The Principles of Adult Learning Theory

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It has long been understood that adults learn differently from children, and from students of traditional university age. With the recent shift toward continuous education and adult learning, especially in the professional sphere, it has become necessary to quantify these differences more closely.

Instructional design’ is a science-based field that synthesizes pedagogical realities and the neurological facts of learning. Although it can be applied to any learning community, the field has attained widespread recognition due to its role in adult-focused pedagogy.

It builds on and implements existing theories of adult learning in modern, effective ways.

A Brief History and Definition of Malcolm Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy

‘Andragogy’ refers to the specialized pursuit of effective curricular design and instruction delivery for adults. The basic theories of andragogy, as developed by Malcolm Knowles and others, are used extensively in the design of adult-oriented training programs. They are especially valuable in “soft skill” domains that are prized in the business world, such as management development.

Knowles was a U.S.-based adult educator who was first published in the 1950s. He became prominent over the next two decades for developing theories to assist adult learners, whom he referred to as “a neglected species.” As executive director of the Adult Education Association of the USA, he was able to apply and refine his theories with the participation of large student communities.

Knowles recognized that adults cannot simply act as passive receptacles of others’ expertise as children often do. To fully comprehend and use new information in the future, they must have a different level of engagement than what is required by youths. For example:

  • Adults desire explanations of why specific concepts are being taught in the first place;
  • They typically respond best to learning that is centered around performing common tasks;
  • Adult learning materials should take into account different levels of prior experience;
  • Adult students prefer a self-directed approach that allows for discovery on their own.

Styles of Learning: Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic

The idea of different ‘learning styles’ has great currency among both adult and traditional learners. Harvard University’s Howard Gardner is one of the top writers in this area, having defined seven distinct intelligences — with the potential for many more.

When learning experiences are tailored to the needs of the individual learner, that person is more likely to understand, recall and use new information. Learning styles can be categorized according to the most dominant “sense” the learner prefers to use.

The three major learning styles are as follows.

  1. Visual: These learners prefer to see the process demonstrated in a step-by-step way. They benefit from video demonstrations and from lectures that focus on watching an expert perform a task. They also tend to use traditional class notes more effectively than others.
  2. Auditory: These learners are most effective when they listen to a process or concept being described. They benefit most from a traditional lecture. Participating by actively asking questions may help them learn better. They gain advantages from recording each lecture.
  3. Kinesthetic: Kinesthetic learners learn best by performing tasks. This is true even if they have not quite mastered the concepts and need to use trial and error. They can use either of the other learning styles as a secondary tool, but will benefit the most from project-based learning.

The Principles of Adult Learning Theory

What are the basic principles of adult learning? They derive from adults’ experiences and needs.

As a general rule, adults need to be involved in planning their instruction and evaluating their results. They should be provided with an environment in which mistakes are safe, expected and a basis for continued learning, in keeping with a problem-centered approach to new ideas.

For the most part, adults have little time to learn new content for its own sake. Instead, they are interested in approaching tasks directly related to their occupation. To thrive in most learning environments, they must be clear on how each lesson fits into their goals for self-advancement.

From an early age, children are conditioned to recognize educators as authority figures who have broad-based power to tell them what to do, when and how. By contrast, adults expect that even the most credentialed expert will behave as a partner to them in a participative learning journey.

Overview of the ADDIE Instructional Design Model

Instructional designers must be prepared to develop materials and systems to meet the needs of many different educators and learning communities. They may not — and often do not — have any influence over how material is delivered or consumed once it is completed. As a result, there needs to be a robust and repeatable process for ensuring materials are effective.

The ADDIE Model provides such a process in five steps:

  1. Analysis: Determine if training is appropriate, and define requirements for the training;
  2. Design: Define objectives, build out the program and choose the methods and media;
  3. Development: Conduct pilot courses using all materials in accordance with objectives;
  4. Implementation: Implement ‘version 1’ of the training, evaluate it and refine it;
  5. Evaluation: Perform evaluation at key milestones to ensure goals are being met.

Modern ideas about instructional design date back more than 50 years, with the ADDIE model appearing by the 1970s as a product of the United States military. By following the model, instructional design experts can take a data-driven approach that allows them to ensure systems are aligned with key goals. Plus, they have many opportunities to ‘course correct’ using periodic evaluation.

Instructional Design in the Future

The ADDIE Model represents one attempt at codifying all the most important aspects of IDS (Instructional Systems Design). This is seen as a comprehensive and systematic attempt to bring all the disparate parts of instructional design together. It synthesizes elements of the individual perspectives of learning styles and overarching principles of adult learning theory.

Although instructional design and its approaches have been in refinement for decades, they are now being applied more frequently than ever. New, innovative approaches will be necessary to design and deliver varied, large-scale curricula to diverse audiences around the world. No matter how complex this task becomes, a structured and systematic approach will remain vital.

Colleges, universities, businesses and NGOs all have different uses for instructional design. Wherever there is a need to make the process of adult learning more efficient and effective, the principles of instructional design can be used. At each level, the instructional designer must operationalize an understanding of the curriculum, the needs of learners and the end goal. Remaining focused on this perspective in every step allows even the most sophisticated learning system to develop according to plan.

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