6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them into Practice

21 minutes
Adult Learning Theories

What motivates an adult to learn: curiosity or a simple need to know? Educational researchers have come up with an array of answers to that question over the years. The truth is that adults are complex individuals so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. This article explores key adult learning theories and explains how to define and “marry” a learning need to its most appropriate solution in adult training.

What is an Adult Learning Theory? 

Adult learning theories are based on the premise that adults learn differently than children. Whereas child-oriented learning is in the realm of pedagogy, learning in adulthood is under the purview of andragogy in a broad sense. Here are some basic differences between the ways children and adults learn.

Adult learners vs. Child learners
Child-oriented learning provides a basic foundation of knowledge and helps develop critical thinking skills.Adults have an existing base of knowledge and life experience. They seek out continuous learning based on personal interests, wants, and needs.
Children typically have no choice but to study and may lose enthusiasm if they are not engaged in what is happening around them.Adults understand why they’re learning, so their motivation levels are naturally high.
It’s necessary to be in charge of the classroom.It’s beneficial to let adults work things out for themselves and organize themselves.
Teachers play a central role in delivering knowledge and guiding learning activities.The role of “teacher” may be effectively filled by a mentor, coach, training facilitator, peer, or subject matter expert.

Given that adults differ from children and have certain emotional baggage, life experience, internal motives, and cognitive characteristics, this imposes specific challenges that most adults tend to face when it comes to learning and training. Let’s cover them briefly.

Difficulties in Adult Learning

These are the most common difficulties, or learning barriers, typically encountered by adult learners that can prevent adults from trying new things, growing their skills, and obtaining new knowledge. Since workplace training takes the largest share in adult learning, we’ll cover adult learning barriers in that context. 


With only 5% of the workweek that employees are ready to spend on training (according to the most optimistic estimates), it’s evident that adults generally tend to have other priorities. They have too much on their plate, not only at work but in their personal life, taking care of their families. That presents the challenge to stay focused on training and reduce distractions (e.g., noisy office environment, children and pets demanding attention at home, or smartphone addiction).  

Seeing the big picture

If adults don’t see where they stand in the company, don’t feel valued, or know what depends on them, training may seem unnecessary. Employees may simply not understand why their employer tries to involve them in the training process, what results are expected of them, and why. It’s necessary to show that training and development are important for their growth in the company and to make a real impact on overall business performance.

Having a purpose

That’s the same old ‘what’s in it for me’ situation. Adult learners want to know exactly how the new knowledge will help them in life or work. If the purpose of training isn’t concrete enough and doesn’t target the learning needs of the audience, it may become an unbreakable barrier, and no training will make sense. 

Imposter syndrome

Adults tend to fear not knowing something they perceive to be essential for their new role, another career path, or a different profession. Fear of criticism adds to this. Whereas any knowledge can be gained, toxic self-doubt and feeling unsatisfactory are harder to resolve. So, if the training topic is something new for the adult, they may suffer from imposter syndrome, and that hinders their growth and development greatly. 

To distinguish the critical aspects of adult learning, education theorists and psychologists had to elaborate theoretical frameworks that would reinvent learning practices beyond the school and college gates and move them to workplaces.  Over the last century, a number of different theories have gained prominence. There’s no single theory that explains how and why adults learn best; however, each one sheds light on a particular aspect of adult learning. 

We’ve made a review of six of the most popular adult learning theories to see how each can be used to support overall learning needs.

Learning Theory Comparison Chart 

Here’s a comparison chart of all the learning theories we will examine in the article. We hope it’ll help you select the best strategy your learning design needs.

  • Adult learners are autonomous and self-directed, and seek out learning based on personal needs.
  • Adult learners must be able to apply what they learn in a practical way.
  • Problem solving
  • Structured formal learning
  • Learners with a defined need to know
Transformational Learning 

  • A person’s beliefs and expectations shape their view of the world.
  • Through a rational analytical process, a person can consciously change their old beliefs and implement new ones.

  • Complex analytical processes
  • Evaluation and analysis
  • Long-term personal growth
Experiential Learning 

  • A hands-on approach where individuals learn by doing.
  • Puts the learner at the center of the learning process.
  • Learning happens through an active process of doing and reflection.

  • Mechanical skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Process improvement
  • Systematic thinking
Self-Directed Learning
  • Process where individuals take complete ownership of the learning process to diagnose learning needs, identify resources, implement learning, and assess their results.

  • Process updates
  • Self-motivated learners
  • Technology and software skills
Project Based Learning 

  • Learners engage in active investigation of a real-world problem.
  • Gives learners a voice in the overall process through a process of inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication.

