Adult Learning Principles

Jul 02, 2013

Hi Everyone,

 I am new to instructional design and was wondering if can get some advise on adult learning principles concept and how they can be applied in design of courses.

Also are they different for paper based and e-learning courses?

It will be great help to know what these adult learning pricniples are and how and which can be applied for both paper based and e-learning courses.



17 Replies
Rob Morgan

I would probably start with looking up ADDIE and SAM learning principles. ADDIE was the standard for quite a while for adult learners SAM is the new and improved ADDIE if you will and is what most of ASTD is teaching these days. Speaking of ASTD, that is another great resource for adult learning. There are a lot of great resources out there but I like this random one that I found a long time ago.

Good luck!


I'm curious to know if anyone here has developed an "adult learning for SMEs" primer course. My employer uses technical SMEs almost exclusively for training content development for their various Finance/IT projects and most of them have don't have a clue about adult learning or how to structure their content.

I'm working on a course "in my spare time" that covers some basic adult learning principles, slide development concepts, writing good/valid objectives, including appropriate activities, valid learning assessment, etc. but I would love to see what others have done in this area for comparison/collaboration.


Amanda, for a quick primer, here is a short slide presentation available on slideshare.

I don't know that this is the best or most comprehensive source for you; but once you are there, you should also see a number of related presentations that you can link to and view.

Amanda Coliette

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your reply.

I am now trying to use the ADDIE model for end to end design and development of e-learning courses for a systems implementation.

I was wondering if I can get some suggestions on the best sequence to follow for the development of courses.

I know I have to conduct training needs analysis, write learning objectives, gather content from SME, filter the content on the basis of system to role matrix and different roles, make course outline and blueprints, write the design strategy (,font, color palette, templates, assessment structure, training material to write, tools and different methods to measure effectiveness of training together with any risks),  storyboards, get it approved from stakeholders and then start the development. 

Please suggest if its the correct order to follow together with any additions or deletions to them. Also at which stage we add the business processes to courses.

Also any samples and examples to share will be of great help.



Bruce Graham

Hi Amanda...

Not sure this answers the question, however, remember that ADDIE alone does not necessarily ensure you end up with an interesting course that's useful, as it relies on the SME providing information. There may be a lot of content that the SME thinks is relevant which you will have to find a way to lose.

Have a look at ADDY vs. ADDIE from Dave Anderson if you have not done so already.


Mary Kay Mann

The ADDIE model is a method for planning and designing your courses and you can certainly use it to create courses that take advantage of adult learning principles.

But the actual Principles of Adult Learning (andragogy) are research-based descriptions of how adults learn and how they are motivated to learn. I'm going to assume that your question was really about these principles, so I'll plow through a few of them for you:

  • Adults will commit to learning only what's important to them now, not everything you want to show them, and not what they may need to know sometime in the future.
  • Adults want to be the originator of their own learning.
  • They need concrete practice experiences in which they apply what they are learning.
  • They need feedback on how they are doing, but they are afraid of being judged.

This is different from learning by children (pedagogy), in which they are usually much less in control of what they learn and when they learn it.

So, you can take these principles and apply them to the steps you take during the ADDIE process by, doing, for example:

  • Make sure your task analysis includes only relevant tasks.
  • Make sure your learning objectives include only what they will need to accomplish during your course.
  • Make the navigation flexible, if possible, and include interactions, so the learner has some control over where they go in the course and when.
  • Make sure there are practice experiences throughout
  • Give specific feedback on their progress. For example, if you give a quiz, tell them why their answer was incorrect and what they can do to get to the correct answer.

And there are more principles I didn't even mention. Anyone?

Erik Andersson

Adult learning is a way of learning remotely without being in regular face-to-face contact with a teacher in the classroom. You should go for distance learning so that you can balance your study and job.
is a way of learning remotely without being in regular face-to-face contact with a teacher in the classroom.

Here are some principles of adult learning

1. Adults must want to learn: They learn effectively only when they have a strong inner motivation to develop a new skill or acquire a particular type of knowledge.Helping their children is a strong motivator for learners who are parents. Getting a high school diploma or a good job is another strong motivator for adults.

2. Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn: Adults are practical in their approach to learning; they want to know how is this going to help me right now? Be practical, be direct.

3. Adults learn by doing: Children learn by doing, but active participation is more important among adults. Adults need to be able to use these skills immediately so that they see their relevance.

