Train The Trainer

Adult Learning Principles in E-Learning

Malcolm Knowles pioneered the study of adult learning (called andragogy) in the 1970s, identifying the following adult learning principles:

  • Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
  • Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
  • Adults are goal oriented
  • Adults are relevancy oriented
  • Adults are practical

These principles are very relevant for you to consider if you want E-Learning courses to be learner-centred and appealing. They help by focusing on the different backgrounds of your learners, the previous experiences they’ve had, their challenges, what motivates them and familiarity with technology.  Ensure your online courses address the employees’ learning needs and present them with the right stimulus in the form of knowledge/skills needed for performance improvement.  If wrapped in an interactive and engaging course – you are on to a winner!

So how do we ensure that the adult learning principles are included when designing an E-Learning course?

Internally motivated and self-directed

Adult learners like to feel a sense of control over their own learning, they like to solve problems and think things through for themselves. Online learning gives adults the choice to log on and learn at a time and pace convenient to them. But what if they log on, and then have no freedom to navigate through the course in their own way?  Perhaps the client requested a specific route through the learning? If possible, give learners options to move around the course freely. It is best not to lock down the navigation which may lead to frustration and impede the learning process.

How to apply this principle to E-Learning?

Give learners control in your course. There are many ways you can do this:

  • Don’t lock down your navigation
  • Let learners choose the order in which they view the content


Experience and knowledge

Adults have a wide range of knowledge and experience to bring to the course.  Try to draw on this experience from time to time in the course.  If you want their attention, make them participate regularly and offer training modules that improve their everyday experience and make them think.

As adult learners practise new skills, they need feedback about how they are progressing toward their goals.  The timing of feedback is important: immediate feedback facilitates learning the most. The longer the interval between performance and feedback, the less likely it is that feedback will have a positive effect on learning.

How to apply this principle to E-Learning?

  • In E-Learning short duration topics with knowledge check questions at the end of each topic work well.
  • Give feedback in the answers – if you state that the answer is correct, perhaps give a little more reason why or reference to the slide where the information is contained. Similarly, for incorrect answers, give them a reason why the answer chosen is incorrect, but allow them another try.  If they still haven’t got the answer correct, give the correct answer and slide reference for review.


Goal oriented

Adult learners need to have something to work towards when undertaking any learning because they need to believe it can take them closer to their goals, be it starting a new business, getting a promotion, or learning a new skill.  Adult learners like to know how they will benefit from doing the course.  In the first few screens they should be able to answer the question “How will doing the course make my job/life easier?”

E-Learning designers need to convince the learner that the course will be worth their while. Although clear learning objectives are a start, there is more that can be done. For example open a course with a scenario that they could realistically face in the workplace.  Then ask “Would you know what to do in this situation?”  The idea here is to identify a gap in their knowledge which helps to motivate the learner to fill the gap.  In other words, do the course!

Adults want to learn the information they need to know right away.  They are not overly concerned with information they may or may not need at a point in the future.

How to apply this principle to E-Learning?

  • Avoid “nice to know” information cluttering the slide, make it optional – many E-Learning software programmes allow for branching scenarios. Branching allows a learner to optionally divert off to investigate further if they need to, but allows them to return to the main topic
  • Include a visual sign showing which topics have been completed so far in working towards the end goal – this can provide motivational impetus to continue
  • Acknowledge goal completion; for example ‘Congratulations you passed the test’.



Adult learners want to see the relevance of what they are learning to their own experience.

Case studies also need to be relevant to the learners’ experiences. In some cases you might have to talk to a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to gather ideas for realistic workplace scenarios.  The more you can relate the content to the everyday experiences of the learner, the more likely they are to see the relevance of the course and engage with the learning experience.

Adult learners need to see the direct link of how the learning relates back to their real-life problems and tasks, rather than simply learning theory or academic materials that won’t help them on the job.

How to apply this principle to E-Learning?

  • Ensure you have done a thorough Training Needs Analysis – it automatically focuses your E-Learning on what the learners need to know on the job, which is what adults are concerned with learning
  • Focus the E-Learning on tasks and use real-life scenarios to provide context for the content
  • Choose images that you think the learners will be able to identify with, ones that relate to their office or workplace environment as well as to the topic.



Adult learners like to apply newly-acquired knowledge in practical ways and be active participants in the learning experience. Have you ever seen someone show you how to do something and you are itching to have a go yourself?  That’s why there should be plenty of interactivity in E-Learning courses.

Adults need to apply their newly acquired knowledge and skills in their working or home life. The training will help them in practical ways to perform their jobs and tasks more effectively, so the course should include plenty of practical advice that learners can implement immediately.  Avoid the course being too theory-based and little or no practical application.  It is easier with software simulations, but more difficult when designing an E-Learning course on some of the ‘soft’ skills or legislative content.

Adult learners need to understand the benefits and what they stand to gain from the learning in order to be engaged by it.

How to apply this principle to E-Learning?

  • Create content that helps them figure out how to apply the learning to real-life problems in the easiest possible manner
  • Write in a very clear and direct way in simple English so learners can easily follow the content.
  • Include several practical tips throughout the course, it breaks up the content and helps focus on a very practical level
  • Quizzes, surveys and scenario challenges all help to facilitate learning
  • Capture interest by explaining the benefits at the outset – Will the process they’re learning make their current job easier? Will it save them time or collect better data in the system? Identify how this training will make your learner’s job easier and better. If it really won’t, you must at least explain the reasoning behind why they still need to learn this information.

Please also take a look at our previous blogs:-


Our courses include many of the topics that are mentioned in this blog.  For more information, please visit

07 June 2021

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