What Is Adult Learning Theory? And How to Use It to Get Better Learning Outcomes

Teaching adults is hard. Not because they are hard to teach, but because mastering adult learning requires unlearning a lot of what you think you know about teaching as a practice.

Teachers may struggle with thoughts like, “How can we get adult learners to care more?” and “What if they’re disinterested in the content?”

The answer to these questions lies in andragogy, a term coined in the early 1800s as a means of better understanding how adults think and learn. In this article, we’ll address the history of andragogy while providing insight into how you can unlock the potential of your company’s adult learners. Let’s get to it.

What is andragogy?

Andragogy, which means man-leading in Greek, is the study of adult learning. Its conception as a term comes from Alexander Kapp, a German educator, who created the term in 1833 as a means of developing learning strategies focused on adults.

Kapp himself was a high-school educator, and his goal in inventing andragogy was to posit learning as a lifelong necessity and goal as opposed to a short-term foundation for children. In essence, learning isn’t something you grow out of, and it shouldn’t be perceived as a child-like pursuit. There are important differences between how children and adults learn.

Andragogy was born from a desire to encourage the practice of lifelong learning. With this in mind, it is important for us to know that adult learning is nothing if not practical, historical, and necessary.


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Getting started with adult learning

As we mentioned, it’s important to note that adults approach learning differently than children.

To better understand adult learners, we start with an important question: what is their motivation? For some, there is a relational draw to being in a learning environment. Others see learning as a road to a better standard of living and seek opportunities to improve their job status or secure professional advancement. Sometimes, adults are learning because they are required to do so for their job. And some learn because they have a cognitive need or curiosity to do so.

Beyond motivation, what makes adult learners unique from children?

4 principles that differentiate adult learners

1. Adults need to understand the “why” behind learning

If you approach adult learners having already defined why your subject matter is valuable for them, you’ve already crossed a major hurdle. Start here and branch out from this value.

Unlike children who are placed in learning environments by their caregivers, adults are generally motivated to learn by internal and intrinsic forces like bettering their salary or improving their skills for a future aspiration. Companies with successful adult learning programs know this, and because they take the time to provide learning that is valuable to their employees, they also see positive results in their workplaces.

Ultimately, when your learning content has a higher perceived value, it will generate more interest and overall commitment to the learning process. What was once a lackluster job training has the potential to become an engaging experience, leading to higher employee performance and job retention. Learners need to understand what’s in it for them.

2. Adult learning requires drawing from lived experience

Children are often approached with a curriculum as if their brains are completely empty, waiting to be filled with information.

This may work to teach a child their ABCs, but adults are not like children. Adult learners are not blank slates—their minds are already full of preconceived ideas, personal values, and years of lived experience. From a brain-science perspective, your adult learning strategy should be tasked with connecting your curriculum with the ideas and knowledge they already have. In other words, learning should meet people where they are.

When adults are provided with content that connects directly to their lives, you will see learning move from being a transfer of knowledge to a conversation between teachers and students. This way of learning is more dynamic and produces better long-term retention.

3. Adult learning is a form of problem-solving

Similar to our second point, adults generally don’t like learning for learning’s sake. Adults are busy and have many other priorities competing for their time. However, if you can root learning content in real problems and circumstances your students encounter, their response will be to care more. Put your learning into context and make it relevant to their day-to-day lives.

As a rule, adults don’t want to spend copious amounts of time learning a new idea if it doesn’t immediately provide value in their lives or career.

Find ways to demonstrate the return on investment to your adult learners for their time and attention, and you’ll have adults that care more and perform better as a result.

4. Adults favor self-directedness 

As adults learn and grow, they move from dependence towards self-directedness. Essentially, adults have a need for ownership in the learning process, and it’s important to provide opportunities for ownership throughout your curriculums.

Similarly to the “teach a man to fish” Chinese proverb, an adult’s interest in a subject is usually congruent with the amount of responsibility they have over it. Try using learning strategies that involve the learner and are dynamic and engaging. The Tell, Show, Do, Review framework of learning takes adult learners through each stage of the learning process, from content delivery all the way to practice and application. By the end of the process, learners will be practicing and applying their new skills themselves. 

5 Tips for successful adult learning

Understanding what makes adult learners unique is one thing, but learning how to convert our understanding into practice is what matters most. Here are 5 tips you can apply right away to see better results with your learners.

1. Break content down into small steps

Adults aren’t going to be happy if you waste their time. They want to know that the time they spend learning is going to provide value and give them ample time to apply what they’ve learned.

By taking large concepts and breaking them into shorter learning moments or microlearning, it’s more likely to be remembered by your students and will result in better performance outcomes. This is also a practical approach to learning—adult learners are busy, and it’s much more realistic to chunk learning over time.

2. Use traditional elements of gameplay to create action-driven curriculums

Who doesn’t love a good game night? While the idea of gamification may seem like a less serious version of learning, it has been proven to increase learning effectiveness in adults.

Try incorporating gamification elements like characters, rules, interactivity, and scoring into your curriculum to engage the competitive side of your learners and motivate progress. Learning is a process, so game elements don’t have to be the entire learning experience—but incorporating some play into the mix can boost engagement and outcomes.

3. Ground your adult-learning content in real-world examples

There’s a time and a place for theoretical learning, but when it comes to adult learning, find as many opportunities as possible to ground content in real-life scenarios.

Curriculums that take the time to provide everyday examples of concepts provide a reminder of value to adult learners. This will help keep motivation and interest high throughout the learning process while also providing plenty of opportunities for practice and application. Effective scenarios should be strategic, challenge the learner, reflect the real world, and be detailed.

4. Create a safe environment for failure

Before a soldier’s boots hit the combat field, they go through intense simulations with their comrades where they must navigate their way through failures in order to learn from their mistakes and plan future success. As it turns out, failure is a crucial part of the learning process and one that we should apply to every adult learning environment.

And in reality, there’s no better place for your employees to fail than within a training curriculum. By providing scenarios, simulations, or moments of interactivity in training, you not only give adult learners the opportunity to fail safely but also to learn from their failures for the better. These are the “Do” and “Review” stages of the learning process—bonus points if you can involve elements of coaching and mentorship as your adult learners practice and hone their skills.

5. Improve accessibility to better serve the lifestyles of adult learners

Children have the advantage when it comes to uninterrupted time and opportunity for education since it’s built into our societal structure. Once we become adults, making time for continued learning can be a challenge.

Many of your adult learners may want to take advantage of their downtime to engage in learning, but long courses only accessible on desktops are a barrier. To combat this, build flexible, easy-to-access, and mobile-friendly learning experiences so your learners can decide when and where learning best fits in their day. Even less traditional forms of learning, such as podcasts, have the ability to fit easily into people’s schedules while also providing accessible learning moments. Looking for inspiration on accessible, flexible learning that works beautifully on every platform and device? Check out some of the learning experiences we’ve created here at Maestro!

Transformed learners transform the world

When people feel they are empowered and supported to better their lives, there’s no limit to the good they can do in the world. By understanding adult learners better, organizations have the opportunity to grow their people and their bottom lines. 

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