Wouldn’t it be amazing to revert back into your childhood mind? That brain, so full of imagination and wonder, would be a treasure trove of new perspectives for your adult life. Alas, those years are long gone and what once delighted and motivated you might actually be distracting to your adult brain. 

Adults think, experience, and learn differently than children because they come to every lesson armed with experiences, opinions, and their unique pasts; all which alter the way adults experience learning. 

Luckily, there are several proven adult learning theories that take all of this into account. By understanding the basics of the most common adult learning theories, it makes it easier to apply them in your own training strategy. 

Each theory has specific pros and cons and can be used to tap into learners’ brains for maximum impact. While there is never a one-size-fits-all to training, choosing the right adult learning theory for your project can help connect with the way employees love to learn. 

What Makes Adult Learners Different? 

If you were to observe a group of children in a classroom, you might be surprised at their motivations for learning. For some, paying attention and recalling answers is simply the best way to gain praise or avoid trouble. Others learn to fit in, while some simply have a natural curiosity about their world around them. 

By the time those kids reach adulthood, however, their motivations for learning change drastically. Adult learning theory serves as a way to identify and leverage that motivation to improve information transfer and future recall. What makes adult learners so different from their childhood counterparts? Here are some of the main characteristics that make them so unique: 

1. Adult Learners Are Autonomous

By the time we reach adulthood, we’re used to making decisions on our own and for our own reasons. Without anyone to tell us what to eat, wear, think, or do, humans become extremely adept at figuring things out on their own. After all, when was the last time you heard a friend remark that they love being told what to do?

Autonomy is one of the most important factors for adult learners because they’re already pros at knowing what works best for them on an individual level. That’s why most adult learning theories feature autonomy at the core of their respective ethos. Whether it’s allowing learners to dictate their own learning path, choose the topics that interest them the most, or simply speed up or slow down as necessary, a high degree of autonomy helps entice and motivate adult learners. 

2. Adult Learners Are Results-Oriented

The average adult learner doesn’t want to waste time. One of the most important adult learning principles is a proof of concept: Will this learning actually have an effect on the end result? A good learning experience features checkpoints, leveling up, and mastery practice so that savvy adult learners can see progress. The results are what fuel future motivation. 

3. Adult Learners Are Resistant to Change

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s not because the old dog can’t learn something new. It’s because it doesn’t always see the benefits of new behavior. We often call this the WIIFM principle: “What’s in it for me?” Because they’re so resistant to change, adults need to be presented with the expected benefits before they embark on learning something new. Without the WIIFM principle, they’ll likely stick to their old ways of doing things or see new learning experiences as unnecessary.

Think about it: Kids are used to learning new concepts just about every day. Their minds are open and they know that teachers understand things that they don’t. Adult learners, especially those that have been outside formal learning or training for a while, are often resistant to change, particularly if they feel like they’ve benefited from the “old” way of doing things. By outlining the WIIFM principle first, you start to tease open a closed mind and question old habits. 

4. Adult Learners Have Personal Experiences

They’re anything but a clean slate: Every adult learner comes to training with their own assumptions, histories, experiences, and attitudes. It would be impossible to cater to them all, but maybe rather than trying to work around individual learner experiences, you focus on ways to work with them. Some adult learning theories specifically focus on analysis and collaboration as a method for problem solving. This is when a learner’s personal experience really adds value to the learning process. 

5. Adult Learners Have Learning Barriers 

Every individual learner has their own barriers to contend with when it comes to training. Whether it’s a time crunch, a lack of accessibility to technology, distractions in their personal lives, or other roles and responsibilities, it’s no wonder that adult learners aren’t always perfectly dialed-in. 

The right adult learning theory for your training strategy is whichever helps learners clear the barriers that stand between them and mastery. By anticipating those barriers, you can create content that helps learners stay focused and even entertained to learn what they need in the most efficient way possible. 

Why Is Adult Learning Theory So Important?

