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The 4 Principles of Adult Learning and How to Apply Them to Your Employee Training

Employee training goes well beyond onboarding; continued learning and development can increase employee engagement, boost productivity, and improve your company’s success as a whole.

But if you aren’t providing your employees with the resources and methods that work best for adult learning, you’re not setting them up for success.

Employees who aren’t given the opportunities to learn and grow in their positions are more likely to leave. In fact, lack of career development opportunities is the number one reason employees leave their jobs.

Plus, proper training can help engage employees—and keep them engaged—which improves their employee experience and productivity. On average, companies with engaged employees are 21% more profitable than non-engaged companies.

So, what are the principles of adult learning? And how can you apply them to your employee training to get real results?

Let’s dive in. In this article you’ll learn:

  1. How is Adult Learning Unique?

  2. The 5 Key Assumptions of Adult Learners

  3. What are the 4 Adult Learning Principles?

  4. How to Apply Adult Learning Principles and Assumptions to Your Employee Training

  5. The Benefits of High-Quality Employee Training

  6. How an LMS Can Improve Employee Training

How you train your employees is just as important as what you’re trying to train them in. It’s not just about the difficulty of the material—although an adult would definitely find it easier to understand WHMIS than a toddler. (If your baby does understand WHMIS, please let us know. We have some questions.)

Adult learners have different goals, values, and information retention techniques than children or teenagers. It’s important to consider how the content is delivered to the learner, how their success is measured, and how they can relate to the material being taught.

Educator Malcolm Knowles developed the core principles of adult learning—AKA andragogy—as a way to explore how adults learn and retain information. He also established the five key assumptions of adult learners, which can tell us about what they value, how they think, and what they want out of their training.

  1. They’re Self-Directed Adult learners don’t need to be hand-held through the process or be micro-managed to make sure they’re accomplishing their tasks. Instead, they thrive when they’re able to select their own training, determine their unique learning path, and walk through the course at their own pace.

  2. They Have Experience to Draw From Unlike children, adult learners have a lot of life experience that they can pull from. They can use their previous professional experiences to draw parallels between what they’re learning and how it can be applied in real life.

  3. They’re Ready to Learn Adults want to build their skills in their careers—and when they get that opportunity, employee retention increases. In fact, 73% of employees surveyed by LinkedIn say they’d stay at their company if there were more skill-building opportunities.

  4. They Want to Apply What They’ve Learned Adult learners are problem-solvers. They want training that can be immediately applied to their world around them.

  5. They’re Motivated! Adult learners want to succeed and advance in their careers; they don’t need to be forced to go through training to do so—but they do want to see the benefits of their training and understand the purpose of what they’re learning.

So now we know more about what adult learners are like, but how do you apply that to your employee training? To answer that, let’s look at the common principles that Knowles derived from his assumptions:

  1. Involve Adult Learners Adult learners want to be involved in the development, measuring, and evaluation of what they’re learning.

  2. Make Training Problem-Centered Their training should focus on problem-solving, not memorizing content.

  3. Relevance is Key Provide practical training and information that employees can immediately apply to their day-to-day work lives.

  4. Build off Their Experiences Training should build off adult learners’ past experiences; their experiences are their largest learning resource.

Okay, so now that we have Knowles’ adult learning principles down, let’s take a look at some actionable ways you can apply them to your employee training. Remember: the right training and resources can improve employee engagement, information retention, and make employees more passionate about their jobs.

Bonus: The principles and assumptions of adult learning translate especially well to online employee training and elearning.

The best training is specifically designed for the user and caters to how they learn best. How do you figure out what they want and need? By asking them.

What do they want to expand their knowledge of, or need a refresh on?

Do they prefer webinars, videos, quizzes, or challenges?

What are their learning and development goals?

After training is complete, ask for feedback on what worked, what didn’t, and how it could be improved. Don’t be afraid to test different training methods to find the ones that work best for your unique company and staff.

Adult learners want the ability to pace their own learning and have the drive to complete their training without someone looking over their shoulder. With an easy-to-use LMS, you can create self-directed courses that learners can complete at their own speed and on their own time, instead of sitting in a room with a three-inch binder and the clock ticking down.

Unique training situations, like onboarding a new employee, may require more one-

on-one training and guidance. When instructor-led training is necessary, make room for the learner to involve themself and participate as often as possible through discussions and collaboration.

