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Tailoring Education to Adults: Five Principles to Consider

The Adult LearnerIf you’ve had any involvement with adult education, you are probably familiar with the principles of adult learning. Here are my thoughts on the top five principles and how to incorporate them into your classroom:

  • Adults need to understand why they are learning something. Adults view learning as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. They must know what there is to gain and see progress being made. To ensure this happens:
    • State the objectives up front
    • Discuss the benefits of the training
    • Ensure the course is relevant to the participants’ roles and that they realize that they will be able to perform their jobs better as a result of the training
  • Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. Adults have a here-and-now viewpoint and a desire to focus on current issues rather than information that may be useful in the future. Additionally, they want courses that are problem-centered rather than theory based. Some ways to apply this principle include:
    • Give overviews, summaries, examples, and stories that link theory to practice
    • Make exercises as realistic and job-like as possible
    • Devote instructions to the most important aspects of a participant’s job and spend less time on insignificant items
  • Adults learn best by experiencing. Adults are accustomed to being active and learn best when they can immediately apply what they’ve learned. To do this:
    • Distribute practice sessions throughout the course (rather than just at the end)
    • Design the majority of the course to include application exercises and feedback with 1/3 or less focusing on presentation
    • Minimize the facilitator’s talking time and always look for opportunities for participants to provide input and be active
  • Adults have a strong need to maintain their self-esteem. Adults feel that they have something to lose. Their readiness to learn often depends on their self-esteem. To boost their confidence:
    • Use small groups and conduct low-risk activities/exercises
    • Set up competition between groups rather than between individuals
    • Listen to participants and set up the course in ways that will ensure their success
  • Adults want to have some control over their learning. Adults are accustomed to being self-directed; they have certain expectations and desires that they want met. They also bring a great deal of experience with them. Therefore, it is important for the instructor to play a consultative role in the classroom by doing the following:
    • Share your agenda and ask for feedback regarding it
    • Be prepared to modify content according to participants’ needs/experience
    • Conduct brief brainstorming sessions to focus on major concerns participants wish to address

By following these principles and strategies, you will create a comprehensive learning environment that will engage all of your adult learners.

For more information regarding the theory behind and the application of adult learning principles, read The Adult Learner by Knowles, Holton, and Swanson.