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Adult Learning Theory and Its Application in eLearning

November 15, 2017 | By Asha Pandey


Adult Learning Theory and Its Application in eLearning


Designing eLearning courses for adults requires a sound understanding of why and how adults learn. By understanding and applying Adult Learning Principles, Instructional Designers can create the right engagement quotient in eLearning courses.

In this blog, I share an overview of Adult Learning Theory and its principles and outline the theory’s application in Instructional Design. I also share four Instructional strategies that are relevant to adult learners and wrap up with a few ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ you need to consider while designing eLearning solutions for adults.

What are the basics of Adult Learning Theory?

malcolm knowles Adult learning principles

Malcolm Knowles proposed the Adult Learning Theory (also called Andragogy) in 1968.

Andragogy means ‘the art and science of helping adults learn’, and it helps facilitate the development and implementation of learning in adults.

Andragogy is based on six assumptions about adult learners:

  1. Adults need to know why they are learning something.
  2. They use their extensive and varied experience to aid their learning.
  3. They are problem-solvers.
  4. They learn best when the subject is of immediate use.
  5. They have a strong need to be self-directing.
  6. They are intrinsically motivated to learn.

What are the key Adult Learning Principles?

eLearning courses are typically offered to heterogeneous learner profiles. However, all adult learners do share some generic characteristics and the Adult Learning Theories are based on these characteristics. I am outlining six common characteristics of adult learners here that can be used to identify Instructional strategies for adult learning.

In general, adult learners are:

  1. Motivated: While external factors such as salary hikes or promotions do play a role, intrinsic motivators such as the need for achievement or self-esteem are much more potent in an adult learner.
  2. Experienced and Knowledgeable: Adult learners have a wide range of experience and knowledge that they bring to their current learning. If a training module appropriately leverages this experience, it would greatly aid the learning. However, if the learner feels their experience is not acknowledged or valued, it could hamper their training.
  3. Goal-Oriented: Adults have predefined goals they want to achieve, so they need to know the benefits of and reasons for taking up a certain course or training and how it aligns with their goals.
  4. Relevancy-Oriented: Adult learners want the learning to be relevant to their requirements and work experience.
  5. Task-centred and Problem Solvers: Adult learners are keen on learning when it would help them solve their problems or handle life situations. They prefer to be active participants in the whole learning experience.
  6. Self-directed and Responsible: Adults like to be respected and considered responsible for their own lives. It is therefore very important for them to feel they have control over what they are taught and how they learn it.

What are the key Instructional strategies that can be used effectively for adult learners?

I am listing four easy-to-use Instructional strategies here that can be used to design eLearning courses:

Strategy 1: Motivate adult learners

  • Allow adult learners the freedom to navigate through the course as they prefer a sense of control over their learning.
  • Use enquiry-based learning or discovery learning to interest and motivate them.
  • Present real-life scenarios or case studies and problem-solving situations, and provide immediate feedback.

Strategy 2: Leverage on prior knowledge and experience

  • Adults always relate to their own experiences. It is therefore important to incorporate this prior knowledge and experience while designing a course. This makes it easier to orient them towards a new topic.
  • Since adults define themselves by their experiences, it is a good idea to respect and value that experience.

Strategy 3: Focus on relevancy

  • Adult learners want to learn about things that are relevant and related to their own experience. Therefore, always design courses for them that include contextual learning.

Strategy 4: Leverage on problem solving

  • Adult learners want to be active participants instead of passive listeners in the learning experience.
  • They prefer learning that is exploratory and promotes discovery and innovation.
  • Adults also need to apply the newly acquired knowledge practically in their respective work areas.
  • The new learning must help them perform their job efficiently

What are the dos and don’ts to keep in mind while designing eLearning course for adults?

Here is a simple check-list that will help you retain your adult learner’s engagement and achieve the desired impact:


While designing online learning solutions for adults, one must:

  • Motivate the learners.
  • Provide a sense of control.
  • Outline clear learning objectives.
  • Keep the information relevant and contextual.
  • Present the content using a problem-solving approach.
  • Use engaging methodologies to present the content.
  • Allow the learners to practice through assessments, quizzes, tests and so on.
  • Provide descriptive analogies, visual aids and mind maps to enable retention of learning.
  • Distinguish between ‘nice-to-know’ and ‘must-know’ information.


While designing online learning solutions for adults, one must avoid:

  • Long course duration
  • Condescending and preachy tone
  • Unnecessary and ambiguous information
  • Distracting the learner from the objectives
  • Big paragraphs or chunks of information

I hope this blog gives you insights on Adult Learning Theory to help you understand your adult learners better and create Instructional strategies that will engage them. If you have any queries, do contact me.

Need More?

Want more insights on Adult Learning Theory and how to use it to design eLearning courses?

Schedule a call with our Solutions Architecting Team today.

Additionally, you can take our online course on Adult Learning Principles, one of the 15 Instructional Design courses from the first suite of our ‘InSight’ product line. For more details and to buy the course, click here.

Asha Pandey
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