Adult Learning Principles

Austin Morgan

Table of Contents

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age for U.S. employees is 42. An employer skilled at adult learning principles can adapt their workforce to the constantly changing industry demands while attracting new talent.

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What Are Adult Learning Principles?

These learning principles highlight how the majority of the workforce learn and how adult learners differ from child and adolescent learners.

The Difference Between Adult Learning and Child Learning

Child-focused learning principles primarily encompass lecture style and filling young minds with new knowledge. Child learning is geared toward general, lifelong knowledge. In contrast, adult learning focuses on knowledge that is immediately useful and builds on former experiences.

Why HR Need to Understand How Adults Learn

According to bls.gov, the median age for U.S. employees is 42 years old. Since this means the average employee is a middle-aged adult, HR would be wise to learn how to educate adult employees for the following reasons:

  • New employees need to learn new concepts or skills. Every new employee must learn in some capacity as they go through orientation and onboarding. Whether they must learn how to operate new machinery, navigate new online systems or memorize policies, HR’s ability to create a learning environment will affect an employee’s ability to achieve early success in their job.
  • Educating your workforce increases job satisfaction. When employees are able to learn new skills and knowledge in the workplace, they feel empowered. Whether an employee is just starting their career or a seasoned worker, satisfaction increases as they add value to their personal and professional skillsets within a company. Perhaps an organization pays for a new HR manager to prepare to test for SHRM certification, or for a fleet driver to get a specific license. Activities such as these help employees feel their company is invested in their growth and be more satisfied in the workplace.
  • Continual learning creates adaptability to industry needs. As changes in the industry inevitably occur, companies must adapt to survive. As strategy and operational procedures change, adult employees must be able to adapt as well. For example, due to the pandemic, most collegiate professors needed to change their teaching methods from chalkboards and textbooks to online classrooms and interactive assignments.
  • Adult learning principles decrease turnover. When the workplace adds to employees’ experiences and skillsets, both job satisfaction and company appreciation increase. With these increases, employees are less likely to look for employment elsewhere and remain with their current company longer.

The Theories Behind Adult Learning

There are three main theories behind adult learning according to the Teaching Excellence in Adult Literacy (TEAL) Center. This project from the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) is designed to improve the quality of teaching in adult education.

Theory 1: Andragogy

Malcolm Knowles (1980) popularized the concept of andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn.” This includes the idea that adult learners become self-directed as they mature, draw on life experiences while learning, and are problem-centered in order to apply new knowledge to real-life issues. But simply knowing the art and science of adult learning is not enough. Adult educators must adapt their teaching techniques to the needs of their students.

Theory 2: Transformational Learning

Transformational learning is “learning that changes the way individuals think about themselves and their world, and that involves a shift of consciousness.” Adult educators should focus on creating a climate of transformational learning, understanding the different needs and learning styles of their students, and teaching according to different points of view.

Theory 3: Self-Directed Learning

Adult learners will not obtain new knowledge 100% in the classroom or exclusively on the job. Learning can be tied to daily routines and personal preferences. Key elements for educators are to establish a starting point and assess the learning ability of their adult learners. As adult learners take more responsibility for knowledge acquisition and mastery, they become more effective due to their internal locus of control (outcomes of their actions are due to their own abilities).

4 Principles of Adult Learning

Adult learning can be broken down into 4 principles to facilitate better learning:

Control Over Learning

Adults appreciate a greater sense of control over the method of learning so they can choose their strengths. Some adults learn better when they read a textbook while others retain information better when they watch videos. Additionally, some adult learners will want to push themselves to choose new techniques and learn in a different way. Being able to select how and what they learn will increase interest in the selected topic.

Resistance to Change

Adult learners are often resistant to change due to the number of years away from a formal learning environment such as high school or college, exclusive focus on work-related knowledge, and difficulty committing topics to short-term and long-term memory.

Need for Clear Purpose

Unlike child or adolescent learners, adults need to know why they are spending time and energy learning new concepts. If they do not know why they are learning, it will not be a high priority to them or they may disregard it completely. Knowing why creates engaged learners that perform at a higher level and are open to reminders after learning is complete.

Work-Related Experience

When learning new topics, adults want to be able to apply the knowledge immediately to their work. For example, a new hiring manager learning how to create a structured interview will be motivated to immediately use those questions in their hiring process. As you teach adults, ask the question, “How will what I’m teaching apply to their current job duties?”

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Adult Learning Principles

Each principle will have different effects on different adult learners. Because of the variety of learning styles, one principle is not more important than another. If forced to choose one principal to focus on, we suggest letting adults have control over their learning. This creates more engaged learners from the start and success generates future interest and motivation for additional learning opportunities.
The most important step in applying these principles to your organization is to assess the adult learners you are working with. All learners have different preferences, strengths and weaknesses. As you adapt your teaching methods to their individual needs, you will see greater results and develop happier and more engaged employees.
Austin Morgan

Austin became the HR Director at Discovery Connections in 2021. Before that he worked as an Account Manager for a Section 125 benefits and COBRA administrator. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Exercise Science in 2019 and from Southern Utah University with a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) with an emphasis in Organizational Leadership in 2021. At end of 2021, he became certified with SHRM-CP.

Originally from Oklahoma, Austin enjoys trying new foods in new places he travels to, watching college football, and snowboarding the local resorts in Utah. He has been married to his wife since 2019 and owns a cockapoo named Hershey.

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