Principles of Adult Learning

E-Learning and the Principles of Adult Learning

Damian Hehire-learning

E-Learning and the Principles of Adult Learning

One of the best ways to make e-learning courses successful is to focus on the principles of adult learning. These principles describe how adults learn so when you build courses with them in mind, the learning experience is more effective.

That said, it still surprises me that so much training and skills development completely ignores these principles. One of the things you will immediately see when you read them is they are very different to the way children learn. Despite this, most courses for adults, including those in a business environment, are closer in structure and tone to a child’s course than an adult one.

So, here is the most significant learning tip you will hear today – adopt the principles of adult learning in all training you do, e-learning and otherwise.

The Principles of Adult Learning

Right, so what are these principles? They were authored by the American adult educator Malcolm Knowles. He adopted the theory of andragogy which refers to methods used in the education of adults. It differs from pedagogy which is concerned with methods used to teach children.

In the 1980s, Knowles outlined five key principles of adult learning. Those five principles say that adults:

  • Prefer self-directed learning
  • Use prior experience and previously obtained knowledge to help with learning
  • Are more willing to learn when it is relevant
  • Are focused on goals so want to learn things they can apply and use immediately
  • Learn best when they are self-motivated to do so

You should apply each of these principles to all e-learning courses you create.

Self-Directed Learning

Learners proceed through e-learning courses at a pace that suits them so they are in control. It is also easy for learners to repeat or look over modules again, or to skip through modules quickly if they already know and understand the content.

It is also possible to add additional elements to e-learning courses to enhance the learner’s control. This includes customising the course (or having custom modules) that let the learner choose a path that is relevant to their job role.

In addition, quizzes and regular tests will highlight subject areas learners need to spend more time on.

Prior Experience

As already mentioned, a key feature of e-learning courses is they can be modularised. This means you can ensure the content is laser targeted to specific departments or job roles. You can, for example, easily and cheaply modify a module for customer service staff that reflects their experience while having something different for administrative staff. In each of these modules, the core information can remain the same.


This has already been discussed in the previous two points – as e-learning is low cost to both create and deliver, it is possible to make the content of courses highly relevant to the learners completing them.

Another feature of e-learning you can use to help with this is the analytics you get from learners completing the course. This will highlight modules and sections that are effective and those you could improve. Adding more relevant content could be a way to improve sections that are not as effective as they could be.


One of the key benefits of using e-learning is the ability to incorporate practical and interactive elements. This is often referred to as gamification, i.e. getting the learner to do something, often something fun, to put the information and skills they learn in the module to practical use.

This not only reinforces the knowledge and helps improve retention rates, but it also shows the learner how they can use their newly acquired skills and knowledge to benefit their day-to-day experience. For example, show them how they can achieve better results or work in a way that is more efficient.


Many of the above points also fit in with the principle that self-motivation is an essential element in adult learning. For example, a learner who does a quiz at the end of a section or module that shows they have not grasped all the content will have the motivation to improve their knowledge.
In addition, the method of delivery is also important. The likelihood of everyone attending a training day or seminar being motivated to learn is slim. With e-learning, however, you can empower learners to proceed through the course at a time that suits them, i.e. when they have the motivation.

Empowering is a crucial word in everything discussed in this article – adult learners want you to engage them as equals, not talk at them. When you design e-learning courses well, you empower learners.