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5 Core Adult Learning Principles

Table of Contents

A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering a cold iron.

Teaching is more than just transferring knowledge and skills from an expert to a student. It’s actively engaging student in the learning and development process. It’s creating excitement, demonstrating applicability, providing feedback, and developing someone else’s expertise and ability to independently think critically about and solve problems within their fields.

Which is why expertise alone is not enough to create effective online courses. Training (including creating online courses) must use engaging instructional methods that foster excitement and enable learners to apply newly acquired skills and knowledge in the real world.

This guide explores five core principles of adult learning you should know about to design online courses optimized for adult learners.

Principle #1 Adult learners have a wealth of life experience.

You have to acknowledge and respect the experiences and backgrounds that adult learners bring to the course. They will interpret what they learn through the lens of these experiences. Design courses that integrate their experiences in the learning process by showing relevancy, drawing on real life examples, and even raising awareness to incorrect, outdated, or biased information.

How to use this in your online course design:

  • Design courses that allow learners to use their personal experiences to better understand the concepts.
  • Provide opportunities for learners to share their relevant experiences.
  • Adjust content to build on learners’ experiences.
  • Drive open and respectful conversations when perspectives may be incorrect, outdated, or biased.

Principle #2 Adult learners want results.

Adult learners generally opt in to learning. They choose what and when they learn. And they usually know why they want to learn. They have specific goals in mind and expect the course materials and structure to help them achieve those goals. If the course doesn’t meet these expectations, learners will disengage and quit.

How to use this in your online course design:

  • Be clear in your course objectives so learners can assess how their personal and professional goals align.
  • Help learners set goals at the start of the course.
  • Explain how the information, activities, and other materials will help them achieve their goals.

Principle #3 Adult learners expect information to be relevant.

“Why do I need to know this?”

Adult learners need to know why something is important to know. They need to see immediate value in your content and methods, and how it will positively impact their personal or professional lives (such as completing tasks, solving problems, or using a skill). Relevancy leads to greater motivation and better results for learners and increases their trust in you.

How to use this in your online course design:

  • Explain why the information or method matters. If you're unsure, ask yourself "why" five times. If you don't have a clear reason why, then you probably shouldn't include it.
  • Create a personal connection to the content.
  • Provide examples of how the information is relevant.
  • Create problem-based scenarios or activities to demonstrate real-world application.

Principle #4 Adult learners must be able to apply what they learn.

People don’t learn by memorizing stuff. They learn by doing. Adult learners want to take what they learn in your course and apply it to their life right away. Create courses that include task-oriented and scenario-based activities to allow learners to apply what they learn and explore solutions on their own. Even if they make mistakes, they’ll learn from them with your guidance.

How to use this in your online course design:

  • Deliver information that can be immediately applied.
  • Include practical examples and real-world scenarios in the course content.
  • Create course activities that require learners to access their experience, knowledge, and skills.

Principle #5 Adult learners look for engagement.

The best courses give adult learners the space and time to apply new knowledge and skills on their own. And they need someone to guide them in that process and provide feedback to help them improve. They also need someone to celebrate wins. Instructors should be as invested in correct application as they are teaching the concepts. Feedback will help learners reach their maximum potential.

How to use this in your online course design:

  • Design activities where you can guide learners through real-life scenarios.
  • Include follow-up and feedback moments after activities.
  • Celebrate good application and results.
  • Provide corrective feedback when mistakes are made.
  • Share personal experience and anecdotes to help guide and motivate learners.