  • Project management
  • Process improvement
  • Manufacturing
 Action Learning 

  • Learning is the result of programming and questioning.
  • Learners take action on a problem and reflect upon the results.

  • Team building
  • Fill in knowledge gaps
  • Uncover areas of learning need

Below is the detailed overview of these most popular adult learning theories.

Major Adult Learning Theories

Take an overall look at these theories to gain insight into what motivates adults to learn, and use this knowledge as a building block for your instructional design efforts.


Developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968, the concept of andragogy is described by its creator as the art and science of helping adults learn. We’ve already covered the main assumptions of this adult learning model when comparing adult and child learners. Malcolm Knowles elaborated the four main principles of adult learning that andragogy is famous for.

The four principles of the andragogic (or andragogical) approach
PrinciplePractical example
Adults learn better from their experiences and their past knowledge should be taken into account.When planning a course for adults, try to appeal to their professional background, whatever it is, and provide related examples. Adults will learn new knowledge better if they link it to their life experiences.
Adults favor a pragmatic approach and must be able to apply learning to solve a specific problem.Clearly articulate the ‘why’ behind training and make it speak for itself. Anticipate the question “What’s in it for me?” and make the very title of your training material answer this question.
Adults are most interested in learning things that have immediate relevance.

Blend theory with practice and create exercises and role-plays to apply new knowledge immediately. 

Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.Involve your learners in the planning, execution, and assessment of the new training program. Collect their feedback and update the training material accordingly.
Andragogy learning theory

Case study

Farm Bureau, a rural service organization, takes an andragogic approach to designing training for volunteer leaders and Board of Director candidates. The training program diagnoses learning needs and sets objectives through mutual negotiation with each learner. Participants are expected to actively engage in activities, discuss the practical value of their learning, and apply what they learn to their leadership roles.

Read the full case →

Transformational learning

Developed by Jack Mezirow in 1978, transformative learning theory posits that all learners use different assumptions, expectations, and beliefs to make sense of the world around them.

  • Transformational learning attempts to help learners change — or transform — their existing frames of reference through a process of problem solving, procedural tasks, and self-reflection.
  • Learning transformations occur when individuals face a “disorienting dilemma” that challenges their existing beliefs and critically reflect upon what has taken place.
  • It’s considered one of the “stickiest” types of learning because it can shift an individual’s perspective on how to behave, interact, or problem solve.
Transformational learning theory

Case study

A group of 12 worker-learners was sponsored by their employer, Workforce Council, to pursue a Graduate Certificate in Executive Leadership course offered by an Australian university. The group was divided into three teams. Each team was engaged in transformational learning to influence changes in their organizational processes and systems. 

The training program included learning materials that were posted on the university’s website, face-to-face consultations at the worksite, and regular emails. All the learning units were aimed to develop a learning culture of critical and reflective thinking to transform existing perspectives and practices. This enabled the learners to step out of their “habits of mind.”

Read the full case →

Experiential learning

Developed by David Kolb in the 1970s, by drawing on the work of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget, experiential learning requires a hands-on approach that puts the learner at the center of the learning experience.

  • Active participation is key, but the theory says that learning happens only when the individual reflects upon what they are doing.
  • The four elements of experiential learning are active involvement, reflection upon practice, conceptualization of the experience, and use of knowledge gained from experience.
Experiential learning theory

Case study

Capital One partnered with the College of St. Bernard/St. John’s University to provide mentorship to students in an advanced global strategy course. Students met real-world business challenges and resolved them by actively engaging with the process of research and hands-on work. Mentors provided expert advice and guidance only.

Read the full case →

Self-directed learning (SDL)

SDL is rooted in Malcolm Knowles’ theory of adult learning; in 1997, D.R. Garrison added elements of self-management to the model.

  • SDL is a process where individuals take the initiative to diagnose learning needs, form learning goals, identify resources, implement a learning plan, and assess their own results.
  • SDL often occurs with the help of teachers, mentors, resources, and peers.
  • Requires the learner to be able to access and select appropriate learning.
  • The learner exercises control over all learning decisions.
Self-directed learning theory

Case study

Tahiya Alam, a Junior eLearning Support Specialist at The University of Manchester, needed to make results on a scientific research project available online. Once she realized her learning needs, Ms. Alam consulted with eLearning colleagues and researched her options. She found that she could use iSpring Suite to develop many types of eLearning. Following the principles of SDL, Ms. Alam upskilled herself and was able to produce engaging and robust eLearning materials.

