Understanding Adult Learning Theory Basics in the Workplace

Christine Johnson, Cued Forward on

In a previous three-part blog, we focused on in-person learning options, online learning options, and unique learning options.  We have also focused on understanding the different styles of adult learners.  To dig deeper, we are going to look at some adult learning theory basics to help understand how employees learn and what they need from the learning experiences (coaching, on-the-job training, formal training sessions, etc.) your organization provides. While I know the word “theory” seems intimidating to many, it is key to understanding why your employee development programs are or are not successful.

Adult learning theory is called “andragogy,” the design and delivery of instruction for adults.  Under this theory, there are assumptions that are made about adult learners.   Adult learners in your workforce include everyone from millennials to baby boomers and beyond.


Material relevant to goals

What does this mean for your organization?  Your employees need to see how the program will help them move towards their personal or professional growth.  They need to know the “why.” This can be particularly challenging for compliance training.  Even though this type of training is looked at as something that “simply has to get done,” a few statements can demonstrate how the program is linked to many employees’ goals.  For example, safety training for all employees is an introduction to additional training and responsibilities a manager will have.

Practical training that can be applied immediately

What does this mean for your organization?  All leaders must support employee development programs.  Period.  No questions.  If it was only as simple as that.  Your employees want training that can easily be converted into the workplace.  If they do not get a chance to practice what they learned, the learning experience provides no value to the organization.  These are huge missed opportunities because employees participating in these programs WANT to practice.

“If they [your employees] do not get a chance to practice what they learned, the learning experience provides no value to the organization.”

Take for example an employee being coached on improving public speaking.  If every time there is an opportunity for someone on the team to lead a meeting and this person is never selected, the employee may become frustrated because he cannot try out his new skill in the real work environment.

Recognize their life experience

What does this mean for your organization?  Adult learners differ from children in that their knowledge tank is not starting at zero or close to it.  Your employees have experienced a lot, positive and negative, in both their personal and professionally lives.  Incorporate life experiences into the programs.  For a mentor, understand the skills that an employee has developed throughout their career, even those skills that they may not be currently using in their role.  This information could propel the relationship by establishing a higher benchmark than anticipated.

Busy lives = Breaking learning into smaller chunks

What does this mean for your organization?  Take an employee’s past experience and add to it busy lives, it is easy to see why breaking information in easy to understand, usable chunks is important.  It will help with learning retention and give employees more control over their learning experience.

Respect their time

What does this mean for your organization?  I know you have probably talked about this in regards to meetings.  Have an agenda.  Stay out of the weeds.  Respect that everyone is busy.  Sometimes we forget about this when we want employees to sit through day-long training programs that could be completed in half the time.   Or spent too much of a leadership coaching session on discussing an unrelated IT problem. Adult learners want learning in shortest time possible with most efficient path.

“Adult learners want learning in shortest time possible with most efficient path.”

Easy and convenient access to resources

What does this mean for your organization?  Not only do adult learners want impactful learning that is time-centered and goal-focused, they want resources that they can use to reinforce what they learned.  This could be additional videos or podcasts related to the subject on the organization’s intranet or an online or hard copy book library on related topics.

Gone are the days when organizations take a one-size fits all approach to employee development or make employee development a “nice to have” luxury.  Employee development is now a key reason why employees stay and leave companies. Understanding the adult learning theory basics will help your organization develop stronger internal job sharing, mentoring, and training programs.  For external uses, your organization will have a great checklist to discuss with outside trainers, coaches, and consultants.

Image credit: Pixabay

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