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Adapted from training material

Adult Learning Principles

Topics in this section

  • How do adults learn?
  • The principles of learning
  • Retention curve
  • Multiple senses learning
  • Assumptions about adults in a learning situation
  • Tips for enhanced adult learning
  • Barriers to learning

How do adults learn?

Learning refers to relatively permanent changes in an individual which are related to past experience and the opportunity to learn, including practice, rather than to physiological changes such as fatigue, adaptation, drug effects, motivation, maturation or senescence. Handbook of General Psychology

Learning knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study.

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

“Learning is but an adjunct of ourselves.”


However you care to define it, learning is as natural to human beings as breathing, eating, sleeping, playing or procreating. And as far as anyone can tell, we maintain that natural capacity as long as any of the others. For the last century and a half or so, educators and psychologists have tried to develop ways to deliver instruction, practice and experience that enhance this innate capacity to learn.

For the last 20 to 75 years, depending on who's doing the counting, an evolving school of thought has defined adult learners (as opposed to children, adolescents, and lab rats) as a unique subgroup in need of specialised study, theory and educational practices.

Adult learning theory

Adult learning theory emerged in 1973 with the publication of Boston University professor, Malcolm Knowles' book, The Adult Learner: A Neglected species, an attempt to create a unified theory of adult learning and based on four assumptions:

  • As they mature, adults tend to prefer self direction.
  • Adults' experiences are a rich resource for learning. Adults learn more effectively through experiential techniques such as discussion or problem solving than they do through, say, passive listening.
  • Adults are aware of specific learning needs generated by real life events such as marriage, divorce, taking a new job, losing a job and so on.
  • Adults are competency based learners, meaning that they want to learn a skill or acquire knowledge that they can apply pragmatically to their immediate circumstances.

Source: Adult Learning: What Do We Know for Sure by Ron Zemke and Susan Zemke Training Magazine, June 1995 p31

The principles of learning

The following learning principles have been derived from research and experience and are the basis of all sound training (and education). lf you learn to apply these general principles to learning situations, they will help you to plan a good session, deliver it effectively and evaluate it afterwards. These principles can easily be remembered through the mnemonic


  • Primacy and Regency
  • Reinforcement
  • Over learning
  • Multi-sense Learning
  • Opportunities for Feedback
  • Transfer of Training
  • Involve Learners Actively
  • Nibble
  • Go from Known to Unknown

Primacy and recency

This principle states: Trainees can recall well those things they learn first and last in a sequence.

“First impressions are lasting” and so are the last. However, this is not true in all conditions. A very strong experience (good or bad) can affect what the trainee remembers.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Prepare carefully what you are going to say and do during the first few minutes of the session.
  2. Give a preview of the session.
  3. Remind trainees from time to time of the sequence in which they have learned a topic.
  4. Summarise the important points of the session at the end.


This principle states: Learning which is rewarded is more likely to be retained.

This is generally how we train our pets and even our children. Rewards must be offered immediately after approximately correct behavior is exhibited.

Rules for the training room:

  1. When a trainee gives a right answer - tell them.
  2. Provide for early success in learning a new topic, make it easy at the start.
  3. Prevent trainees from making mistakes as much as possible.


This principle states: Forgetting is reduced significantly by frequent attempts at recall of learned material. Frequent revision can help trainees to retain larger amounts of what they have learned. This applies particularly to the learning of factual material or “information”.

NB. Repetition of material by the trainer is not over learning. The trainees must do the work for this principle to operate.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Ask frequent questions.
  2. Provide exercises which force trainees to recall previous learning.
  3. At the start of each session, ask trainees to summarise briefly the previous session.
  4. Include review periods in your timetable.
  5. Train your trainees to use over learning during their private study.
  6. Supply summaries of session material.

Multiple senses learning

The principle states: Learning methods, which use 2 or more senses, are more effective than those using one sense only.

Of the information a person takes in, approximately 80 percent is obtained through sight, 11 percent by hearing, and 9 percent by the other senses combined.

The proverb: “One picture is worth a 1,000 words”, is another way of stating this principle.

The Senses pie chart

It appears that the most important senses for information and theory learning are SIGHT and HEARING. But don't forget the others, particularly if you are teaching a physical skill.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Combine telling and showing - don't rely on one only.
  2. Provide audio visual aids for every session you give.
  3. Make certain that you and your aids can easily seen and heard.
  4. If you have a model as one of your aids, let the trainees handle it as well as see it and hear you talk about it.

