What Adult Learners Want

Way back in the 1970s, Malcolm Knowles identified the following six principles of adult learning:

• Adults are internally motivated and self-directed

• Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences

• Adults are goal oriented

• Adults are relevancy oriented

• Adults are practical

• Adult learners like to be respected

In plain language, this can be re-worded like so:

Adults don’t like to jump through hoops just because someone else says they should.
If they are given an exercise, it better relate to their life and work, or they’ll just go through the motions to get through it.

Adults want to understand what they are learning.
They don’t like a lot of conceptual mumbo jumbo, except to provide context. They crave examples that connect what they already know to the new skill they need to learn.

Adults want to get something out of what they’re learning.
For example, they want to learn how to bake a pie, not the ingredients in a pie pastry. What good is learning about pie pastry ingredients if they can’t use them in any way?

Adults don’t want to learn your job.
They want to learn something that applies to their job. Some context is helpful to understand why certain things are required in an organization. But other than that, the information isn’t helpful.

If they’re selling widgets, adults don’t want to learn about the history of widgets.
They want to learn about the steps in the sales process and the benefits of the widget they are selling.

Adults don’t like being talked down to.
Well, does anyone enjoy being patronized?

Some learning theorists believe that these rules also apply to child learners as well, because child learners don’t like being talked down to either. But children don’t yet realize they can complain about it.

In the Instructional Design field there is an aphorism for this: Adults prefer a “Guide on the Side” to a “Sage on the Stage.”

When we work with Clients we try to encourage the “Guide on the Side” model, because it works and adults prefer it. That means, rather than provide a list of items learners need to remember, we give them a way to think about the material. So, what does this look like?

In a sense, this teaching style is based on the fact that we all have common sense. If given the right questions, we can come up with the right answers. This kind of learning makes things concrete while also allowing learners to come to their own conclusions.

This training style does not suit all content types, of course. In addition, a little more up front work is required. But the “Guide on the Side” approach can mean the difference between your employees actually learning something or just getting through the training program because they have to.

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