Adult learning principles are an essential framework for designing effective courses for older learners. Proposed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s, adult learning principles have shaped training professionals’ understanding of their audience for decades. Also known as andragogy, adult learning principles are flexible and can be applied to various learning contexts. This article will give you some tips for applying adult learning principles to eLearning courses.

Adult Learning Principle #1: Principle of Self-Directed Learning

The first of the adult learning principles states that adult learners are intrinsically motivated to learn and are self-directed. They have personal goals and want to have a sense of control over their learning. Adult learners also appreciate having the freedom to make choices.

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To facilitate this in an eLearning course, you can utilize the following strategies:

  • Keep the learning pathway open instead of locked
  • Give learners a library of courses to choose from
  • Conduct aptitude tests and skills assessments and let learners pick which courses they want to take to fill any gaps
  • Let learners discover the information throughout the course instead of presenting it directly. This can be facilitated through scenarios, games, reflection questions, etc.
  • Let learners form their own ideas about a course’s subject matter before presenting theoretical information to them in a learning journey

Adult Learning Principle #2: Adult Learners Come With Their Own Life Experiences Which Can Be Used as A Learning Resource

Adult learners have life experiences that shape how they understand and navigate the world. According to Knowles, these experiences are valuable learning resources that should be tapped into. This helps orient adult learners to the new information they will be gaining in a course and helps them form connections between new and old information/

You can tap into adult learners’ experiences in the following ways:

  • Begin courses with questions that prompt learners to think and reflect about their experiences
  • Use scenarios and case studies that have similar contexts, characters, and situations as your target learners
  • Encourage learners to connect what they are learning with what they already know to make this process of association more deliberate

Adult Learning Principle #3: Adult Learners’ Goals Influence Their Readiness to Learn

Adult learners have specific goals about their lives and careers. Hence, an eLearning course that is successfully implementing adult learning principles should have a clear link with the learners’ personal goals.

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Some ways in which you can do this in an eLearning course include:

  • Establishing clear learning objectives at the start of the course
  • Clearly delineating the learning outcomes of a course (such as a raise, a change in title, a transfer, etc.)
  • Providing consistent feedback to learners throughout the course that communicates how much they have learned and where they are in reference to the final outcome of the course
  • Awarding badges, medals, certificates, etc. on completing chapters/courses
  • Clearly and regularly communicating to the learner how each stage of the learning experience relates to the final outcome

Adult Learning Principle #4: Adult Learners Follow a Problem-Centered Approach to Learning

Adult learners prefer learning that solves real challenges in their lives. In other words, they require learning to be highly relevant to the problems they are trying to solve with it.

The following tips will come in handy for facilitating this:

  • Use multimedia such as images, videos, audio, etc. that set a rich context for the course, highlighting how a course is personally relevant to learners. To do this, you will need a thorough understanding of your target audience and the problem you are trying to solve and then reflect it back to learners in the course
  • Provide examples of how the course’s knowledge can be applied to solve real-world challenges either through case studies, testimonials and proof, or by incorporating an element of social learning and community into the course
  • Encourage learners to continuously share how they are implementing a course in their lives with the rest of the learner group
  • Collaborate with experience subject matter experts to ensure the course is tackling the challenges your target audience faces

Adult Learning Principle #5: Adult Learners Like Practical, Hands-on Learning That Can Be Applied Immediately

The last of the adult learning principles is that adult learners are practical. They want to be able to apply the knowledge they gain through learning in their lives. Thus, courses for adult learners should be hands-on and practical.

Here’s how you can make eLearning practical:

  • Utilize tools like gamification, scenario-based learning, and simulations to let learners experience the situations information can be used in
  • Provide practical tips throughout the course that explicitly state how knowledge applies to the real world
  • Use case studies, white papers, podcasts, videos, etc. to provide detailed and immersive examples


Adult learning principles are a versatile framework with multiple applications. In eLearning, by using the right mix of tools, you can create highly engaging courses that produce actionable and impactful learning and yield high learner satisfaction.


Making Effective eLearning for Adult Learners Using Adult Learning Principles

Making Effective eLearning for Adult Learners Using Adult Learning Principles

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the principles of adult learning?

The principles of adult learning are:

  • Adult learners are self-directed
  • Adult learners have their own experiences that can be used as a learning resource
  • Adult learners’ goals influence their readiness to learn
  • Adult learners follow a problem-centered approach to learning
  • Adult learners want learning to be practical
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