The Principles of Adult Learning. We’ve all heard of them … but what are they, really? They’re a generally agreed upon set of principles and best practices that we apply to building training for adult learners. So let’s take a closer look at these principles and some practical tips for applying them to your next e-learning course.


Adults have a rich history with many past experiences they can draw upon, which helps them in their learning endeavors.

How to apply this principle to e-learning?

Consider what your learners already know when you’re designing your course. For example: you’re building systems training for employees who have already been using the system for over a year. Don’t force them to do lessons like “logging in” and “logging out”—adult learners will draw from their past experiences and sort those out on their own. If you must include it in the course, make it optional.


Adults tend to be self-directed in that they like to have control over their own learning content and process.

How to apply this principle to e-learning?

Give learners control in your course. There are many ways you can do this:

  • Don’t lock down your navigation.
  • Let learners choose the order in which they view the content.
  • Allow them to select an avatar to guide them through the course.
  • Build scenarios that give learners various options and allow them to make decisions.

Those are just a few. The key is to find points in your e-learning where you can give learners control over the e-learning experience.


Adult learners need to see the direct link of how the learning relates back to their real-life problems and tasks, rather than simply learning theory or academic materials that won’t help them on the job.

How to apply this principle to e-learning?

Focus your e-learning on tasks and use real-life scenarios to provide context for the content. This is why it’s important to do your task analysis up front: it automatically focuses your e-learning on only what the learners need to know on the job, which is what adults are concerned with learning.


Adults want to learn the information they need to know right away, and are not overly concerned with information they may or may not need down the road.

How to apply this principle to e-learning?

Get rid of any “nice to know” information, or at the very least, make it optional. This ties into the previous point about relevance: if you focus on what’s relevant to the tasks at hand, you’re more likely to create training that focuses on what learners need to know right now, which is what they’re interested in.


Adult learners need to understand the benefits and what they stand to gain from the learning in order to be engaged by it.

How to apply this principle to e-learning?

Capture their interest by being explicit up front about the benefits for the learner to understand the material at hand. Will the process they’re learning make their current job easier? Will it save them time or collect better data in the system? You need to identify specific ways this training will make your learner’s job easier and better. If it really won’t, you can at least explain the reasoning behind why they still need to learn this information.


Adults like to be able to share their past experiences, capabilities, and insights with others.

How to apply this principle to e-learning?

Make your online learning social. Consider an internal chat channel where people have follow-up discussions about the e-learning course they just took, or a question board where the SMEs or course designer can answer questions. You can also consider some aspects of gamification to make it social. For example, you may look at the possibility of including a leaderboard on your company’s internal website or LMS to let people see how they’re ranking.

These are just some of the techniques you should keep in mind to apply the principles of adult learning to your next e-learning course. Do you think this article covers all the principles? Do you have any additional tips of your own to share? If so, please leave a comment below, we love to hear your feedback.

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Nicole Legault
Nora Cloonan