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Top 5 adult learning theories every instructional designer must know

Adult learning theories propose a foundation to help comprehend, explain, clarify, investigate, and evaluate learning. They allow us to make informed assessments on the design and delivery of learning courses.

The #Generators

What is an adult learning theory?

Historically people have compared learning to rote and traditional learning, where memorization is expected more than the actual knowledge application. Pioneered by Malcolm Knowles, adult learning theory has taken giant leaps in evolving as a completely different theory with principles and methods. It is distinct from child learning and advocates how adult learners identify and adapt to the styles that suit them best.

Now the next question is: why has adult learning theory gained importance in today’s world? In a nutshell, adult learning theories are critical to businesses to provide relevant training for their employees by incorporating these theories in their training or e-learning. Corporate employees learn business skills to upscale profits, learn with a self-driven readiness to learn, and a motivation to solve a problem in their professional lives.

How to apply adult learning theory?

You can use adult learning theories in isolation or blended to create customized training programs in your organization. Adult learners differ in their responses to training and it is a great idea to present different training methods to create the best possible training programs for your organization.

The Top 5 adult learning theories

Principles of andragogy

On the top of the adult learning theories list is the Andragogy principle by Malcolm Knowles. It proposes that adults are self-driven, ready to learn for a particular reason, and generally apply the learning immediately to solve a problem at hand. The learners in this theory have a voice in both planning and evaluating their learning experience.

One of the most practical methods for implementing most of these adult learning principles is Cathy Moore’s action mapping approach. This method does not resonate with the traditional content-dumping method, but presents a focussed problem-solving approach for learners. It advocates mapping content by identifying the goals and identifying the specific information required to meet the goal. This actionable, visual approach facilitates instructional designers to analyze the training needs before beginning to create content. Firstly, they explore the training needs critically to decide if a course solves the need, if performance support can fulfill the job, or if it is a behavioral change or a cultural issue. The resulting training is effective and aligned with real scenarios that reaches learners better than information presentations.

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Communities of Practice (CoP) – Knowledge Sharing

Lave and Wenger’s adult learning concepts are a popular theory underpinning today’s knowledge sharing platforms. These communities have a common domain interest and engage members in information-sharing. That enables them to learn from each other while striving for the same goal. Members of the practice groups are practitioners of the said domains, and they contribute and get contributed to in the group.

Employee-generated Learning is an effective method to actualize knowledge sharing in Communities of Practice. Any employee (member) who is an expert in a topic (domain) can create content and share it with co-workers. This helps educate employees quickly in their day-to-day jobs. L&D and subject-matter experts co-create content in this method. While subject-matter experts own and maintain the content utilizing their rich tactical knowledge, L&D takes care of the quality control, ensuring learning best practices.

Employee-generated Learning is a quick and cost-effective approach for employee learning. E-learning courses created with this approach are agile, responsive, and scalable to the business’s needs as the employees produce them.

Social Learning or Collaborative Learning

Coined by Albert Bandura, Social Learning proposes that learners acquire information by combining their experience with instruction, observation, or imitation in a social setting. People share knowledge through various interactions within the workplace and learn how to act from this knowledge.

Rather than methods, a related framework to consider while strategizing a social learning theory is the 70:20:10 model. Employees learn 70% from on the job, which is self-driven; 20% from other employees in various interactions, and 10% from formal training conducted in the organization. While the 10% part cannot be combined, 70% and 20% of training happen together as employees have interactions with others. While social learning is an obvious nuance in the 20%, the 70% also entails numerous peer interactions as part of the experiential and experimentation approach. Hence, 90% (70+20) of the learning should be designed based on social learning.

Self-directed Learning

Self-directed learning (SDL) is a principle developed by DM Garrison, and based on andragogy. Adult learners set their own goals, look for resources, and plan their learning trajectories. Theoretically, they are in control of their learning journeys.

SDL allows for unstructured and unorganized learning to occur purely at the learner’s discretion. This method allows informal learning to happen outside of the classrooms and design of L&D. It has no clear goals or set objectives as it’s often unplanned and self-directed by the learner. Providing a variety of resources and software tools for employees is a good starting point for exploring their zones of work.

Situated learning

Situated learning propounds that learning happens in a specific situation and occurs in its most natural and basic form. This theory is an excellent basis for performance support and workflow learning.

Learning or mastering software skills on the job can be effective with the help of situated learning. Performance support in organizations is now more aware than ever to bring back situated learning and real-time learning tasks, instead of supplying information. Here the instructional design team should identify the sweet spots and create resources or job aids combining the procedural and declarative knowledge.

Instructional designers need to analyze an employee’s workflow to identify the various instances and touchpoints requiring information and support. This task-analysis helps the designers to determine the type (procedure, checklists, curation, etc.) and level of information (advanced, basic) required for the context.

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About the author

Videhi Bhamidi is a Learning Product Consultant at Easygenerator. With over 15 years of experience in e-learning, user-experience research, and thought-leadership projects, she is a regular contributor to L&D magazines. She is an Oxford alumnus and strives to fuse design, research, technology, and didactics in her solutions.