participate in the learning sessions, and do the work required of them between the sessions. They see their classmates as peers and are more inclined to collaborate when there is a readiness to learn and grow.

5. Adult Learners Are Driven by Internal Motivation
You will often hear us say that “You cannot motivate another person.” However, a properly designed learning environment creates an opportunity for adult learners to be self-motivated. Adults focus on tangible learning that helps them to solve real-time problems and challenges that they are dealing with. Once they are motivated, the learning becomes much more valuable to them.

6. Mistakes Are Often the Most Valuable Teacher
Adult learning hinges on experiential learning, which means that adults are encouraged to explore the subject matter firsthand and to learn from their mistakes. Experiencing this in real-time, with their classmates or colleagues, helps the adult learner to understand that making mistakes is a natural part of learning and leading. It also teaches them to anticipate mistakes and to overcome them before those mistakes become a significant obstacle.

7. Adult Learners Must Participate in the Course Design of the Learning Experience
A key ingredient of successful adult learning is to engage the learners in how the learning experience will be designed and what is required of them for successful completion. Think of it as a contract between the facilitator and the students of the process. Establishing this agreement early on, and holding each other accountable to the agreement, is essential for maximizing the value of the learning experience.

At JFD Performance Solutions, we apply these principles throughout our learning processes and tailor them to the specific needs of our clients. We invite you to explore these concepts with us so we can help you understand how to maximize the impact of your organization’s learning opportunities.

Thanks to Jerry Houston, CEO and founder of HPISolutions, for his contributions to this article and for his focus on adult learning and professional development.