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The Fundamental Principles Of Adult Learning For Effective Employee Development

Sanju Kumari
14 Jun 2024
25 min read
The Fundamental Principles Of Adult Learning For Effective Employee Development

For most business organizations across the world, employee development has become a critical component for success. Among the several facets of employee development lies “adult learning,” which companies nowadays increasingly prioritize. 

But why?

Numerous studies have shown that employee development based on adult learning principles enhances the workforce's skills and adaptability. According to a recent LinkedIn Learning report, 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development​ by following appropriate adult learning techniques.  

Furthermore, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, 50% of all employees will need reskilling due to technological advancements and changing job roles​.

Have you prepared your adult learning program yet? Well, these statistics don’t lie!

We can clearly observe that there is an urgent need for companies to implement adult learning principles to create an engaged, skilled, and future-ready workforce. Let’s take the example of Deloitte. The company periodically imparts adult learning to its workforce for both personal and professional growth. It invests significantly in its staff and nurtures them to boost their productivity and skills. 

Let’s learn the fundamental principles of adult learning in detail and see how you can train your adult learners. 

What is the Basic Concept of Adult Learning (andragogy)?

The basic concept of adult learning, also known as andragogy, refers to the method and practice of teaching adult learners. Unlike traditional pedagogy, which focuses on teaching children, andragogy takes into account the unique needs and experiences of adults. Let’s have a look at some of the core principles and concepts of adult learning:

1. Self-Directed Learning

Adults prefer to take responsibility for their learning. They like to have a say in:

  • What do they learn?
  • How do they learn?
  • What will be the pace at which they learn?

This autonomy in learning is crucial for adult learners.

2. Experience as a Learning Resource

Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning environment, which serves as a valuable resource. These experiences can be a rich foundation for new learning and can be shared with peers to enhance collective understanding.

3. Relevance and Application

Adult learners need to see the relevance of what they are learning to their personal and professional lives. Learning is more effective when it is problem-centered rather than content-centered. This means adults are motivated to learn when they can apply knowledge and skills immediately.

4. Readiness to Learn

Adults become ready to learn when:

  • They experience a need to know 


  • Do something to cope more effectively with real-life tasks or problems

This readiness is often tied to their social roles, such as:

  • Career development
  • Parenting, or
  • Civic engagement

5. Orientation to Learning

Adults are motivated to learn only when they believe that the learning will:

  • Help them perform tasks 


  • Deal with problems they confront in their life situations

Thus, adult learning is life-centered rather than subject-centered.

6. Motivation

While adults respond to external motivators (e.g., better jobs, promotions, higher salaries), they are mostly driven by internal motivators such as the desire for:

  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Self-esteem
  • Quality of life
  • Personal growth

Thanks to several eminent theorists and psychologists, the field of andragogy has been improvised and innovated repeatedly. These key theorists and their models are essential to adult learning. That’s because they provide educators and trainers with the theoretical foundations that effectively support adult learners in achieving their educational and professional goals. To grasp the concept better, let’s study some key theories that truly redefined adult learning principles

Key Theorists and their Models

Malcolm Knowles


  • Knowles is one of the foremost theorists of adult learning
  • His work in the 1970s helped define the principles of andragogy
  • He outlined the assumptions that differentiate adult learning from child learning
  • Also, he highlighted the importance of self-direction and experience

Where is this model used?

The Knowles model is primarily used in imparting adult education and training. Using its principles of andragogy (discussed later), instructional designers create engaging learning processes based on the life experiences of adults.

David Kolb


  • Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) emphasizes the role of experience in learning
  • He introduced the cycle of experiential learning: 
  • Concrete Experience
  • Reflective Observation
  • Abstract Conceptualization and
  • Active Experimentation.

Where is this model used?

The ELT model is applied across several educational settings and professional development programs. It is known for developing hands-on training programs based on the cycle of experiential learning. Most designers prefer using it for developing engaging assessments that apply knowledge in real-world contexts. 

Jarvis and Merriam


  • Theorists like Peter Jarvis and Sharan Merriam have contributed to the understanding of adult learning by exploring aspects like:
  • Transformational learning
  • Situated cognition
  • The sociocultural context of learning.

