The Student-Centric Approach: Applying Adult Learning Theory to Your Content Design

We know pedagogy as the science behind creating engaging educational experiences for learners. The problem is, your adult learners have significantly different needs to the typical target students of most pedagogies: children.

Adult students approach learning differently to children. Their lived experiences and primary goals for learning vary greatly. Instructional designers need to meet adult learners where they’re at by designing content based on the way they think about acquiring knowledge.

That’s where adult learning theory, or andragogy, comes in. Andragogy is like pedagogy’s wise, older sibling. It’s concerned with how adults acquire knowledge and the best practices for teaching and training these learners.

In this article, we’ll define andragogy further and give you practical ways for you to apply these practices to your content design. Read on to learn more!

What Is Andragogy?

The term andragogy was coined by Malcolm Knowles. He used the word to refer to how adult learning differs from the way children acquire new knowledge.

Andragogy is based on the following five pillars of adult learning theory.

1) A Maturing Self-Concept

As people grow from childhood to adulthood, they become more independent. Adult learners take on the responsibility of educating themselves. They also have greater control over the content they want to learn. Whereas children have no choice but to rely on others to access new knowledge, adults are able to seek out information for themselves.

This maturing self-concept means adult learners are likely to seek out content that relates to their lives in some way.

2) Increasing Experience

People go through countless experiences as they move through life. Everything we do leaves us with prior knowledge that we can add to our experience “bank” and apply to future endeavors.

Adults have much greater reserves of experience than children. They’re predisposed to rely on prior knowledge as they educate themselves further. Adult learning programs focused on experiential learning tasks like open discussions and experiments will be naturally more engaging for these students.

3) Increasing Readiness to Learn

Adults take on different roles in society throughout their lives. These roles impact their readiness to learn various skills. For example, when a person becomes a parent or primary caregiver, they’ll need to learn skills related to caring for another human being. Their readiness to learn becomes oriented toward their new role.

The same holds true for professional changes. A new position within an organization, additional responsibilities, or a career change will all require different skills to achieve success. Adults will be inclined to learn the skills required to succeed in their new position.

4) Shifting Application and Orientation

A child’s learning is often centered on the subject matter, but it isn’t until later in life that the child can apply what he’s learned to a real-world situation. Conversely, adult learners nearly always have an immediate need to apply newly acquired skills.

For example, employees taking part in compliance training will need to immediately apply those newly learned skills to their daily jobs in order to maintain safety and regulatory standards.

5) Internal Motivation to Learn

Adults generally have an internal motivation to learn. They’re likely to have a growth mindset, meaning they’re motivated to develop knowledge and skills because they find value in having more knowledge. For example, more industry skills can lead to professional growth, such as new career opportunities.

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What Does Andragogy Look Like in Practice?

The key to designing learning for adults is to put the learner at the center of your approach. Whether you’re designing corporate training content or higher education courses, your instructors should serve as facilitators who encourage student autonomy.

In other words, facilitators create learning environments that allow students to be self-directed. An instructor’s role is to help students develop the skills they need to seek out information for themselves.

Below are five ways instructional designers can create effective adult learning experiences.

1) Differentiate Learning

Adults seek to solve real-life problems. Because adult learners are intrinsically motivated, you should design courses that give them autonomy. This means providing opportunities for your students to be self-directed and choose activities that apply to their lives.

Let’s say your learners are university students, and each degree program at your institution requires a basic communications course. The learners in the course are studying a variety of majors and have vastly different career aspirations.

Students studying marketing or business may prefer activities that help them strengthen their persuasive skills. Medical students may wish to develop a calming bedside manner to put their patients at ease.

Differentiating the learning activities in this communications course gives these learners the opportunity to apply new knowledge and advance their skills in an area that directly relates to their future career roles.

2) Create Clearly and Concisely

Adult learners balance a variety of things that impact their energy levels, motivations, and the amount of time they can spend on education. Smaller, more direct learning activities are easier for these students to work into their schedules and complete successfully. Ideally, you should aim to design learning activities that take no more than eight minutes to complete.

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3) Use Inclusive Design and Language

Your adult learners will come from an array of backgrounds and experiences. The language used in your courses should represent the different cultures, ethnicities, and communities to which your learners belong. Inclusive language and visuals make the learning environment more welcoming, which helps learners feel accepted and encourages mutual respect.

4) Provide Timelines

Most adult learners juggle many other responsibilities outside of their education. Providing an estimate for task completion makes it easier for them to schedule times for learning without compromising on other responsibilities.

That means going into more detail than merely suggesting a timeline for course completion. Instead, each activity in a learning path should include an estimate of how much time is needed to finish the task.

Let’s say you give learners an estimate of two hours to complete your two-week course. For busy adults, it’s probably very difficult to find a two-hour block of time to finish their learning tasks. Scheduling eight 15-minute tasks throughout the two-week period would likely be easier for them to work with.

Clear timelines and schedules help students to better understand their commitment and schedule their lives realistically.

5) Create Engaging Content

Adult learners are already inclined towards immediately applying new learning. Instructional designers should leverage that desire by creating interactive learning experiences that provide opportunities for quick application of new skills.

There are countless ways to design engaging learning content. Leveraging tools in your LMS like H5P can help you create interactive learning experiences for your adult students.

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Use Andragogy to Develop Learning Content for Adults

While it’s easy to confuse the terms pedagogy and andragogy, it’s vital for instructional and learning designers to understand the differences. Whether you’re designing for an organization or learning institution, your students are adults who will approach their education differently to younger learners.

Keep in mind that adult learners begin new courses with prior experiences that influence how they solve problems and seek knowledge. Meet your learners where they are by designing engaging and inclusive learner-centric content. Provide ample opportunities for autonomy, and be willing to adapt your courses to meet your students’ specific needs.

You can leverage your LMS to develop engaging learning experiences based on adult learning theory. Contact the experts at Open LMS to learn how.

Content from a live presentation by Amy Tessitore from the Open LMS Academy team.

Rebecca Potter
About the author

Rebecca Potter

Rebecca is a content writer for Learning Technologies Group plc. Prior to writing, she was an educator for seven years. She earned her Master’s of Education from Bowling Green State University and holds degrees in English and Spanish from The Ohio State University.

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