Adult Learning Principles

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Educators and trainers who teach adults have been using the core principles outlined by adult learning theory since the 1970s. Although adult learning principles are phrased in various ways by training professionals, the substance is consistent. Four core principles of adult learning are: incorporate participants’ prior learning and experience, create a safe space for all participants, respect learners as individuals, and include structured activities in your training session. When adult learning principles are not incorporated into training sessions, participants will be less engaged and their opportunities for learning will be diminished. Effective trainers intentionally incorporate strategies into both their training design and their facilitation style to directly address each of these adult learning principles.

Incorporate adults’ prior learning and experience.

It’s important to capitalize on the rich prior experience that adult learners have when they enter the training by incorporating that experience into the session. Also, inaccurate information that people think is correct can be a significant impediment to new learning. By drawing out prior experience, you can correct learners’ misinformation.

Here are a few strategies for incorporating prior knowledge and experience into your training session:

  • Conduct a needs assessment to uncover group members’ experiences and expectations.
  • Ask for input on the lesson plan.
  • Ask participants to share relevant experiences throughout the training session.
  • Do a “K-W-L” chart on flipchart paper, asking participants to list what they Know and Want to know at the beginning of the session, and what they Learned following the session.
  • Create peer sharing opportunities by facilitating small group discussions.
  • Carefully prepare guiding questions to draw out prior knowledge and pique interest about new information.
  • Poll participants at key points about experience and level of knowledge. Polling can be done by a show of hands, hearing from selected participants, or using flipchart paper or Post-it notes.

Create a safe space for learners.

Adults may feel vulnerable when they’re learning something new. The trainer can support learners’ comfort levels by using low-risk activities, reassurance, and a plan for building incremental successes. Concepts and skills should be presented in a strategic sequence, from simple to complex and from group-supported to solo.

Here are some additional strategies to create a “safe space” for learners:  

  • Set feasible learning objectives.
  • Thoughtfully plan sessions to start with basics and work towards complexity.
  • Establish ground rules.
  • Provide an outline to guide participants towards the intended outcomes.
  • Facilitate discussions and peer sharing based on that outline.
  • Avoid words and actions that may embarrass individuals.
  • Affirm questions and ideas from individuals who speak up.
  • Allow for small group interaction.

Respect participants as individuals.

Establish sound relationships with participants. Model and encourage respect and open communication. Provide for their needs with adequate breaks and use their time effectively. It’s also helpful to solicit learners’ input on the training schedule or process.

Here are some strategies for incorporating this adult learning principle into your training session:

  • After presenting the agenda, check in with your audience.
  • Provide adequate breaks.
  • Offer choices and allow for self-direction.
  • Be flexible and adapt to participant needs.
  • Conduct frequent check-ins, asking for feedback about training content/process.
  • Learn about different adult learning styles and teach to all styles.

Include structured activities in your training.

There are three aspects involved in learning: ideas (cognitive), feelings (affective), and actions (behavioral). Adults learn best when training moves beyond ideas and feelings to incorporate actions as well. That is, training that provides opportunities to practice new skills will increase the likelihood that learners will apply the new knowledge and behaviors in their own environments. Also, participants are more likely to believe and retain the information they’ve learned if they arrive at the ideas themselves. Structured activities can foster the exploration that learners need in order to make their own connections and conclusions.

Here are a few strategies to incorporate activities into your training session:

  • Once every 10 minutes or so, give participants two minutes to discuss with a partner the concepts you presented.
  • Ask guiding questions and facilitate discussions.
  • Facilitate an activity that allows participants to practice the skills or techniques you’re teaching.
  • Use case studies, videos, or stories. Invite learners to describe, analyze, apply, or implement what they’ve learned.
  • Play a game that slowly presents new information and allows participants to interact with the new information.
  • Ask participants to record their new learning and create action steps to take after the training. Ask them to share these with others to increase the likelihood that they follow up on their action plans.

Check your understanding of the adult learning principles.

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