Where is this model used?

Instructional designers commonly use the theories of Jarvis and Merriam in developing materials meant for providing life-long learning. That’s because these theories specialize in understanding:

  • How do adult learners grow?
  • How do they change their learning habits?
  • How do they gain knowledge through educational experiences that are sensitive to their diverse backgrounds and contexts?

What are Some Practical Applications of Adult Learning Principles?

  • Workplace Training: Businesses must develop training programs that incorporate hands-on experience and real-life problem-solving scenarios.
  • Higher Education: Companies must design curricula that allow adult learners to relate course material to their life experiences and career goals.
  • Community Education: Organizations must offer learning opportunities that:
  • Address immediate community needs 


  • Involve learners in the planning and execution of educational activities

What Implementational Challenges Do Businesses Face?

  • Balancing Responsibilities
  • Adult learners often juggle multiple responsibilities, such as work, family, and education
  • Managing them requires flexible scheduling and delivery methods.
  • Technological Proficiency
  • Businesses need to ensure that adult learners have the necessary digital literacy skills to participate in online or blended learning environments.
  • Diverse Learning Styles
  • Most adults bring diverse learning styles and preferences to the learning environment
  • Businesses must recognize and accommodate them

What are Some Key Differences Between Pedagogy and Andragogy?

Pedagogy and andragogy are two approaches to education. Both are distinct in their:

  • Principles
  • Assumptions, and
  • Methods

Also, both these approaches have different characteristics and address different needs of children and adults as learners. Let’s learn some major differences between them:

1. Learner's Role

  • Pedagogy
  • In pedagogy, the learner is dependent on the instructor for:
  • Guidance
  • Direction, and
  • Evaluation
  • The teacher takes a central role in the learning process
  • They make most of the decisions about
  • What will be learned?
  • How it will be learned? 
  • When it will be learned?
  • Andragogy
  • In andragogy, learners are more self-directed
  • Adults take responsibility for their own learning
  • They self-plan and evaluate their progress

2. Motivation to Learn

  • Pedagogy
  • Children are usually motivated by external factors, such as:
  • Grades
  • Parental approval, and
  • Rewards
  • Their motivation is often influenced by the expectations and requirements set by teachers and educational systems.
  • Andragogy
  • Adults are motivated by internal factors, such as:
  • Personal growth
  • Job satisfaction, and
  • The desire to improve their quality of life
  • They are driven by a need to apply learning to real-world problems and situations.

3. Experience as a Resource

  • Pedagogy
  • In traditional pedagogy, children have limited life and work experience
  • Therefore, the teacher's experience and expertise are the primary resources for learning
  • The instructional approach is often more theoretical.
  • Andragogy
  • Adults bring a rich reservoir of life and work experience to the learning process
  • This experience is used as a foundation for new learning
  • Also, it can be shared with peers to enhance collective understanding.

4. Orientation to Learning

  • Pedagogy
  • The orientation to learning in pedagogy is subject-centered
  • The focus is on acquiring knowledge organized by subjects or disciplines
  • Andragogy
  • The orientation to learning in andragogy is problem-centered or task-centered.
  • Adults learn best when they perceive that learning will help them:
  • Solve problems 


  • Perform tasks in their personal or professional lives.

5. Readiness to Learn

  • Pedagogy
  • Children’s readiness to learn is often determined by their biological development and the requirements of the educational system. 
  • The curriculum is usually standardized and age-based.
  • Andragogy
  • Adults’ readiness to learn is closely related to their social roles and responsibilities. 
  • They are more inclined to engage in learning when they see its immediate relevance to their current life situations or tasks.

6. Learning Design and Process

  • Pedagogy
  • Instruction is often designed around a prescribed curriculum, with a structured sequence of content
  • Teaching methods are mostly didactic and involve:
  • Lectures
  • Rote memorization
  • Repetitive practice
  • Andragogy
  • Instruction is often designed to be more flexible and learner-centered
  • Teaching methods include: 
  • Collaborative learning
  • Experiential activities
  • Case studies
  • Practical problem-solving exercises
  • The process is more iterative and involves negotiation between the learner and the facilitator.