Read the full case →

Project based learning (PBL)

Developed by John Dewey in 1897, project based learning theory holds that learners acquire deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world problems. Dewey called this principle “learning by doing.”

  • PBL requires learners to solicit feedback and continually review results. This iterative process is believed to increase the possibility of long-term retention of skills and knowledge.
  • It requires the use of diverse skills, including inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication.
Project-based learning theory

Case study 

Management at a construction company in Sweden realized that they could decrease project time frames and instill a higher sense of commitment and morale by making better use of the subcontractors’ expertise. They adopted a new project management tool and assigned teams of employees and subcontractors to learn the software by using it.

Employees and subcontractors were able to see how their input could directly drive project success and increased their level of ownership of project tasks and responsibilities.

Read the full case →

Action learning

Developed by Reg Revans in 1982, action learning is an approach to problem solving that involves taking action and reflecting on the results.

  • The goal of action learning is to improve problem solving processes and simplify the resulting solutions.
  • This approach tackles problems by first asking questions to clarify the problem, reflecting and identifying possible solutions, and only then taking action.
  • Questions build group dialogue and cohesiveness, develop innovative and systems thinking, and improve learning results.
  • Action learning requires that the group be able to take action on the problem it’s working on. If learners make recommendations only, the group loses its energy, creativity, and commitment.
  • There should be a coach who helps the group to learn and work smarter and more effectively.
Action learning theory

Case study 

Florida Power and Light (FPL), a power utility company, was the first U.S. corporation to earn the Deming Prize for Quality in 1990. But before that, it had experienced difficulty with its power generation systems and couldn’t effectively convert energy to electricity. In fact, this problem existed for many years.

Finally, they called together a team of people from different FPL areas to troubleshoot the problem. When working together, the team members boosted their problem-solving and collaboration skills. As a result, they managed to find the source of the problem and resolve it. 

Read the full case →

Best Adult Learning Techniques to Boost Engagement 

Whichever adult learning theory you choose as a training framework, enticing your learners is key. It doesn’t matter what you teach or instruct your learners on – the most effective techniques will focus on the psychology of learning and emotions. 

Based on the theoretical frameworks and cases of their practical implementation above, we can provide actionable takeaways, or techniques, to drive your learners forward and facilitate a meaningful learning experience:

  • Involve learners in planning their learning. Evidence shows that by letting adults decide on their learning goals, you motivate them more.  
  • Make it similar to problem-solving. Let your learners focus on the issue that can be fixed with the help of training or even in the very process of it. 
  • Encourage critical reflection. Ask learners to give feedback, express opinions, discuss results, and draw personal conclusions. Introduce self-evaluation to enable learners to track the progress of their own learning and review their own goals.
  • Allow autonomy. A certain extent of control over training will be a good aid to motivation. Try to introduce self-directed and self-paced learning scenarios into daily practice. 
  • Appeal to the learners’ emotional side. Try not to only deliver practical knowledge, but also engage learners emotionally and ignite their thought. 
  • Create a story. Leverage elements of storytelling and introduce characters that will accompany learners all the way and overcome certain challenges related to the new topic.
  • Provide inspiring examples. Share about others who took part in training and what results they achieved. 
  • Stimulate with intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic motivation is important, but it’s essential to position your training as a way of feeling the joy of learning and getting a sense of self-achievement. 

These techniques are the ways to attract and retain your learners’ attention and motivate them to proceed with training and complete the course. However, you need to keep in mind that they should be well-suited to the learning material and directly related to the topic. Below, you’ll find out how to work with the learning material for adults in the most effective way.   

7 Tips to Enhance Adult Learning in Organizations

These are seven tips on how you can establish systematic training in a company, institution, or adult education school on the basis of adult learning theories. 

Tip 1. Build a blended learning solution

Engage your learners with a blend of learning experiences. For example, you can mix classroom sessions with online courses to make the learning process more personally interactive and enjoyable. You can create an online courses on your own with an authoring tool like iSpring Suite. iSpring Suite makes it easy to build slide-based courses with quizzes, dialogue simulations, screencasts, and interactions. 

This is what an online course created with iSpring looks like:

Tip 2. Link learning to expected results

Does your curriculum consist mainly of eLearning, or instructor-led training classes followed by an assessment? How is that working for you and your learners?

Most employee learning programs teach a mix of skills, knowledge, processes, procedures, and provide compliance, orientation, onboarding, and other organization-specific types of  training. Consider the performance-based outcome that the employee is expected to achieve and use your knowledge of adult learning theory to select the method that best aligns to your performance needs.