Every adult learner has their own collection of personal and professional experiences to draw from. The more employees you have, the more diverse these experiences, education levels, and skillsets are—especially when you have everyone from Gen Z to Millennials to Baby Boomers on staff.

Based on this, your employees may already know how they learn best, or how they like to learn. To cater to these diverse needs, it’s best to provide a wide variety of learning techniques and systems.

Offering a variety of different courses for them to choose from also lets learners direct their own learning path and achieve the learning goals they’ve set for themselves.

Adult learners want to know that what they’re learning will improve their skill set or knowledge and benefit them in their careers in the short- and long-term.

These benefits should be very clearly laid out at the beginning of their training so they stay focused on the end goal. The information they learn should also be immediately applicable to their job and solve problems they may face that very day.

When possible, tailor your training course to the specific employee—their position, their daily tasks, their goals. Don’t include additional material that does not add direct value to them. Their learning outcomes should be directly applicable to what they do on a daily basis and problems they can solve.

Adult learners desire hands-on experiences to learn from. When possible, provide them with practical training experiences through modern training systems. These should include interactive elements and gamification elements that keep them engaged, as well as first-hand experiential learning techniques such as in-person (or virtual) exercises, activities, or role-play.

Gamification can create healthy competition and excitement in your training and increases employee buy-in when it comes to continued professional development.

This also ties into the principle that learning should be problem-centred; giving learners a real-world problem to work through on their own can not only improve information retention but gives them the practical, applicable training they crave.

Providing attainable goals and confirmation of what they’ve accomplished throughout their training can help already-motivated learners stay motivated. Knowing that the information they’re receiving will help them in their career development—be it a raise, a new opportunity, or safer work conditions—is already a strong motivating factor.

Dividing the course training into shorter, more digestible spurts (also known as micro-learning) also helps learners feel more accomplished. You can incorporate awards for reaching a specific goal or include goals that must be met in order to proceed to the next level of training.

The S.M.A.R.T. goal-setting technique fits in perfectly with Knowles’ principles of adult learning—and it can help you build better, more effective training methods, too.

S.M.A.R.T. stands for:






These are the exact traits that adult learners are looking for in their employee training. Here’s how to apply them to each course you design:

  • Specific: Ensure the course and training is specific to the employee, their position, and your company.

  • Measurable: Give them goals that can be reached throughout the training and clear indicators of their progress.

  • Achievable: Make sure you have the resources and LMS you need to provide the best possible training for your employees.

  • Realistic: The outcome of the training should be within reasonable reach for the employee at their stage of development.

  • Timely: The training period should have a target date attached to it to measure results and be immediately applicable to the learner.

Employees that receive poor training are 40% more likely to leave their position within the first year, leaving the company to go through the hiring and training process all over again—which will cost them time, money, and a whole lot of stress.

The right training, on the other hand, provides the career development and growth that inspires employees to stay on-staff, upskill, and reach their next career goal with the company.

To put it simply: Better trained employees stay on-staff for longer.

Companies rated highly on employee training experience 53% lower attrition compared to companies with poor training. When you level up your employee training, you improve productivity, skills, workplace culture, and your retention rate.

Learning and development professionals are spending more time on online learning than ever before—57% more time than three years ago, in fact.

Adult learners are eager to learn at their own pace and want a tailored learning path that’s specific to them. According to LinkedIn’s 2020 Workplace Learning Report, 54% of employees would spend more time learning if they had specific course recommendations to help them reach their career goals. In most cases, the three-inch training binder just doesn’t cut it.

Elearning is the ultimate solution to creating more customized, engaging training courses that speak directly to the adult learner’s needs and wants.

With a modern LMS, you can design courses that are unique to your employees and cater to their specific learning styles and experiences. They also provide employees with the autonomy to learn and develop through hand-picked course selection, self-directed learning systems, and self-paced timelines.

Let us do the work for you! All you have to do is send us your current training resources and we’ll transform them into the engaging, interactive courses you need to improve your employee training.

Online training increases learners’ memory retention by 25 – 60% and takes 40 – 60% less time than traditional training.

Ready to get those kinds of results for your employees? Let us handle your elearning course creation so you can focus on other important aspects of your work, while having the peace of mind that your employees are getting the best possible training to help your business grow. Get started today.

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