Who is an Adult Learner?

An adult learner refers to an individual who pursues educational opportunities beyond the traditional schooling age. Often, an adult learner learns while managing other responsibilities, such as:

  • Work
  • Family, or
  • Personal commitments

They can be someone returning to education after a hiatus, seeking new skills for career advancement, or simply pursuing personal interests. Adult learners come from diverse backgrounds and have varying levels of prior education and experience. They often require flexible learning options tailored to their schedules and needs.   

How To Teach Adult Learners?

Teaching adult learners requires strategies that:

  • Respect their need for self-direction
  • Draw on their life experiences
  • Emphasize practical and relevant learning

Let’s have a look at the top 10 adult learning strategies based on the established adult learning principles:

1. Experiential Learning

Experiential learning involves learning through doing and reflection. This strategy leverages adults' prior experiences and encourages them to apply new concepts in real-world scenarios.

  • Examples: Role-playing, simulations, hands-on activities, and case studies.
  • Benefits: Enhances engagement, promotes critical thinking, and facilitates the application of knowledge.

2. Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL focuses on solving real-life problems. Learners work in groups to solve complex, open-ended problems, which helps them develop problem-solving skills and apply their knowledge.

  • Examples: Analyzing case studies, developing solutions for workplace challenges, and community projects.
  • Benefits: Encourages collaboration, improves problem-solving skills, and makes learning relevant.

3. Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning involves learners working together to achieve common goals. This strategy utilizes group discussions, peer teaching, and teamwork.

  • Examples: Group projects, peer reviews, and discussion forums.
  • Benefits: Creates a sense of community, enhances communication skills, and allows sharing of diverse perspectives.

4. Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning empowers learners to take control of their own learning process. It involves setting personal learning goals, finding resources, and assessing their progress.

  • Examples: Independent research projects, online courses, and self-paced learning modules.
  • Benefits: Promotes autonomy, aligns with personal interests and career goals, and accommodates different learning paces.

5. Reflective Practice

Reflective practice encourages learners to reflect on their experiences and learning processes. It involves self-assessment and critical thinking about one's own practices and beliefs.

  • Examples: Journaling, reflective essays, and guided reflection sessions.
  • Benefits: Enhances self-awareness, promotes deeper learning, and helps integrate new knowledge with existing experiences.

6. Mentoring and Coaching

Mentoring and coaching involve providing guidance and support from more experienced individuals. This strategy focuses on personal and professional development.

  • Examples: One-on-one coaching sessions, mentoring programs, and apprenticeships.
  • Benefits: Provides personalized feedback, supports career development, and builds professional relationships.

7. Technology-Enhanced Learning

Incorporating technology into learning can provide flexible and accessible learning opportunities. This includes using online platforms, multimedia resources, and interactive tools.

  • Examples: Online courses, webinars, virtual simulations, and educational apps.
  • Benefits: Offers flexibility, caters to different learning styles, and facilitates access to a wide range of resources.

8. Task-Based Learning

Task-based learning involves engaging learners in tasks that are directly related to their work or personal goals. This strategy emphasizes the practical application of skills and knowledge.

  • Examples: Completing work-related projects, creating portfolios, and performing job-specific tasks.
  • Benefits: Makes learning relevant, enhances job performance, and provides immediate applicability.

9. Competency-Based Learning

Competency-based learning focuses on achieving specific competencies or skills. Learners progress based on their ability to demonstrate mastery of these competencies.

  • Examples: Certification programs, skills assessments, and competency-based modules.
  • Benefits: Ensures mastery of skills, provides clear learning outcomes, and aligns with industry standards.

10. Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom model reverses traditional teaching methods by providing instructional content outside of the classroom and engaging in interactive activities in class.

  • Examples: Watching video lectures at home and participating in discussions or problem-solving activities in class.
  • Benefits: Promotes active learning, allows for personalized instruction, and maximizes classroom interaction.

How Can Businesses Implement Adult Learning Strategies?