If you’ve ever felt like creating and delivering training content isn’t giving you the results you want, it could be linked to a lack of a clear adult learning model. When learning happens in a formal environment (say, an elementary school classroom), conditions are created to make learning successful. Students have reduced distractions; they’re led by a teacher they trust; they’re given assignments that need to be completed. But all of those factors are long gone by the time an adult enters the workforce. Sure, there might be some training involved, but the environment has distractions, it’s hard to prove mastery, and adults simply don’t want to be forced down their learning path. 

Understanding the principles of adult learning theory isn’t just for you to rethink the way you motivate your adult learners. It’s challenging the way you’ve trained in the past and forces you to think about your learners as individuals. Choosing the right adult learning theory for your organizational goals takes your learners’ unique needs, experiences, and masteries into consideration for a more effective approach. 

Adult Learning Theories 

There are endless ways to piece together the motivations and experiences of learners, but in general there are six recognized adult learning theories that work for training applications. The following table can help you get to know the theories better so you can choose the one for your next program.

Learning Theory Components Best For
AndragogyCreated by Malcolm Knolwes in 1980, andragogy was suggested as an alternative to pedagogy, or child learning theory. Andragogy taps into past user experience and recognizes adult motivation is different from child motivation. Training based on andragogy places a heavy emphasis on individuality and choosing an environment that entices the adult learner.   Andragogy is best used when applied to helping learners understand what they will gain from training. It is typically characterized by self-led learning activities and opportunities for learners who value autonomy over other factors.
Transformational Transformational learning can be described as learning that causes behavioral or mental change. It takes learners from point A to point B through the analytical process, measurable benefits, and helps learners see the “why” behind their learning experiences. Use transformational learning when you need to elicit meaningful change in learners’ thoughts and actions. Transformational learning works best when it includes analysis and checkpoints so learners can see just how far they’ve come and works well for learning new protocols and processes. 
ActionAction learning might be the equivalent of someone who can’t swim jumping into the deep end. It’s a rapid, trial-by-fire learning theory that gives learners a problem and asks them to spring to action to come up with a solution and learn as they go. Action learning requires a large margin for error and time for reflection to get both insight and recall. Ideal as a method for team-building, you might use action to see how a specific group would respond to a problem. It can help quickly fill users in with new information, making it a fast, informal method for learning. At the same time, action learning can alert administrators to potential knowledge gaps (if learners are making the same mistakes again and again). 
Experiential Learning by doing is often a superior way to convert learning into long-term memory and action. It’s a learner-led, hands-on approach that gives participants tasks they must complete to gain mastery. Experiential learning typically has two parts: The activity and the reflection. It may also include collaboration and discussion to further strengthen the ties between learner and content. Experiential learning is especially helpful for teaching new mechanical skills, where learners will have to repeat a certain number of steps. You may also use this hands-on method of learning for soft skills, since roleplaying and scenarios can help in building leadership and communication skills. 
Project-BasedIf you want learners to understand a process that doesn’t always have a step-by-step guide, project-based learning might be the best fit. Use project-based learning to give learners standalone scenarios that they can discuss, brainstorm, and test. Project-based learning helps users get comfortable with a process without needing to be led along. Instead, they learn how to solve an issue through collaboration and communication no matter what type of issue it is. Project-based learning is ideal for team-building and leadership skills. It also works well for project and process management, as learners are empowered to take on leadership roles and suggest solutions for the project presented. 
Self-Directed Adult learning theories almost always have an autonomous component to allow learners the control they crave. This is never more true than in self-directed learning. In self-directed learning, it’s up to the individual user to diagnose an issue, identify avoidable resources, and implement a solution as part of the process. When utilizing this self-directed approach, it’s also the user’s responsibility to assess progress and create learning pathways that help strengthen weak points. Use self-directed learning for learners who prefer to pace their own experience. It works well for leveling up on new tech skills or quick updates to existing processes. Self-directed learning can be used as a component to any of the other adult learning theories to embrace learners’ need for autonomy. 


There’s so much to love about adult learners and the way they think. Everything from their childhood experiences to their job histories are part of what makes up the way they tick. When creating new eLearning experiences, you can either fight against those existing assumptions, personal histories, and cultural differences, or you can learn to work with them. By adopting the right adult learning principles, you harness the power of those big, beautiful adult brains for deep neurolearning experiences that really inspire. 

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