Opportunities for feedback

This principle states: Learning proceeds more efficiently when both instructor and trainee give feedback to each other.

Trainers need feedback to tell them how the trainee is progressing and the trainee needs feedback from the instructor on quality of performance. This means that a Session should be a two-way communication system with open communication channels between the instructor and each trainee, along which information can flow freely, about performance.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Encourage trainees to ask questions.
  2. Test frequently.
  3. Maintain eye-contact, this is a most important communication Channel.
  4. Discuss and correct errors: don't criticise them.
  5. Give trainees knowledge of results as quickly as possible.

Transfer of training

This principle states: What trainees learn in the training room is more likely to be applied on the job if the training conditions resemble real-life situations.

The greater the similarity between the training conditions and the actual job, the more effective the training is likely to be.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Use simulations of workplace situations eg. through role plays, realistic props etc to recreate as closely as possible all the conditions that apply.
  2. Make explicit reference to onthe-job application of training, pointing out any differences between that and the training situation.
  3. Help the trainees to make the transfer with specific goal setting, networking etc.

Involve learners actively

This principle states: Trainees learn more quickly and effectively when they are actively involved in the learning process.

The simplest expression of this idea is: We learn by doing. This applies to all forms of training.

I hear and I forget I see and I remember I do and I understand

Confucius 451 B.C.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Ask questions to stimulate thought.
  2. Provide plenty of practical work and activities.
  3. Plan for exercises and tests in sessions.
  4. Use projects and assignments to supplement sessions.
  5. Use discussions.

WARNING: Note taking is not a form of Active Learning. You need to activate brains, not merely fingers.

Nibble: Spaced learning

This principle states: There is a limit to how much any learner can take in at once. lt is essential to break down a complex topic into bite-sized chunks that the learner can gradually assimilate. lf you attempt to give too much information, your trainees will be so swamped they will end up overwhelmed and confused. This can be very de-motivating.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Break down complicated and difficult subjects into easily understandable parts.
  2. Allow time between one part and the next (to give the brain time to take up the new knowledge).
  3. Avoid long, drawn out sessions. Use several short ones,

Go from known to unknown

This principle states: Trainees understand (and therefore learn) material only when it is related to their existing knowledge.

Trainees may be able to recall facts, etc. which they are committed to memory (by over learning?). lf, however you want them to comprehend the material fully, you must give them a frame of reference into which they can fit these isolated bits of information so that a pattern develops in their minds.

Always move from the known to the unknown, ie. begin with what the trainee already knows or has experienced. Don't make the mistake which one writer has described as follows:

“Many teachers plunge ahead from a starling point that many of their students have never reached and they then proceed to teach the unknown by means of the incomprehensible”.

Pressey, Robinson & Horrocks, “Psychology in Education”.

Rules for the training room:

  1. Find out what your trainees already know or have experienced before.
  2. Pitch your session at the trainees' level, not yours.
  3. Present the topic in a definite sequence; refer back to previous sessions.
  4. Use plenty of examples, illustrations, analogies and anecdotes.
  5. Make your material as concrete as possible and tied to specific examples. Avoid abstractions.

Source: Adult Learning Principles adapted from: How to be an Effective Trainer by Barry J Smith, Brian L Delahaye, Wiley, New York, 1983

