Adult Learners

What type of learner are you? Are you a visual learner? Do you learn by looking, seeing, viewing, and watching? Or are you an auditory learner? Do you learn by listening, hearing, and speaking? Or do you prefer hands-on learning where you can touch, manipulate, and move around? If so, you are likely a kinesthetic learner. You may be a mix of two, or a combination of all three. Thinking back to your school-age days what types of strategies did your teacher(s) incorporate to help you learn new information? Are those the same methods you prefer in adulthood?

Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913–1997) was “a, perhaps ‘the,’ central figure in US adult education in the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1950s he was the Executive Director of the Adult Education Association of the United States of America. He wrote the first major accounts of informal adult education and the history of adult education in the United States,” (Smith, M. K., 2002).

Knowles believed adults learn differently than children and as a result the same methods for teaching children are not as effective when teaching adults.

Pedagogy is defined as the method and practice of teaching. This term was used throughout my college and teaching career. Since joining Agility Development group I have learned of a new term, “andragogy,” popularized by Knowles. Andragogy is defined as the method and practice of teaching adult learners.

According the Knowles, the pedagogical model of teaching “assigned full responsibility for making all decisions about what should be learned, how it should be learned, when it should be learned, and if it had to be learned, to the teacher. Students were given the role of being submissive recipients of the directions and transmitted content of the teacher. It assumed that they were dependent personalities, that they had little experience that could serve as a resource for learning, that they became ready to learn what they were told they had to learn, that they were subject-centered in their orientation to learning and they were motivated by extrinsic pressures or rewards. The backbone methodology of pedagogy is transmission techniques,” (Knowles, 1996).

With this knowledge, this method of teaching is not appropriate for adults. Adults come to the table with their own knowledge, experiences, and self-awareness.

In my research, I came across a document titled, “Principles of Adult Learning & Instructional Systems Design,” posted here by the National Highway Institute. The document includes a section titled, “Adult Learning Assumptions,” where Knowles suggests how to deal with assumptions regarding adult learners:



What it Means to Me 

Adults want to know what they should learn. 

Adults are motivated to put time and energy into learning if they know the benefits of learning and the costs of not learning

Develop a “need to know” in your learners–make a case for the value of the learning in their lives.  Help learners answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” 

Adults need to take responsibility. 

By definition, adult learners have a self-concept of being in charge of their own lives and being responsible for their own decisions, and a need to be seen and treated as being capable of taking responsibility.

Realize that despite this self-concept and need for responsibility, once they enter a classroom many adults revert back to their school and college days when they tended to be passive learners.  Do not fall into a trap of assuming that they want to learn passively.  Empower them to learn and to take responsibility for learning.  Enable learners to assess their own learning. 

Adults bring experience to learning. 

That experience is a resource for themselves and for other learners, and gives richer meaning to new ideas and skills  Experience is a source of an adult’s self-identify.

Experience is both a plus and a minus.  It is a plus because it is a vast resource.  It is a minus because it can lead to biasness and presuppositions.  Because adults define themselves by their experiences, respect and value that experience. 

Adults are ready to learn when the need arises. 

Adults learn when they choose to learn and commit to learn.  That desire to learn usually coincides with the transition from one developmental state to another and is related to developmental tasks, such as career planning, acquiring job competencies, improving job performance, etc.  Often, however, adults perceive employer-provided training as employer-required training.

Be aware that some learners might not want to be there.  In which case, be honest.  Acknowledge that fact and the fact that nothing can be done about it.  Then, agree to make the most out of training nevertheless.  On the other hand, be aware that for those who want to be in the class, training is important and they must walk away with something. 

Adults are task-oriented. 

Education is subject-centered, but adult training should be task-centered.  For example, a child in a school composition class learns grammar, and then sentence and paragraph construction.  An adult in a composition training program learns how to write a business letter, a marketing plan, etc.

Organize content around tasks, not subject. 

With this in mind, design your trainings so they are appropriate for your adult learners and accommodate their unique learning style. The goal for the class should be to encompass aspects of all three styles equally:

  • Visual: Videos, slides, flip charts, readings, demonstrations, etc.
  • Auditory: Lectures, group discussions, informal conversations, stories & examples, brainstorms, etc.
  • Kinesthetic: Role plays, simulations, practice demonstrations, writing/note taking, activities, etc.

Agility’s learning services include customized classes centered on sharing our experiences with numerous successful proposal efforts. We translate the ‘tricks of the trade’ into understandable and repeatable process elements so your team is better prepared for future pursuits. Detailed descriptions of our classes can be found here.

In closing, when you are designing future learning opportunities, design with your audience in mind. Don’t revert back to the way learning “used” to be (passive); instead, think about innovative ways to stimulate your learners. Time is precious, therefore integrating engaging learning strategies that incorporate and utilize the strengths of those involved will not only enhance your class, but impact learning in a meaningful way. No longer are the days where the teacher is the leader of the classroom. Give your learners an opportunity to take charge of their own learning. Work smarter, not harder.

Let us know how we can help you succeed in this or any other business effort!

-Macaire Eidson

Additional resources:, Kagen Cooperative Learning


Works Cited:

Smith, M. K. (2002) ‘Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Principles of Adult Learning & Instructional Systems Design. (n.d.). National Highway Institute . Retrieved April 15, 2014, from