Using Adult Learning Principles in Digital Learning

When developing digital learning content, it is important to put yourself in the shoes of the learner.  Two essential questions to consider are:

  • ‘Who are the learners?
  • ‘What will motivate them to learn?’

The tools today are packed with features to make learning exciting and easier to use with templates ready to get you started quickly. But for those of us designing courses for adult learners, it’s helpful to understand adult learning principles too since this is not an automated function of any tool.

Malcolm Knowles pioneered the study of adult learning (called andragogy) in the 1970s, identifying the following six adult learning principles.

  1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
  2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
  3. Adults are goal oriented
  4. Adults are relevancy oriented
  5. Adults are practical
  6. Adult learners like to be respected

These principles are an excellent summary of how adults learn.

PRINCIPLE 1: Adults are internally motivated and self-directed

According to research, “adult learners resist learning when they feel others are imposing information, ideas or actions on them”.

Adult learners like to feel a sense of control over their own learning. Online learning gives adults the choice to log on and learn at a time convenient to them. But what if they log on, and then have no freedom to navigate through the course in their own way? If possible, I like to give learners options to move around the course freely. It is best not to lock down the navigation which may lead to frustration and impede the learning process.

It can be argued that some learners will just click through to the end without reading each screen. To address this problem, I recommend putting in a Case Study or Quick Quiz at the end of each section to check their understanding. This will encourage them to go back to previous screens and take a closer look if they need to.  You could lock the Quiz or Test so they have to pass before progressing. For more information about navigation options, read Tom Kulhmann’s post on the Rapid E-Learning Blog.

But what about if the client asks you to lock down the navigation?

Some managers want their staff to click and read every item on a screen before progressing to the next screen. The good news is that self-directed learning is not just about navigation. If you have to lock down the navigation, there are other ways you can encourage self-directed learning. An important guideline is to lead the learner toward inquiry before supplying them with too many facts. Facts are often presented in the form of bullet points but this may not be the best way to facilitate learning. In fact if bullet points are over-used, it is a sure way for the learner to switch off. Instead try creating a real life problem (case study) that the student has to solve for themselves. You can supply a few facts or resources that they have to draw on to solve the problem. Then provide guidance or feedback after they have submitted a solution. In this way the learner is motivated to learn within a meaningful context. The learner has to think for themselves—and remember, adults like to solve problems and think things through for themselves. It is more likely that they will remember the information if they have had to apply it to a realistic workplace scenario.

PRINCIPLE 2: Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences

Even if you do not personally know the learners you are designing for, you can be sure that as adults, they have a wide range of knowledge and experience to bring to the course. Try to draw on this experience from time to time in the course.

When I start designing a new section in a course, I like to ask the learners a few questions to draw on their pre-existing experiences. By drawing on the learners’ current knowledge or experience, you are orienting them to the new topic and making the course more personal.

This example is from our Equal Employment Opportunity course. Near the start of the course, I asked learners to think about two questions: “What does EEO mean to you?” and “Have you (or someone you know) ever been discriminated against in a workplace?”.  I inserted a green box for the questions with the title ‘Reflection’. The same green box format appears several times in the course and asks the learner different questions for reflection. This is a good way to acknowledge their experience and by doing so, show them respect.

PRINCIPLE 3: Adults are goal oriented

Adult learners need to have a goal to work towards when undertaking online learning. Some adult learners undertake online training by choice. They already have a goal, for example to change careers or get a promotion. Other learners do an online course because their boss has told them they have to. In both cases, adult learners like to know how they will benefit from doing the course. In the first few screens they should be able to answer the question “How will doing the course make my job/life easier?”

As eLearning designers, we need to convince the learner that the course will be worth their while. Although clear learning objectives are a start, there is more that we can do. For example you could open the course with a scenario that they could realistically face in their workplace. Then ask “Would you know what to do in this situation?”. The idea here is to identify a gap in their knowledge which helps to motivate the learner to fill the gap. In other words, do the course!

As adult learners practice new skills, they need feedback about how they are progressing toward their goals. The timing of feedback is important: immediate feedback facilitates learning the most. The longer the interval between performance and feedback, the less likely it is that feedback will have a positive effect on learning. In eLearning we can provide feedback to an adult learner immediately after a skill has been performed. Using a tool like Articulate Storyline , its easy to provide feedback by question or at a deeper level by each individual response

It is also important to acknowledge goal completion; for example ‘Congratulations you passed the test’ or ‘Well done – you have completed Section One of the course’. Another option is to use gaming elements by awarding badges. This kind of encouragement gives the learner a sense of completion and satisfaction.

Principle 4: Adults are relevancy oriented

Adult learners are usually time-poor. Whether they are undertaking the course at work, on the train, or at home, typically there are dozens of other things they could be doing with their time. So it is important not to waste their time with unnecessary information or irrelevant screens.

When I am selecting course content, I ask myself “Will this help the learner achieve the course objectives?”. If the answer is yes, then it is included. If the answer is no, then I leave it out. Sometimes it is helpful to print out the course objectives and keep them next to the keyboard or on the wall in front of you.  By keeping the course objectives at the forefront, you are more likely to keep on track with the most relevant course content.

In addition, adult learners want to see the relevance of what they are learning to their own experience. Always choose images that you think the learners will be able to identify with. For example if you are designing a course about Workplace Bullying for the mining sector, choose images of miners, mine sites and other environments that the learners will be familiar with.

Case studies also need to be relevant to the learners’ experiences. In some cases you might have to talk to a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to gather ideas for realistic workplace scenarios. The more you can relate the content to the everyday experiences of the learner, the more likely they are to see the relevance of the course and engage with the learning experience.

Principle 5: Adults are practical

Adult learners like to apply newly-acquired knowledge in practical ways. They prefer to be active participants in the learning experience. That’s why there should be plenty of interactivity in eLearning courses. Quizzes, surveys, challenges, discussions, research projects – all of these practical activities help to facilitate learning.

The desire for interactivity is not much different from child learners—however there is one important difference: adults need to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills in their working life. In other words, they are undergoing training that will help them in practical ways to perform their jobs more effectively.

What does this mean for eLearning designers? It means you should write in a very clear, precise and direct way. Instructions must be crystal clear so learners can easily follow them. Avoid overly formal language that will only alienate the learners. Follow the principles of plain english.

It means the course should include plenty of practical advice that learners can implement immediately. Tips are an excellent way to do this. By sprinkling several practical tips throughout the course, it breaks up the content and brings the focus to a very practical level. I suggest using a Quick Tip throughout the course.  It brightens up the course, by breaking up content and allows learners to follow expert advice.

Principle 6: Adult learners like to be respected

I think this last principle actually sums up all the six adult learning principles. Put yourself in the shoes of the learner, take care in your eLearning design, ask questions about their own knowledge and experience. Things to consider to avoid disrespecting your adult learners include restricting the navigation, repetition of warning messages, narrating on screen text word for word, poor graphic design.

‘Respect your learner’ is an excellent mantra for any teacher, trainer or course designer.

If you’re want to learn more about using adult learning principles in eLearning then consider our Certified Articulate Training and eLearning Design Essentials course.

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