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Adult learning theories for instructional designers: Andragogy

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of the focus moving towards technology rather than learning itself. While trainers have to preferably keep up with the latest developments and trends, there is a lot to be saiz about adult learning and how it applies to successful L&D interventions.

In a series of articles, I will take a closer look at three modern adult learning theories that are not only relevant but highly applicable. This is important in the current context, as learning specialists deal with the challenge of building materials fast. Moreover, courses need to be engaging and powerful enough to support constant shifts in organizational demands.

The relevance of adult learning theories

If you use immersive technologies, state-of-the-art e-learning platforms, and the most compelling graphics, why would you need to look into stuffy academic theories?

The answer is simple: because it explains how the adult brain works. The most valuable training is founded on in-depth psychological and business research. What's more, it acts as a guide with insights into the use of all the training tools mentioned above.

Being familiar with these theories will help you build learning strategies, design coherent learning paths courses that make a difference. You'll also be able to demonstrate the ROI of learning much easier.

Read more: Why it’s important to calculate the ROI of training in order to ensure the L&D budget

Andragogy – the grown-up cousin of pedagogy

Malcolm Knowles is the founder of theory of Andragogy. In 1970, he published the first edition of his popular book, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. As the title suggests, the theory recognizes andragogy and pedagogy as two distinct paradigms about how children and adult learners acquire new knowledge. Those divergent aspects, according to Knowles, need different approaches to facilitating knowledge acquisition.

In other words, instructional designers have to consider adults' preferences and self-development methods.

Let’s explore the principles of Andragogy:

Motivation in adults is internal, and they prefer self-direction

We probably all had at least a few moments in our school years when parents or caretakers had to push us to finish our projects or our homework. Children know, in theory, that they have to learn and finish school for a better future, but not all of them internalize that.

On the other hand, most adults are aware of the skills and competencies needed to do their jobs or get a better one.

Therefore, learning specialists must include learners in the decision-making process. They must allow for self-directed learning and personal accountability rather than just follow the corporate agenda.

Read more: Why L&D professionals should encourage Self-Directed Learning

Previous life experience and personal interests are the foundations of adult learning

One of the main reasons engagement rates are low is that the training is either too easy or too difficult. If trainees already know the information, they'll see this as a waste of time. On the other hand, training prerequisites are important. If there are significant knowledge gaps, learners will spend most of the time doing additional research. As we all know, going down the internet rabbit hole isn't productive at all.

It’s the designers’ job to know the learner persona well and build upon past learning and life experience. They should also take into account learners' interests and preferences. The point is to offer information and help learners make connections and improve their critical thinking.

Adults are goal-oriented rather than grade-oriented and need to see the relevance

Let’s reminisce again about our school years. Remember cramming information before a big quiz only to forget everything five minutes after handing it in? At that point in our lives, grades mattered. Sure, they were supposed to reflect knowledge acquisition, but that was not always the case.

Adults know that there is no point in getting the highest possible score. They expect to use what they've learned. All corporate learning has to have immediate application. Otherwise, it's a waste of time and resources.

Adults are practical

How often do we hear or even tell ourselves, “I could have gone my whole life without knowing that.”? Adults are busy. They need to try out new concepts and see if they work for them or not.

Learning modules need to allow for application rather than observation. Long lectures are boring and obsolete. Learners must do in order to learn. Luckily, immersive technologies like AR and VR allow them to train while also providing an excellent hands-on feeling.

Read more: 4 Benefits of using VR in training

Adults are equal partners in learning with the designers and facilitators

Hierarchy is damaging to adult learning. Sure, subject matter experts are valuable, but the point is never to treat adult learners with superiority. Regardless of age and experience, organizational learning needs to be inclusive and egalitarian, open to all learning needs and preferences.

It’s a tall order indeed but a necessary one, especially in such competitive times when it's challenging to acquire and retain talent.

Stay tuned!

Instructional design for the 21st-century learner may entail sophisticated technology and state-of-the-art props, but at its core, it needs to be founded on well-researched principles of adult education. The Andragogy theory provides helpful insights and the structure to ensure quality courses that target the right audience and are soundly built.

Next time we’ll explore a few aspects of another adult learning theory, so keep an eye on the Business Blog!

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