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Applying adult learning theory to instructional design

Applying adult learning theory to instructional design

Work place training can be challenging for L&D, Human Resource professionals, as well as staff. In our article ‘5 training ideas for adult learners’ we gave you great tips on how to customise your training to adult learners. Here, we focus on how you can apply adult learning theory to instructional design with the adult learner in mind. It will help you understand the theory influencing your choices in developing training.

Adult learning theories

We talk about active learning a great deal in our articles because we emphasise learner-centric approaches to training.

Active learning is the foundation of adult learning theory and favours engagement, interactivity, and collaboration instead of trainer-centric approaches such as lectures and teacher focused instruction.

Behavioural learning theory

  • More practice opportunities
  • Active learning
  • Learning through reinforcement
  • Clearly defined objectives

Constructivist learning theory

  • Usually happens in the workplace where learners can interact with others
  • Learning is constructed within a social environment (collaborating, social media, group work)

Problem Based learning theory

  • Looking for a solution through problem base case or scenario
  • Promotes creative and critical thinking

Cognitive learning theory

  • Critical thinking, intuitiveness will support learning
  • Memorising, remembering and applying knowledge
  • Malcolm Knowles developed adult learning concepts in his book ‘

A theory of learning: Andragogy, The Adult learner: a neglected species’ that have become key considerations when designing for adult learners. These are:

  • Relevance: adult learners need to know why learning is relevant to them. You will have heard the ‘What’s in it for me’ question among training forums — ask yourself why they should learn or take the training you are developing as a starting point.
  • Engaging: you’ve heard us say it before, engaging content is key in keeping the attention of learners – adult learners are no different, in fact, they remember knowledge much more effectively when they are engaged.
  • Active: your training should imitate as much as possible real life scenarios to encourage learners to be active in the pursuit of knowledge and problem solving.
  • Learner-centric: focuses on learner acquiring knowledge

Here are some examples of active learning in the training room and in online environments:

Activity Training Room Online environment
Roleplay, scenarios, performance or practical demonstration Clearly defined tasks that offer direction, or activities that are observed Use of video to encourage reflection and appropriate work behaviours.
Experiential learning activities or tasks Self-reflection; this can be challenging in the classroom Online self-reflection through discussion, blog posts, Wiki
Group work Breakout sessions or tasks performed in groups facilitate discussion and collaborative working Posting comments, online forums, participating in online discussion facilitate sharing, discussion and collaborative working
Folio of work End of course assessment Blogs, Wiki’s, sharing work

Good training and instructional design will use a combination of these activities as part of their blended learning delivery. Encouraging active learning in your course you will be also using Problem Based Learning (PBL); this is where you create a learning predicament and the learner navigates their way through the problem to discover solution. Storytelling techniques are great for creating problems (conflict) for the learner to overcome.

Designing training for the adult learner will take into account the different learning styles adult learn in such as visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic. L&D professionals will consider these learning styles and theory along with the individual characteristics of adult learners to create effective and memorable training.

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