How do adult learning principles inform good instructional design?

by | Oct 28, 2020 | Instructional Design

Like many of us, my Saturdays growing up included a trip to the pool for swimming lessons. On one occasion, I remember being old enough to venture into the deep end. I was hugging the pool edge and looked back to the shallow end where my mother was learning to swim. She was standing in a circle with other adults in waist-high water practicing putting their faces in the water and blowing bubbles.

As an adult looking back, I wonder how she felt – what tremendous courage it must have taken. I know she is now quite proud of receiving her Bronze Cross. I assume the swimming instructors along the way met their courageous students with a teaching approach appropriate for adults instead of five and six-year-olds.  

Andragogy defined and applied

As a Learning and Development professional I hear the term ‘Adult Learning Principles’ quite often. Organizations include it in RFPs – proposed design must follow ‘Adult Learning Principles’, and colleagues use it in conversation as they critique poorly designed training courses they’ve experienced.

But what are those learning principles and how do they affect design? I thought I’d ‘go back to basics’ in this blog post to define the principles and provide examples of how they can be used to design training programs.

Defining Adult Learning Principles

The founder of adult learning theory, or andragogy, is Malcolm Knowles, who wrote hundreds of articles and books on adult learning from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Malcolm Knowles identified these principles of adult learners. [1]

  1. Need to know – Adults need to know the reason for learning. They need to know why they are learning new knowledge before they are willing to participate.
  2. Self-concept – Adults have a strong need to direct their learning. They want to be actively involved in the learning experience as opposed to passively receive information.
  3. Foundation – Adults have past experiences that influence how they view and integrate new knowledge.
  4. Readiness to learn – Adults are most interested in learning when content is relevant to their work and personal lives. They want to use their new knowledge in their roles.
  5. Orientation – Adults approach learning from a problem-centered as opposed to a subject matter-centered perspective.
  6. Motivation – Adults are motivated by internal factors such as self-esteem and pride as opposed to external factors such as pay or praise from management.
Malcolm Knowles (August 24, 1913 – November 27, 1997)

Applying Adult Learning Principles

Let’s go from theory to practice. How do these principles influence the instructional design process and the courses we create? Below are some practical examples. Some of the approaches apply to all three delivery channels; others are specific.

If you want a refresher on the different delivery channels, check out this post.

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Curious to learn more?

Here is some additional information about how I’ve helped clients with online learning.

When you’re ready, here are a few ways I can help you and the employees in your organization:

  • Redesign for Online: Process, templates and support
    Five-module program for L&D Professionals to redesign an existing program for online delivery. The design and delivery includes adult learning principles! If you need help redesigning your program, click here for more information.
  • Designing learning curriculum that incorporates different delivery channels – online, in-person as well as non-learning approaches such as coaching.
  • Designing training courses (in-person and online) that focus on changing performance and aligning with your business needs.

Check out the other services I provide to clients to help them improve employee performance.


Knowles 1987 as cited in: Evans, Nicole. “A Cross-Sectional Descriptive Study of Graduate Students’ Perceptions of Learning Effectiveness in Face-to-Face and Online Courses.” Academy of Business Research Journal. 2015, Vol. 1, p104-118. 15p.