Assumptions about adults in a learning situation

  1. Adults are people who have a good deal have first hand experience. Some have reflected on their experience and learned from it. Some have not. Others have changed their behaviour without reflecting on their experience. Most have learned by experience that their powers are limited; no longer do they expect the sand-fort to hold back the sea. Effective workshops tap participants' experience as a major resource for learning. Effective workshops are a source of new experiences for participants. Effective workshops help adults convert experience into learning.
  2. Adults are people who have relatively large bodies subject to the stress of gravitational stimuli. When they were younger, many adults slept comfortably on hardwood floors. Now they are older the floor is not so comfortable. Most experience discomfort when they sit too long in hard chairs. Chairs that are too short or too narrow are worse. Some adults fall asleep in chairs that are just right.
  3. Adults are people who have set habits and strong tastes. Many adults need coffee in the morning; some in the afternoon. Some hate coffee and get their caffeine from coke or tea. Some would never touch caffeine, preferring health drinks instead. Some need to smoke; some insist on smoking. Some like spicy language; some are offended by profanity. All find learning difficult when their habits and tastes are violated.Effective workshops are sensitive to adult habits and tastes and accommodate as many as possible.
  4. Adults are people who have some amount of pride. Although some are dependent much of the time, all adults like to think of themselves as independent some of the time. In military training the emphasis on destroying independent judgement is strong proof that independence exists. Workshops can be used to destroy independence and create people who obey. Effective workshops develop greater abilities in self-direction and responsibility.
  5. Adults are people with very tangible things to lose. Effective workshops are concerned with gain, not with proving inadequacy. Effective workshops aim for one hundred percent success.
  6. Adults are people who have developed a reflex toward authority. Some buck it. Some bow to it. Some relate to it as a resource. And some just let it pass. Effective workshops make appropriate use of authority.
  7. Adults are people who have decisions to make and problems to solve. Many have the nostalgic idea of returning to school, of participating in pure learning. Few of them do. Instead, they go to movies or watch television. When they go to learning, most are seeking help for solving problems or making decisions. Effective workshops tend to be both problem centred and entertaining.
  8. Adults are people who have a great many preoccupations outside of a particular learning situation. They have unusual difficulty in cusing. Most adults have heavy demands on their time, greater on some occasions than on others. Most have very real life commitments. Some adults are organised, some impatient, some overwhelmed. Effective workshops are sensitive, to their space in the adult world, they are not hoggish. Effective workshops achieve a balance between right presentation and the time needed for learning integration.
  9. Modern adults are people who are bewildered by their options. Effective workshops assist them in selection.
  10. Adults are people who have developed group behaviours consistent with their needs. Some are hostile, some helpful. Some are aggressive, some passive. Some are defensive, some open. Most adults select from a range of ready behaviours the one that seems best calculated to meet their needs in a given situation. All have needs. All attempt to have those needs met by the group. Some are more successful than others. All are successful to the degree allowed by the group. All behaviours are reciprocal. Some behaviours help the group, others hinder it. Effective workshops concern themselves with the needs of their participants. Effective workshops attempt to meet these needs in ways that are helpful to the group. Effective workshops are a blending of many kinds of behaviour.
  11. Adults are people who have established emotional frameworks consisting of values, attitudes and tendencies. All need emotional frameworks for successful functioning. Some function successfully within their framework; others do not. Some are aware of most of their framework. Most are aware of only some of it. Progress produces pressure for change. Some change is life giving. Some change leads to despair. All change is disorienting. Too much change in too short a time is destructive. The ability to change is directly proportional to the degree of safety adults feel. Rhetoric and argument do not produce change in the emotional framework. New experience may. Values are the hardest to change. Emotional change does not necessarily produce behaviour change; behaviour change does not necessarily require attitude change. Effective workshops assist adults in making behaviour changes. Effective workshops assist adults in becoming more competent. Effective workshops may assist adults in making changes to their emotional frameworks when there is a high degree of safety, trainer commitment and choice.
  12. Adults are people who have developed selective stimuli filters. People have at least five sensing systems. These systems are interrelated. Stimuli bombard these interrelated systems. An experience is composed of at least one stimulus. lt is difficult to isolate one stimulus. Most experiences are composed of numerous stimuli. An environment is space that is experienced. Environments contain countless stimuli. People respond to stimuli by “filtering” those which are distressing, unpleasant etc. In short, most adults hear what they want to hear. Effective workshops exert some control over stimuli. Effective workshops focus on more than one sensing system. Effective workshops penetrate the filters.
  13. Adults are people who respond to reinforcements. Most respond favourably to positive reinforcement most of the time. All require negative reinforcement some of the time. Some require reinforcement more often than others. Some reinforcements are insulting. Most reinforcement loses effect with senseless repetition. Effective workshops are built on appropriate reinforcement.
  14. Adults are people who need a vacation. All good adult educators know this and effective workshops accommodate it.
  15. Adults are people who are supposed to appear in control and who therefore display restricted emotional response. Many have long lost children locked up inside of them. The children may be delightful or they may horrid. Workshops are often environments in which the doors come unlocked. Effective workshops do not add to the bars, neither do they pry open the doors. Effective workshops are prepared for emotional release if it occurs.
  16. Adults are people who have strong feelings about learning situations. Everybody comes from somewhere. That somewhere was either a good experience or a bad one. ln it they either succeeded or failed. As a result, most people have strong tendencies towards competition, cooperation or withdrawal. Most can develop good feelings about learning situations. Effective workshops are filled with experiences of success.
  17. