How Understanding Adult Learning Theory Helps Us Create Better eLearningHow Understanding Adult Learning Theory Helps Us Create Better eLearning

How Understanding Adult Learning Theory Helps Us Create Better eLearning

Corey Bleich

🍿 4 min. read

Referred to collectively as andragogy, adult learning is not a one-size-fits-all model. Just as children need a variety of techniques to engage them, adults also require different approaches. We tend to think of adults as able to sit in a classroom (or boardroom) and absorb another presentation after boring presentation. In truth, that’s just as ineffective as it would be for a toddler. Adult learning theory is a way into the minds of adults. Understanding it can help you create better eLearning opportunities for your employees. Here's how.

How do adults learn differently from children?

The principles of teaching adults acknowledge the different ways adults learn. Designing eLearning experiences for adults is not the same as lesson planning for kids. Here are five major ways adults learn differently from children.

1. Adults require autonomy

Because everything is so new for children, they require high levels of guidance and supervision. This is not true for adults.

Many adults bristle at being told what to do and micro-managed every step of the way. Design your eLearning with plenty of autonomy and opportunities for independent thinking for maximum (willing) participation and best results.

2. Adults have experience

From the boardroom to the mailroom, the adults in your company have lived complex lives. Your eLearning needs to acknowledge and incorporate the importance of their experiences.

3. Adults need tailored eLearning

Adults will approach a training more enthusiastically if they can see how their skills will grow directly as a result. This is especially important as it relates to building their social and professional network in meaningful ways.

4. Adults need application

While this is true for children as well, adults in particular want to know how learning applies to their job.

Adults will put more energy into something with a payoff at the end. This includes learning opportunities that:

  • Make their job easier
  • Help them move towards promotion
  • Assist them in completing a high-profile task

5. Adults need to be motivated

Maybe adults are just taller versions of their childhood selves. Just as children can’t seem to stop asking, “Why?” adult learners also need to know why they are participating in eLearning. If there is no good reason that they can see, they are more likely to abandon the training before it is completed.

Understanding these differences and keeping them in mind as you design your eLearning is crucial to employee buy-in and participation.

What are the major types of adult learning theories?

There are four major types of adult learning theory, including:

  1. Transformational
  2. Experiential
  3. Self-directed learning
  4. Neuroscience

Let's look at these in more detail.


Transformational learning theory (also referred to as transformative learning theory) seems tailor-made for adult learners.

This theory propounds that a person’s experience, and the examination of it, is crucial to creating meaning and learning something new. Essentially, an old understanding is re-examined in light of new evidence, and the learning (and learner) transforms. A paradigm shift occurs.

Learning of this type involves task-based assignments in which a learner has room to communicate their own needs and wants. The forums and discussions in eLearning are a collaborative way to apply transformational learning theory.


Experiential learning satisfies the adult need for proper motivation and application of new learning. Designed as an immersive experience, experiential learning requires adults to apply their newly learned skills to a set of problems or towards a common goal.

This type of learning uses simulations and scenarios to engage the learner. These are followed by reflective observation of case studies or other applicable demonstrations. Adult learners then look at abstract scenarios before actively experimenting at applying their new knowledge.

Experiential learning honors adults for what they bring to the table. It gives them ample opportunity for practice and refinement of practical, applicable skills. Examples of this might be training on a new computer design software by leading learners through a completed, set design (e.g., a building schematic that already exists) before allowing them to experiment with their own designs.

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning is "a process in which individuals take the initiative without the help of others in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying human and material resources, and evaluating learning outcomes.”

Think of the last time you learned something because you were interested in it. Maybe it was small engine repair, computer programming, or knitting. There was no one standing over you, forcing you to read a manual or practice. Self-directed learning is powerful for adults because the motivation to learn comes from the learner.

Considering how to incorporate self-directed learning into your eLearning course design may be as simple as offering choices in the mode of delivery, the order of the learning, or the subject matter. Once you conduct a training needs analysis, you will be able to see areas where self-directed learning can be incorporated.


Finally, the very best eLearning designers consider the actual structure and function of an adult brain when designing their eLearning courses.

This theory of adult learning examines the manner in which the brain functions to maximize an adult’s ability to learn. Just as you would not try to force a baby to walk before they could support their head, the neuroscience theory of adult education take into consideration what a brain is ready for. This might mean tailoring the time, method of delivery, and configuration of the training to enhance its benefits.

Understanding how adults learning differently and applying adult learning theory in different situations affects every part of your eLearning offerings. These factors can help you choose an appropriate mode of delivery as you tailor your information, activity, and assignments to your adult learners.

Learn more

At EdgePoint Learning, we get that your employees may drag their feet when it comes to learning something new. Applying adult learning theory to your eLearning experiences can help engage adult learners and give them the motivation to participate.

We are experts at designing engaging, relevant, and useful eLearning for every industry. Get in touch today to learn more about adult learning theory and see how we can help you!

This post was originally published on eLearning Industry.