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Adult learning principles and how to apply them in educational design

In the realm of adult education, the focus isn't merely on delivering content but on engaging learners in a way that aligns with their experiences, motivations, and aspirations. Enter adult learning principles. Adult learning, or andragogy, differs significantly from traditional pedagogy, emphasising principles tailored to adults. This article explores these core principles of adult learning theory and demonstrates how to apply them effectively in educational design to craft enriching and impactful learning experiences.

adult learning principles

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Understanding adult learning theory

Popularised by Malcolm Knowles, adult learning theory highlights the unique characteristics and needs of adult learners. Unlike children, adults bring a wealth of experience, a strong sense of self-direction, and distinct learning goals to the table. Let’s delve into these principles and how they shape adult learning.

Key principles of adult learning

1. Self-direction

Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They prefer to take responsibility for their decisions and learning paths. This principle emphasises the importance of involving learners in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

2. Experience

Adults draw upon a vast reservoir of experiences that can be a rich resource for learning. Educational design should leverage this by incorporating practical, real-life problem-solving activities.

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3. Readiness to learn

Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their work or personal lives. Instruction should be designed to address real-world problems and be applicable to their daily lives.

4. Orientation to learning

Adults are problem-centred rather than content-oriented. They learn best when the subject matter is related to their roles and responsibilities.

5. Motivation to learn

While adults respond to external motivators like promotions and better jobs, they are mostly driven by internal factors such as personal growth, job satisfaction, and quality of life.

Applying adult learning principles in educational design

Translating these principles into effective educational design involves creating a learner-centric environment that respects and utilises the learner's prior knowledge and experiences. Here are some strategies to apply these principles:

1. Foster a self-directed learning environment

Imagine you're steering a ship on an uncharted sea. You wouldn't want someone dictating every move you make; instead, you'd prefer a map and the freedom to navigate your course. This is the essence of self-directed learning for adults.

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Practical Application:

  • Interactive platforms: Use learning management systems (LMS) that allow learners to choose their own paths through the content, set their own goals, and track their progress.
  • Self-assessment tools: Incorporate quizzes, reflection journals, and self-assessment tools that enable learners to evaluate their understanding and identify areas for improvement.


Developing a modular course structure for a professional development program, where learners could select topics based on their career goals and interests. This approach not only increases engagement but also ensures that the learning is relevant and personalised.

2. Leverage learner experience

Think of adult learners as seasoned chefs entering a new kitchen. They bring their own recipes, skills, and cooking styles, which can enrich the culinary adventure if harnessed correctly.

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Practical application:

  • Case studies and simulations: Design activities that require learners to draw upon their own experiences, such as case studies, simulations, and role-playing exercises.
  • Peer learning: Encourage collaboration and discussion among learners to share diverse perspectives and experiences.


In a course designed for healthcare professionals, including a series of patient case studies where learners shared their own experiences and best practices. This not only enriches the learning experience but also fosters a community of practice.

3. Ensure relevance and immediate application

Adults, like gardeners, are eager to see the fruits of their labour. They thrive when they can plant the seeds of knowledge and watch them bloom in their professional and personal lives.

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Practical application:

  • Problem-based learning: Focus on real-world problems and scenarios that learners can relate to and apply immediately.
  • Task-oriented projects: Assign projects that are directly connected to learners' job roles or personal interests.


For a course on digital marketing, having learners work on live projects, such as developing marketing strategies for their own companies. This task-oriented approach ensures that learning is directly applicable and immediately beneficial.

4. Adopt a problem-centred approach

Picture yourself as a detective solving a mystery. Adults learn best when they are piecing together clues and solving problems that matter to them.

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Practical application:

  • Scenario-Based Learning: Develop scenarios that mirror real-life challenges and require problem-solving.
  • Workshop Style Sessions: Conduct workshops where learners can work through problems collaboratively and receive immediate feedback.


In an instructional design course, using scenario-based learning to help educators design their own curriculum. Learners work through common challenges faced in their institutions, applying theoretical concepts to solve these problems.

5. Motivate with internal and external factors

Imagine climbing a mountain. External motivators are like the supportive cheers from fellow climbers, while internal motivators are the personal drive that pushes you to reach the summit.

applied adult learning theory

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Practical application:

  • Recognition and rewards: Implement systems that recognise and reward learner achievements, such as digital badges, certificates, and public acknowledgment.
  • Personal growth opportunities: Highlight how the learning experience will contribute to personal growth and job satisfaction.


A leadership development program includes a mentorship component where successful completion leads to opportunities for career advancement and personal growth. This blend of internal satisfaction and external rewards proves highly motivating.


Applying adult learning principles in educational design is not just about understanding these principles—it's about implementing them in ways that resonate with adult learners. By fostering self-directed learning environments, leveraging learners' experiences, ensuring relevance, adopting a problem-centred approach, and motivating learners with a blend of internal and external factors, we can create educational experiences that are not only effective but also transformative.

At Oppida, we raise the bar in adult learning by creating engaging, personalised, and impactful educational experiences. With our cutting-edge approach to learning design and AI-powered solutions, we empower learners to achieve their fullest potential and enable providers to be recognised for the quality of their offerings.


What is adult learning theory?

Adult learning theory, or andragogy, focuses on the specific needs and characteristics of adult learners. Unlike children, adults bring a wealth of experience and are motivated by internal factors such as personal growth and job satisfaction. The theory highlights the importance of self-direction, leveraging experience, ensuring relevance, adopting a problem-centred approach, and motivating learners.

How can I apply adult learning principles in my course design?

You can apply adult learning principles by creating a self-directed learning environment, leveraging the experiences of learners, ensuring that the content is relevant and immediately applicable, adopting a problem-centred approach, and motivating learners with both internal and external factors. Use practical applications like interactive platforms, self-assessment tools, case studies, and real-world projects to engage adult learners effectively.

Why is self-direction important in adult learning?

Self-direction is crucial because adults prefer to take responsibility for their learning paths. They are more engaged and motivated when they have control over their learning process. Providing opportunities for self-directed learning helps adults set their own goals, choose their learning paths, and evaluate their progress, leading to a more personalised and effective learning experience.

How does leveraging learner experience benefit adult education?

Leveraging learner experience enriches the learning process by incorporating the diverse backgrounds, skills, and knowledge that adult learners bring. This approach makes learning more relevant and relatable, encourages the sharing of best practices, and fosters a community of practice where learners can learn from each other’s experiences.

What are some practical ways to ensure learning content is relevant for adults?

To ensure learning content is relevant for adults, focus on real-world problems and scenarios that learners can relate to and apply immediately. Use task-oriented projects, problem-based learning, and scenario-based learning to make the content applicable to their daily lives and professional roles. Always consider the learners' goals and how the content can help them achieve those goals.

How can I motivate adult learners effectively?

Motivate adult learners by implementing systems that recognise and reward their achievements, such as digital badges, certificates, and public acknowledgment. Highlight opportunities for personal growth and job satisfaction that come from the learning experience. Combine external motivators like promotions with internal motivators like personal development to create a compelling and engaging learning environment.