4. Adult learning focuses on problems and the problems must be realistic: Children learn skills sequentially. Adults start with a problem and then work to find a solution. Begin by identifying what the learner can do, what the learner wants to do and then address the gaps and develop practical activities to teach specific skills.

5. Experience affects adult learning: Adults have more experience than children. This can be an asset and a liability.

Walt Hamilton

SAM vs ADDIE.  These are descriptions of steps used in designing classes, presentations, or projects. They are not connected in any way to principles of why and how people learn.

I don't want to pop any bubbles about how special "adult learning" is, but I can say (after 30 years of teaching elementary, Jr. high and high school) that there is not ONE SINGLE principle mentioned on this discussion that is not relevant to children learning. (Apologies in advance; I know that there are a lot of people making livings and reputations selling the specialness of "adult learning" to those who are convinced there is something special about it.)

Just to choose the closest example: Experience affects learning. You will have a very difficult teaching students to spell if they have not had the experience of learning the names of the letters. Adults may have more experience but, as Erik points out, that is a two-edged sword, and more experience does not equate to a larger impact on learning.

Think of learning as a small boy trying to reach the cookie jar. He pushes a box over to the counter and climbs up on it. If he cannot get up on the counter, he gets another box. He has three boxes he can use. One is understanding (which is where most of us spend most of our resources), motivation (which is where most of the best f2f teachers spend most of their resources), and experience (which includes prior experience and current practice).

The thing about the boxes is that it is not important how big each one is, nor is it important what the ratios are; what matters is that the combination of the three is large enough that the learner can crawl up on the counter. That is when learning happens.

Sometimes there is a block to learning that can be removed with a minor explanation, which increases understanding enough that the learner learns.

For an example of motivation in action, think about how many times a teenager has to drive to a girl's house to learn the way.

I have never understood the logic behind house numbers, and I have never wanted to learn a new address, but after giving out my address a gazillion times (experience), I have learned my address every time i have moved.

My point is that it is true, that sometimes the details and sometimes the ratios of these principles change as you change learner age groups, THE PRINCIPLES OF LEARNING DO NOT. In fact the change from one age group to the next does not represent the largest change. The largest change is from one individual to the next, and the second largest is the change from one learning item to the next.

Unfortunately the sort of educational design most of us engage in does not allow us to address motivation. If we create a well-designed, engaging project, we may make it easier for learners to practice (gain experience). We have the most influence over explanations that aid understanding.

That said, there are known learning principles. Erik and Mary Kay, in particular have have listed a number of them, and no doubt some of the resources listed do, too.

I end with two thoughts:

1.Do not confuse teaching principles with learning principles.

2. How many certification programs that we work on require not learning, but that a learner be exposed to X number of minutes, and that they must see X number of slides, and those in a prescribed order. How many of these principles do those presentations violate?

Melanie Sobie
Mary Kay Mann

Adults will commit to learning only what's important to them now, not everything you want to show them, and not what they may need to know sometime in the future.

I think this particular element of adult learning in eLearning courses becomes 1,000 percent more important. When going through the content that the SME wants included in the course you have to be "politely" unrelenting about cutting out the fluff and getting only the absolute minimum content the user needs included in the eLearning course. Everything else is an optional resource or is not included at all.

David Ward

I have never developed such a course but I did create a standardized orientation for my SMEs. The orientation was based on a set of content gathering templates. They would gather the SMEs' input in a format that best met the needs of the instructional designers. The orientation showed the SMEs how to use the templates and kept them focused on providing raw content and steered them away from concerning themselves with the instructional design. To set expectations, we would explain to them during the orientation that the content they provided would be modified by instructional designers and would not look like what it did in the templates when they would later review the designed content.

Bob S

To Walt's point above...  In actual practice, the things that create good learning are not all that different for adults vs children.  There is more variation in learning styles between individuals (eg. Visual vs Kinesthetic learners).

That being said, perhaps this a chance to once again bring up something that IS different and sometimes clouds discussions around adult vs child learners...

.... the difference between Education and Training

  • Education - I have always categorized this as learning "about" something.
  • Training - Is typically focused on how to "do" something. In other words, real-world specific applications of what's being taught.

I theorize it is this difference (not the ages of the learners) that often account for the notion that adult learners need to focus on problems and solutions.  Most busy adults in today's workforce do not want an "education" on how Excel works for example, they want simple, practical "training" on how to add forumales to a spreadsheet. However, should they truly desire an education on the topic, the same learning principles would apply to them or to a younger audience learning about the topic.

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