The Gist of Adult Learning

I just began my first course of the PDAL certificate program, Program Design. One of the very first topics we explored was “adult learners.” I’m formally trained in elementary education, so I’ve always associated learning with pedagogy. Although I was aware of andragogy, I usually defer to “pedagogy” when I’m speaking about adult learning. I’m working on changing that, and here’s why.

Our book for the course is Training Design Basics by Saul Carliner. In it, he shares the 7 Principles of Adult Learning. I’m going to share these principles and some takeaways I’ve had in the course so far.

Principle 1: Adult Learning is Andragogy, Not Pedagogy

Andragogy is the art and science of teaching adults, whereas pedagogy is the art and science of teaching children. Adults and children have very different learning needs, so it can be misleading to use the terms interchangeably. As a designer, it’s important for me to reflect on the assumptions of adult learning before creating new content. This can help guide me to make decisions that adult learners will appreciate.

Principle 2: Adult Learners are Pressed for Time

Anyone who has been an adult student knows the importance of fitting in their studies between family life, exercise, work, and sleep(?). Otherwise, the studies don’t get done. As designers, we have to be careful about what we assign outside of class time. To assist in their learning, we might collect relevant resources and aggregate reliable content for learners. Providing these professional resources for students helps focus their attention on what matters. Finally, I think it’s important for instructors to provide short summaries of the week and reminders of what’s upcoming. This helps adult learners reintegrate into the course.

Principle 3: Adult Learners are Goal Oriented

Adult learners want to know “what’s in it for me?” They are usually enrolled in a course to reach a specific goal. I am enrolled in the PDAL program because I have some instructional design gaps to fill, which I know will help me in current and future roles. Thus, in my studies, I am always interested in how I can apply what I am learning to my job. Each week in the Program Design course, we are answering questions related to one of three scenarios: workplace training, higher education, and community development. I’m interested in workplace training, which is a great opportunity to apply my learning.

Principle 4: Adult Learners Bring Previous Knowledge and Experience

While it’s true that adults have tons of background knowledge, they also need help making sense of how information fits into their mental model, and whether that needs to be modified.

When presented with content, it’s important to help students reflect on what they think about the content. Providing context and thought-provoking questions can be good strategies.

It’s also important to start with where students are. I find that many titles of course or programs as well as their descriptions can be misleading. I’ve signed up for courses in the past and been disappointed because it didn’t cover what I thought it would. This is one more reason why we should create clear objectives and accurate course descriptions. We can also consider sending a pre-course survey to students to understand their background knowledge.

Principle 5: Adult Learners Have a Finite Capacity for Information

I think this is the principle most instructional designers struggle with. We just want to share what we know or have learned about the content! But, the human brain can only process so much information. We used to think we could store 5-7 pieces in our short-term memory, but recent research indicates there are many factors that affect short-term memory. A better way to think about memory is chunking. How can we organize chunks of content into manageable pieces? Some strategies include sticking to one topic per slide, telling a story that includes relevant facts, and presenting only the need-to-know information.

Principle 6: Adult Learners go through Several Phases when Developing Competence in their Job

When I begin a new job, I am gung-ho to learn as much as I can. After a few months, I often find that I reach my threshold of learning and need to take a breather. I have also suffered from imposter syndrome and a fear of failure (issues with self-efficacy), which sometimes slows me down. This is common for many adult learners. They need time to “warm up” to learning, and they need cues from the instructor, like “This next topic is challenging, but if we apply what we learned about _____, we can get through it.” Encouragement goes a long way! So does considering when people may need extra help, and when they understand the material and need to be presented with a new challenge.  

Principle 7: True Learning Happens When Adults Successfully Integrate (or Transfer) the Skills into their Daily Routines

One of the questions we should always ask as designers for adult learning is, “how will this transfer to the job?” As a learner I really like to see examples of how different applications are being used on the job. Getting learners to share how they can transfer their learning to the job is inspiring and motivating to others.


Carliner, S. (2015). Training design basics (2nd ed.). ATD Press: Alexandria, VA.

Group image from Raw Pixel:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s