Do you find it hard to get your corporate learners engaged in training, especially web-based training? You can have motivated learners who are committed to applying training. How? Use the principles of Adult Learning Theory when developing learning activities. Adult Learning Theory, andragogy, pioneered by educational psychologist Malcolm Knowles, is a problem-based approach to educating adults. The book, The Adult Learner, outlines a three-dimensional, conceptual framework for andragogy in practice (Knowles, Swanson and Holton 2005, 149) and six core principles that form the foundation for andragogy (Knowles, Swanson and Holton 2005, 40). This article focuses on applying the third dimension of the framework as shown below.

Three-Dimensional Conceptual Framework

  1. Goals and purposes for learning
  2. Individual situations and differences
  3. Andragogy

  Six Principles of Andragogy

  1. Need to Know: Adults need to know and should be involved in 1) why they need to learn, 2) what they will learn and 3) how they will learn. Research (Knowles, Holton and Swanson 2005, 184) shows this increases commitment, motivation and application of the training.
  2. Self-Directed Learner Self-Concept: Adults have an autonomous, self-directed learner self-concept.
  3. Learner’s Experience: Adults have a wealth of resources and mental models that can anchor or inhibit learning.
  4. Readiness to Learn Life Tasks: Adults become ready to learn when their life circumstance creates a need-to-know situation.
  5. Problem-Centered Orientation to Learning: Adults learn better when activities are problem-centered and within a real-life context.
  6. Internal Motivation to Learn: Adults are more motivated to learn when learning has intrinsic value or a personal payoff.


How can we, as instructional designers, apply these principles to engage our learners and produce better learning outcomes? Let’s look at an example.


Your organization is migrating to a new learning management system (LMS). Your task is to develop a web-based training module that helps LMS administrators to efficiently transition to the new system. Here’s how you might structure the module using the six principles of andragogy.


  1. Need to Know: Start the training by outlining these three things: 1) Let learners know how this training will make their job easier or solve an on-the-job problem; 2) Present the topics and objectives of the training; 3) Explain the structure of the training and learning activities. This answers the three need to know questions: why, what and how.
  2. Self-Directed Learner Self-Concept: Create a software simulation where learners can practice a task (e.g., adding a new learner to the system) until they feel comfortable with performing the task. This gives learners the opportunity to have some control (or self-direction) over their own learning.
  3. Learner’s Experiences: Point out similarities between the old system and the new system and build on it. Perhaps the process for adding a new learner into the new system is the same except for one additional step in the new system. Highlight the process both systems share and then present the additional step. The base knowledge acts as an anchor or support to construct new learning.
  4. Readiness to Learn Life Tasks: Remind learners of the effective date that they will need to start using the new system and cut-off date for when they will no longer be able to use the old system. This creates a life situation that provides a need-to-know deadline.
  5. Problem-Centered Orientation to Learning: Create an activity that addresses a common error that is likely to occur when adding a new learner to the system; have the learners work through the fix. This learning activity allows learners to solve an immediate, real-life problem.
  6. Internal Motivation to Learn: Create activities that build a sense of success, volition (choice), value and enjoyment. Build in a fun, interactive activity where learners can select a relevant topic (from a list) that they would like to learn more about. This has intrinsic value to the learner.


Using these principles will motivate your learners to engage in the training, commit to completing the training and apply the training on the job.


Adult learners learn better when learning opportunities:

  1. Explain why, how and what they are learning
  2. Allow some level of control
  3. Build on past experiences
  4. Respond to need-to-know life situations
  5. Involve current, real-life, problem-based activities
  6. Have intrinsic value or personal payoff


Knowles, Malcolm, Elwood Holton and Richard Swanson. 2005. The Adult Learner. Amsterdam: Routledge.


How do you use Adult Learning Theory to create better learning experiences? Share your ideas.



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