For example, a new hire in an Accounts Payable role may need to be able to use your accounting software to enter and reconcile invoices. An experiential learning approach (in a training or sandbox environment) will allow learners to apply their knowledge and skills of the software in a realistic way.

Tip 3. Formalize your informal learning

Organizations that follow a growth mindset philosophy encourage long term employees to chart their own professional development path and opt for self-direction. Adults who are motivated to learn will benefit from self-directed learning activities.

You can support self-directed learning by providing your learners with different kinds of learning content for self-study. To easily manage your learning materials, you can upload them to your LMS. If you still don’t have a learning management system, check the iSpring Learn Cloud LMS. It’ll help you automate your employee training. 

Tip 4. Build communities for practice

To operate as efficiently as possible, many organizations are in a constant state of reorganization. Job roles and responsibilities, along with internal processes and procedures, change often. A community of practice can help you lead transformational learning initiatives, or oversee project-based learning on an enterprise level.

Align communities of practice around higher-level strategic needs such as Marketing, Learning, HR, and Finance. Each community should be led by a coach and supported by a team of colleagues with strong expertise in the area of focus. A Finance Community of Practice, for example, could be led by the Assistant Controller and supported by team members with expertise in payroll, IT, bookkeeping, accounts payable, and accounts receivable.

Tip 5. Chunk your content

Long, complex learning modules can overwhelm learners with their sheer volume of information. Engage and motivate your learners by “chunking” your content into smaller learning modules that focus on one idea or one aspect of a larger topic.

Let’s say you’re creating training on how to improve communication with customers. You have five specific skills to focus on and you need to include videos, real-life examples, knowledge checks, and a final assessment. Completing a single module with this much information would be a time challenge for most learners. Chunking it into a number of smaller learning activities will allow learners to master one aspect of customer communication at a time as they increase their overall skill set.

You can use the iSpring Suite of authoring tools to build a variety of interactive content types to engage your learners in different ways. For example, you may add a dialogue simulation to show a customer comment and have your learner choose the best response.

You can also create a process flow as an interactive graphic with click-to-learn capabilities, or Illustrate a process flow or history with an interactive timeline. 

Tip 6. Incorporate microlearning

Microlearning is more than slicing and dicing a 20-minute module into a lot of 2-minute modules. Effective microlearning creates learning activities or assessments that deliver a full learning experience in just a few minutes.

Microlearning delivers short “bursts” of information, ideally at the point of need. For example: a credit card issuer that offers a different incentive to their rewards members each month probably usually doesn’t offer detailed rewards training on this topic every few weeks. A microlearning solution that explains the reward of the month along with the special terms and conditions, and provides a link to the reward details in the performance support database would be an ideal self-directed microlearning solution.

A microlearning course can also be a good option if you need to provide your employees with some brief guidelines on their work. For example, you can build a microcourse for your new hires that will give them useful tips on how to integrate smoothly into the company and become productive ASAP, like the one below: 

This course was made with the iSpring Page authoring tool, which is specifically designed for creating microlearning modules. 

Tip 7. Enable personal learning paths

It’s not always reasonable to make all employees follow the same end-to-end training path. At least a long-tenured employee moving into a new role may upskill faster than an outside hire, simply because they’re already familiar with the company culture and internal systems.

Incorporate principles of andragogy to make the learning path relevant to each learner’s needs. Your employees will appreciate the chance to omit redundant training and focus on job-essential skills. Your business will also benefit from this approach by gaining a productive new employee in the shortest time frame possible.

Tip 8. Align learning to needs, not wants

Business stakeholders tend to look at learning in purely utilitarian terms. They often prefer the learning solutions they’re most familiar with, and that is highly likely to bridge gaps in performance or knowledge. It’s the job of a learning professional to identify the root cause of a performance or knowledge issue and recommend the best possible solution — which may not be what the stakeholder asked for.

An understanding of adult learning theory and principles allows you to propose “right fit” solutions tailored to the needs of the learner. If your goal is to build teams and increase morale, an action learning exercise could have more motivational impact than a classroom lesson on how to get along with your co-workers.

Note: One area where instructional designers may have less flexibility in design choices is compliance training. If your organization requires each employee to complete a set number of hours of compliance training annually, you may have to work to those requirements.


To Sum Up

Instructional designers can use the principles of adult learning theories as a basis for their overall learning architecture. Once you have chosen the best-fit learning approach, a robust authoring tool can help you create a learning activity that develops job-essential skills and knowledge. Download a free iSpring Suite trial and explore all its features right now.

Useful Resources

Check out some more articles about adult learning in our blog:

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