Top 6 Adult Learning Principles to Boost Your Training

adult learning entrepreneurship instructional design learning consulting learning development learning retention memory Sep 21, 2020
violin teacher adult learning principle

Before I was a corporate instructional designer and entrepreneur, I was a violin teacher. Since I was in high school, I taught little kids, teenagers, middle-aged women, and a few old men how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Irish fiddle tunes. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of work!

After eight years, my ears were ready to explode and I knew it was time to move on. But I will never trade that time because it led me to this fulfilling career today – teaching adults new skills in just about every subject based on my experience as a learning consultant and instructional designer.

It’s why I’m passionate about supporting small businesses, coaches, consultants and other professionals who are working so hard to offer their unique skills to improve the lives of others.

Throughout my decade long journey of teaching and coaching all kinds of subject matter to people of all ages and walks of life, I learned what motivates adults to learn and how to ensure the learning sticks. We have to teach to how adults learn best in order to engage them and see significant results from their participation in our learning events.

Here are my TOP 6 Adult Learning Principles that will BOOST your educational piece for your audience:

1. SELF DIRECTED. Adults are happiest when they are actively involved in their learning. Learner retention ranges from 50-90% when learning is relevant and applicable.

A quick example: where do millions of people go to instantly learn how to do things? YouTube videos. Adults love this easy, at-the-ready searchable style of learning. They love when they can browse and learn at their own pace, go back and review parts they want to check out again, and consume information when they have the time.

One of the worst things here is for an adult to feel like they’re not in control of their learning. Adults have endless information coming their way. This forbes article says that 2020 data for media consumption will average 13 hours and 35 minutes per day. Adults need and want direct access to the information they need when it’s most relevant.

2. RELEVANT. To be successful, the learning must be relevant to the adult at that time in their life.

If they can’t relate to something, they’re not going to absorb any of the content, much less cultivate new skills or adjust their mindset about the content. When designing your training, use examples that are as close to the audience’s reality as possible. Make sure your audience can put themselves RIGHT INTO the learning and truly experience how it will help them.

3. PRACTICAL. Adults are busy. The learning has to cut through daily distractions and duties. It must focus on what is practical and most useful to your learners.

Adults commit to professional development when it offers a practical benefit or application. They’ll enjoy and participate more fully in learning if they can see it’s directly related to a promotion or fulfilling a skillset in their business.

If your training is practical and useful, your learner is going to be much more engaged. How can you check this? By doing an excellent needs assessment. Run the content by your audience so they’ll retain the learning when they see that the information is purposeful in their life.

4. GOAL ORIENTED. Organize your content to be clearly defined and in direct connection with your learner’s goals.

If topics are poorly organized, adults will get annoyed and drop the course. If the topics seem ambiguous and don’t relate to their goals, they won’t be engaged.

Tell your audience right up front what they can expect so that it’s easy for them to decide how well the learning will connect to their goals. Knowing your audience means you have thought about their goals and will directly address them in your training. Structure the organization around your learning based on task, not on subject.

5. LEARN BY DOING. Adults will remember what they’ve learned if they get to apply it RIGHT AWAY.

Give as concise instruction as you can, then stop and have the learners practice a skill or apply a theory to their own life or work. If you send them away to try something a week later, they won’t remember what you taught them, and that learning will be gone from their brain for good.

Ebbinghaus' "Forgetting curve" indicates that 60% of new information will be lost within a few days if we don't make an effort to apply it. When designing your learning activities, ensure you incorporate opportunities to practice the learning right away.

6. INVOLVE YOUR LEARNERS by giving them greater control. Allow them to make decisions about how they navigate their learning.

There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Give an audio or video teaching with subtitles, so they can read rather than listen. Whenever possible, incorporate different learning styles into a lesson like this, so that adults can experience the content in a way that sticks.
  • Provide your adult learners with tools they can immediately use – like worksheets or templates.
  • Ask for feedback along the way. If you are facilitating live or online, ask questions.
  • Discussion and sharing is amazing. When adult learners can share what they’re learning, it really sticks.
  • Engage with peer learning by guiding discussions with professionals or learners in the same category or industry. Think about how you can involve your learners in their learning path wherever possible.

These 6 principles have achieved results for my clients by delivering performance improvements in the training that we have created. It should give you plenty of food for thought. But hey, let’s have you apply this right away so you retain what you’ve just learned! Audit a piece of your own training, and jot down 5 ways to adjust your content to appeal to adult learners right now.

Create something that promises AND delivers results.

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