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Top Five Most Important Adult Learning Principles

In theory, adult learners seem somewhat rebellious: we don’t like being told what to do, we want to do things in our own time, and it better be worth it or we’re not interested! But it’s not because we’ve all reached rock-star status; it’s got to do with the way adults are hardwired to approach education. Thank goodness for adult learning principles that provide insight into how to please mature learners who know what they want.

So let’s take a fresh look at five of the most important adult learning principles and how to translate them into crowd-pleasing eLearning.

1. Adults are practical.

Being practical doesn’t mean we all know how to change a tire; it means that as adults, we like to know how things relate to the real world. Most of us are balancing a busy job with family, relationships, and all the other grown-up stuff. We don’t want to have to rack our brains to work out how training relates to us; it should be clear! Keeping eLearning practical could mean effective use of video to demonstrate how to perform a task or weaving a real-life scenario through and cleverly attaching content. Whichever medium you use, be sure to always link theory to its practical application.

2. Adults are goal oriented.

As adults, we feel the need to learn to solve real-life tasks or problems. So it’s up to designers to provide meaningful learning experiences. In eLearning, I’m a fan of setting up explorative situations for learners, where a goal is stated and then learners use available resources to solve the problem.

3. Adults are self-paced.

This is the thing where we don’t want to be told to sit down and complete all our work! At school, this might have landed us in detention, but not now that we’re fully grown busy-bees. As adults, we should have options to self-direct and pace our learning to fit it around the demands of life. eLearning has an advantage here because it can be accessed anywhere with an internet connection. And with the rise of HTML5, eLearning can now be completed on mobile devices. Designers need to respond to this need by structuring learning appropriately. For mobile learning, think bite-sized learning modules, podcasts that can be listened to on the move, and learning that can be completed in multiple visits.

4. Adults have life experience and prior knowledge.

The baseline: we know stuff and we don’t like being treated like we don’t know stuff. Adults bring varied life experience and knowledge with them into the learning experience. It’s more than likely a learner will have had exposure to some of the key concepts in a previous role. One way to recognize prior learning is using pre-testing to stream content to the learner, highlighting topics that they may not be competent with and providing encouragement by omitting topics marked competent. Intersperse self-reflection activities to give learners the opportunity to relate to the learning.

5. Adults learn by doing.

After all, we’re just big kids, so we like to learn through play too. Explore using gamification in eLearning to bring an element of competition and fun. Use interactivity creatively to set up experiential situations and allow your learners to wander off the linear path and explore.

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