Instructional design Elearning Workplace training

9 minute read

Adult Learning Theory: What Is It & How to Apply It

Sara Meij

Sara Meij

You see your employees learning new skills and information throughout your organization every day. But have you ever wondered how your employees, being adults, learn differently than when they were at school? 

Perhaps it has crossed your mind as you were creating a new learning and development strategy. Or maybe you were trying to find a different and better way to increase information retention at training sessions. 

Adult learning can take place in many different settings. Pursuing formal education is one of them, but you can also learn new skills through informal learning — such as improving soft skills.

The way adults learn has been widely researched and explained in several adult learning theories. Let’s dive a bit deeper into the different theories and how you can apply adult learning to your own learning and development strategy.

Adult learning theory

What is adult learning?

In short, adult learning is the process of adults learning new information and skills. In addition to there being a difference in motivation and enthusiasm between adult learners and children, there’s also an obvious difference in the level of existing knowledge. 

Where child-oriented learning provides a basic level of knowledge on a topic, adult learners are looking to improve on their existing skills or learn new skills based on their personal interests. It’s helpful to let adults figure things out for themselves, whereas when teaching a child you often have to keep a tight handle on the learning environment. 

What adult learning theories are there?

So we’ve established so far that how adults learn is vastly different from children and that they have additional roadblocks to overcome. But how exactly do they learn? We’ll touch on several things:


The transformative (or transformational) learning theory is all about helping learners change. It was developed by Jack Mezirow in 1978 and aims to transform a learner’s existing frame of reference through self-reflection, tasks, and problem-solving. 

The way it works is to start with tasks that appeal to your learners and then move on to ones that challenge their beliefs and perspectives and allows them to reflect critically on it. The transformative learning theory is definitely the more cognitive learning theory of the examples listed due to the large amount of self-reflection that it makes up.


Drawing on other psychologists’ work, David Kolb developed the experiential theory in the 1970s. It’s a more hands-on approach to adult learning and is formed on the basis that adults learn best by doing. 

The four elements that make experiential learning a success are:

  • Self-reflection
  • Active involvement
  • Conceptualizing the experience 
  • Using the knowledge learned from it in real life. 


As the name implies, self-directed learning involves a lot of initiative from the learner and it’s aimed at a lot of the informal learning we do as adults. Self-directed learning is part of Malcolm Knowles and D.R. Garrison’s theory of adult learning. 

Mentors and teachers can facilitate the process through providing guidance and access to the training tools needed. The onus in this theory is more on the learner though, as with self-directed learning the progress, initiative, and objectives are driven by them.


Andragogy combines all of the theories above. Another theory of Malcolm Knowles, andragogy starts with agreeing that there’s a difference between how children and adults learn, and you create a learning plan from there. 

The four principles of the andragogy theory are that:

  • Adults prefer to learn from doing/experiences.
  • They’re interested in learning something that has immediate relevance.
  • They prefer a hands-on approach to learning. 
  • They prefer to solve actual problems.

Roadblocks of adult learning (and solutions)

The great thing about all of the adult learning theories is that most rich Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as GoSkills, are tailored to an adult learner audience. 

You can create great courses for your organization, and for specific groups of employees in an LMS. But, before you run off to do that, let’s run through some of the roadblocks adult learners may face:

Lack of time

One of the roadblocks in adult learning is a lack of time. Most people take on learning new skills alongside working and taking care of children. 

Offering microlearning as a key part of your learning options for your employees is a great way to provide bite-sized, easy to manage learning opportunities that they can access whenever they want, wherever they want. 

Financial barriers

Going back to school as an adult is often an expensive exercise if put together with all the other monthly expenses you may have, such as rent and groceries. If your employees are thinking of learning new skills that will benefit their work at your organization, consider partly or fully subsidizing their course. 

If you want to create a learning culture within your organization, perhaps consider offering a monthly stipend for personal development and growth.  

Lack of support

Providing sufficient support is important too, as they’ll be most likely juggling their learning endeavor together with their existing workload. Providing a clear purpose and clear objectives for your staff in relation to why they’re learning new skills, and how they can reach their goals, is an important part of overcoming this roadblock. 

Offer them the option to do some of the learning during their work hours, and provide them with the tools they need to get started and keep going.

Decreased neuroplasticity

On top of all of that, our brain’s element of plasticity — which allows us to learn — decreases once we get older. So it’s more difficult to learn new things. We create new pathways in our brains every day, but for young people, this happens more easily than for adults. 

It doesn’t mean adult learners can’t learn new skills or information, it just means they might have to put in a little more effort than their younger counterparts. Setting realistic goals and being able to refresh knowledge by rewatching a video lesson, for example, can be a great help here. 

How do you apply adult learning to online training?

Armed with all the information so far on adult learning, now it’s time to work out how to apply these theories to your online training. The steps below are part of your usual process around creating a learning and development strategy but it keeps in mind what we’ve learned so far about how adults learn.

Assess your online training opportunities

As with all learning and development opportunities, it’s best to start with a quick assessment of your current learning and development strategy and your online training opportunities. 

It’s a good way to get an overview of what you’re currently offering, and where it might be lacking in diversity. Doing a skills gap analysis might help with this too. 

When using instructional design, the initial phase of creating an L&D strategy includes analyzing your current offerings, as mentioned above. This would also be the time to think about which adult learning theory you’d want to work with, and how to implement it into your strategy.

Talk to your employees

A key part of creating a successful learning and development strategy for adult learners is to understand why they want to learn new information or skills, what motivates them, and how they prefer to learn. 

Once you know this, it’s easier to create a program that aligns with all or most of these key points, and one that would hopefully create higher engagement and information retainment. A training needs analysis might be helpful here too, because it’ll help clarify learning needs across your organization, from newly onboarded employees to long-term staff.

Offer diverse learning experiences

One thing we’ve learned so far is that adult learners prefer to learn for a specific goal and that everyone learns differently. You can cater your learning opportunities to this need by creating your own online courses with authoring tools on a rich LMS platform such as GoSkills

You can put together blended learning options for your staff by putting together a strategy that includes face-to-face training as well as online learning. You can also offer new courses with elements of gamification for an element of fun. 

Wrapping it up

At the end of the day, adults take on new information and learn new skills in a vastly different way when compared to children. 

It’s important to tailor learning opportunities to their needs specifically, to make sure you get the highest uptake and engagement with your learning and development strategy. 

It is important to understand some of the roadblocks in the way of adult learners such as your employees. It will help you to create better environments that encourage continuous learning and encourage personal growth within your team.

Ready to create a fun and engaging learning environment for your staff? Try the GoSkills LMS out for free today. 

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Sara Meij

Sara Meij

Sara is a digital communications expert and former journalist with a passion for writing. In her spare time she loves Latin dancing and getting outdoors to run, hike or mountain bike.