  • Assess Learners' Needs
  • Understand the backgrounds, goals, and preferences of your learners
  • This will help you tailor your approach more effectively.
  • Create a Supportive Environment
  • Create a respectful and inclusive atmosphere
  • Such an environment encourages participation and sharing of experiences.
  • Use Real-World Examples
  • Relate learning content to practical, real-life situations
  • This will make your content relevant and engaging
  • Provide Feedback
  • Offer constructive feedback and opportunities for learners to:
  • Reflect on 


  • Improve their performance
  • Encourage Lifelong Learning
  • Promote the value of continuous learning
  • Provide resources for ongoing development

What are the Six Fundamental Principles of Adult Learning?

The six fundamental principles of adult learning, often attributed to Malcolm Knowles' theory of andragogy, provide a framework for understanding how adults learn best. Here’s a detailed look at each principle:

1. Self-Concept

Principle: As a person matures, their self-concept moves from being dependent to being self-directed.

  • Explanation
  • Adults see themselves as autonomous and responsible for their own decisions.
  • They prefer to take charge of their learning process
  • They make choices about
  • What
  • How, and
  • When they learn
  • Application
  • Businesses must facilitate self-directed learning by providing opportunities for learners to:
  • Set their own goals
  • Choose their learning paths, and
  • Engage in self-assessment
  • This encourages a collaborative environment where learners have a say in the learning process.

2. Adult Learner Experience

Principle: Adults bring a wealth of experience to the learning environment, which can be a rich resource for learning.

  • Explanation
  • Adult learners have accumulated life and work experiences
  • These experiences can be used to
  • Enhance learning


  • Relate new knowledge to existing knowledge
  • Application
  • Companies must incorporate experiential learning activities such as:
  • Discussions
  • Case studies, and
  • Problem-solving tasks
  • These allow learners to share and reflect on their experiences

3. Readiness to Learn

Principle: Adults are ready to learn when they experience a need to know or do something to cope more effectively with real-life situations.

  • Explanation
  • Adults are motivated to learn when the learning is relevant to their:
  • Current roles
  • Responsibilities
  • Life challenges.
  • Application
  • Companies must design learning activities that are relevant to the learners' personal and professional lives
  • To do so, conduct needs assessments
  • This will help you determine:
  • What do learners need to know to solve specific problems?
  • How can the performance of the learners be improved?

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4. Orientation to Learning

Principle: Adults are life-centered (or task-centered or problem-centered) in their orientation to learning.

  • Explanation
  • Adult learning is most effective when it is organized around real-life tasks and problems rather than abstract subjects
  • Adults seek immediate application of knowledge and skills.
  • Application
  • Companies must structure learning experiences around:
  • Tasks
  • Problems, and
  • Real-life applications
  • To do so, use project-based learning and simulations that allow learners to practice and apply what they have learned.

5. Motivation to Learn

Principle: Adults are motivated to learn by internal factors rather than external ones.

  • Explanation
  • While adults can be motivated by external rewards such as promotions or pay raises, they are more often driven by internal desires such as:
  • Job satisfaction
  • Self-esteem
  • Quality of life
  • Application
  • To take advantage, companies can tap into internal motivators 
  • You can design courses that help learners see the personal benefits of learning, such as:
  • Improved skills
  • Greater confidence
  • Personal growth

6. Need to Know

Principle: Adults need to know why they need to learn something before they are willing to invest time and effort into learning it.

  • Explanation
  • Adults want to understand the purpose and benefits of learning new information or skills. 
  • They need to see the value and relevance of the learning
  • Application
  • Companies must clearly communicate the objectives and benefits of the learning
  • Explain how the learning will help them achieve their personal and professional goals
  • You can use examples and case studies to show the practical applications and advantages of the new knowledge.

What is Mature Theory?

