Instructional Design and Adult Learners

Following completion of a tutorial “ID Essentials:Adult Learners” I thought about creating this post to consolidate my learning and share with you.

Adult Learning Principles

There are a number of concepts and theories out there that tell us how adults learn best. A key point is that Adults MUST play an active role in their own learning process.

Androgogy – The process of helping adults to learn with an emphasis on learner motivation by connecting theory to practical applications.
Pedagogy – The process of teaching, particularly children with an emphasis on learning for learning’s sake.

6 Principles of Androgogy

  1. Need to know – Adult learners need to know the reason they are learning what they are learning so it’s good practice to share the purpose of the activity or its objectives.
  2. Experience – Learning is easier when we can build on existing experience.
  3. Self concept – Adult participants need to be responsible for their learning decisions.
  4. Readiness – Adults learn best when training can be used to help them solve an immediate problem, much like taking driving lessons with the aim to start driving as soon as the test is passed.
  5. Problem orientation – Adults learn best when training is problem oriented rather than content oriented. This means training is focused on helping learners acquire a specific objective, piece of knowledge or skill rather than generic content. Adults are much more likely to engage and learn when they feel the training can really help them.
  6. Intrinsic motivation – Adults learn best when motivation comes from within rather than relying on external motivation like prizes or incentives.

Applying Adult Learning Theory

According to Noel Burch, there are four stages of competency…..that thing you have probably heard of…The Learning Curve…well its real. It is an actual thing.

  1. Unconscious Incompetent – Learners don’t know what they don’t know.
  2. Conscious Incompetent – Learners become aware of what they don’t know, this is also the stage where confidence drops significantly.
  3. Conscious Competent – This is the stage where learners can do something at a minimal level but feel overly self conscious about it.
  4. Unconscious Competent – This is where learners know something well enough that they don’t have to think about it at a conscious level.

Points of note during these transitions are the transition between unconscious and conscious incompetence. Here lies a magic window where the learner changes and realizes what it is that they don’t know. Without this transition the learner cannot and will not progress any further.

As an Instructional Designer it’s important that we create a challenge for learners to help them to and through that window of realization. We must however, be careful not to be too challenging too soon as this can provoke fear, self doubt and worry of embarrassment.

Another key point to remember from the four stages is the Conscious Competent stage. Here the learner has built the skills and knowledge yet some have a strange reaction to the process. Myself included. They often perceive their lack of mastery as a sign that they themselves are unable to learn or that the course is ineffective. This means it is important to create learning where they can easily identify their own progress.

Active Learning Techniques

So there are 2 types of learning. Active and Passive. Adult learners need active learning approach over passive to better help retain information and to sustain motivation.

Passive – Lectures, watching videos straight through without pausing to try activities or to reflect and apply concepts

Active – Watching only short segments of the video at a time and then pausing to apply those concepts to a real project before returning to watch a few more videos.

As a result, active learners retain more information and understand concepts at a deeper level.
As Instructional Designers we are responsible for creating training courses that are active by design.

Here are some advantages of Active learning,

  • Challenge, Adult learners need to be challenged so they can progress through the stages of the learning curve.
  • Confirmation, By using active learning, adult learners receive confirmation of their knowledge and progress through the course.
  • Feedback, Adult learners benefit from positive and negative feedback.

There are different approaches associated with Active Learning,

Cognitive Approach –  Memorise information through active participation

Behavioral Approach –  Utilizes demonstrable skills

Constructionist Approach – Focuses on helping participants discover new ideas or concepts through experiential learning.


“Adult Learners need to be active participants in the learning process in order for learning to occur”


Creating Active Learning Techniques

With adult learners it is best to use a variety of delivery methods and active learning is more effective to adult learners that passive learning because naturally it engages the brain more.

3 Strategies for creating active learning

  1. Borrow activities,  Why re-invent the wheel? Chances are, what you are looking for has been done before. Most content creators take a sense of pride in creating something that other people want to use and learn from, for example, books, journals. Even this post that I am writing in hope that it will be of use to someone, somewhere.
  2. Reuse activities for a variety of purposes, Brains instinctively look for familiar patterns, when it see’s something it recognizes it automatically fills in the blanks and tells us the answer. It helps us make quick sense of large amounts of information and data. It can however sometimes lead us to reaching the wrong conclusion. As long as the activity is appropriate for the occasion it can work well and save you time.
  3. Create a new activity, If you can’t find the right activity and you don’t have one of your own then that’s when you turn to your 3rd and final strategy. Remember to focus on the learning goal and determine the best learning approach, Cognitive, Behaviorist or Constructivist.  

Let’s put that into practice. Say I was trying to come up with some training on how to make a burger to the specific requirements of a popular burger chain. How would I do it?

There would be roughly 5 stages.

Stage 1 – Share Learning Objectives – So they know why the content is important for them to learn.

Stage 2 –  Hand out burger making guideline sheet – For reference.

Stage 3 –  Show examples of correct burgers and ask learners to follow along with the burger making guideline sheet for reference – Combine verbal lecture with visual examples to help describe the various components of the burger making process.

Stage 4 – Display images of different burgers and verbally quiz participants on whether each burger is correctly made and get them to use the handout to help explain their answer –  Involves them in deciding if the provided examples are correct.

Stage 5 – Provide participants with a worksheet showing a silhouette of a burger and ask each participant to use the worksheet to write down the various components that make the burger – Finally they put into practice what they have learned.

This approach is Cognitive Learning. It is done this way as the learner is required to memorise a specific task in a specific order to ensure consistent results when making the burger.


Identifying Common Learning Barriers

There are a number of things that can become huge barriers preventing us from learning, no learning objectives. Yes seriously, you would be surprised how many learning course are out there without these! Activities that don’t tell us if the participant is learning anything. Lectures alone is one of these problems. The solution? Design activities that require demonstration. When participants get stuck in the learning curve is another huge blocker. The solution? Use a blended approach that encourages learners along this curve more effectively. Stressed participants return to instinctive behaviors so to prevent this, try to show them immediate applications of their newly gained knowledge including some follow up or practice opportunities.

Use it or lose it!

Knowledge and skills get harder for adult learners to access and retain the longer they lay dormant, the key to preventing this is to deliver training when people need it. When they are most likely to get on and use the new skill straight away as opposed to learning something and then doing nothing about it for a few weeks.

70 – 20 – 10 Rule

“Most learning occurs informally, through an employees own experiences” – American Society for Training and Development, 2009

70% – Informal

20% – Manager

10% – Formal Training

This is not an absolute rule but a helpful guide for when designing adult learning.

Whoa that’s a lot of info…could you put it more succinctly?

Yes. As an instructional designer, it’s up to you to use your creativity and intuition to apply adult learning concepts in new and effective ways. Observe how well your ideas work and perfect them through trial and error. It’s normal as an Instructional Designer to come up with concepts that don’t always work. It’s up to us to learn from this and make the training as good as it possibly can be.

Analysis – Gain an understanding of what the participants really need to learn.

Design –  Where you create a learning approach that help learners achieve their goals

Development – Create specific activities to help them learn.

Some instructional designers test new material on a small BETA group of learners, others constantly monitor the course and its participants to make changes to meet their needs ‘on the fly’

Think learning objectives first, creativity second, simple is better than complicated and variety is the spice of…learning.

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