When it comes to adult learning principles, "mature theory" refers to well-established principles that have been extensively tested and validated within the field of adult education. These theories provide reliable guidelines for developing effective adult learning materials. Let’s understand in detail:

Characteristics of Mature Theory in Adult Learning

  1. Empirically Supported: These theories are backed by substantial research and evidence
  2. Widely Accepted: They are broadly recognized and utilized by:
  3. Educators
  4. Trainers
  5. Practitioners in adult education
  6. Explanatory: Mature theories offer clear explanations of how adults learn
  7. Practical Application: They provide methods that can be directly applied to enhance adult learning courses.
  8. Flexible: These theories accommodate the diverse needs and learning styles of adult learners.

Some Examples of Mature Theories in Adult Learning

  • Andragogy
  • Developed by Malcolm Knowles
  • This theory emphasizes:
  • The self-directed nature of adult learners
  • The importance of their experiences
  • The need for learning to be relevant and problem-centered.
  • Experiential Learning Theory
  • Developed by David Kolb
  • It highlights the importance of experience in the learning process
  • It involves a cycle of:
  • Concrete experience
  • Reflective observation
  • Abstract conceptualization
  • Active experimentation
  • Transformative Learning Theory
  • Introduced by Jack Mezirow
  • It focuses on how adults can change their frames of reference through critical reflection
  • It leads to more inclusive and integrative perspectives.

Which Companies Have Prioritized Adult Learning in 2023-2024?

Thanks to its benefits, several companies have recently prioritized adult learning principles and are training their employees. Let’s have a look at some notable examples:

  • Google
  • Google has been a strong advocate for continuous learning
  • It offers extensive training programs through its 
  • Google Career Certificates 


  • Grow with Google initiatives
  • These programs help employees and external learners develop skills in high-demand fields such as:
  • Data analysis
  • Project management
  • UX design
  • By investing in these areas, Google not only helps fill skill gaps but also enhances employee satisfaction and retention​ 
  • Amazon
  • Amazon has launched initiatives like the Career Choice program
  • This program pre-pays 95% of tuition for courses in high-demand fields
  • Also, it benefits employees by offering them opportunities for growth and development
  • Walmart
  • Walmart’s Live Better U program offers employees the opportunity to earn degrees and certificates in 
  • Business
  • Supply chain management
  • Other areas with little to no cost
  • This initiative helps employees advance their careers within the company
  • Also, it equips them with skills that are beneficial both professionally and personally


Employee development is crucial to business success. Recognizing this, companies are now embracing adult learning principles to develop skilled and adaptable workforces. Mostly, these principles focus on self-directed learning, experience, and motivation. They allow adults to take charge of their learning journey. 

Also, several theorists like Knowles, Kolb, Jarvis, and Merriam have offered their adult learning principles to improve the production process of learning materials. However, challenges like balancing responsibilities and diverse learning styles persist. Yet, several modern companies like Google, Amazon, and Walmart have started prioritizing adult learning to achieve organizational growth and employee satisfaction. So, have you decided on your LMS yet?

Choose Calibr.AI and experience the difference! Start your free trial of Calibr LXP and train your workforce like never before. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What is adult learning?

Adult learning refers to the process of education or training undertaken by adults. This kind of training is mostly self-directed and focused on problem-solving.

2. How do Knowles’ principles help in making better adult learning materials?

Knowles' principles help in the creation of relevant adult training materials. They offer several instructions related to:

  • Self-direction
  • Experience-based learning
  • Readiness to learn, and more.

3. Can I author adult learning courses using Calibr.AI?

Yes, you can use Calibr.AI to author adult learning courses. Thanks to its AI-powered course creation features, you can now prepare a high-quality whole course within minutes. Learn more.

4. How is adult learning different from pedagogy?

Adult learning differs from pedagogy in its learner-centered approach, where adults' self-direction and prior experiences are prioritized. Whereas pedagogy focuses on teaching children and adolescents,. It often employs more structured and teacher-directed methods.

Sanju Kumari

Sanju has a wealth of experience and expertise in instructional design, bringing innovative ideas and a fresh perspective to e-learning content development. She is passionate about merging technology and creativity for dynamic e-learning. Her passion for creating engaging and effective learning experiences aligns perfectly with Calibr's commitment to excellence. She also enjoys writing about e-learning trends in the corporate world.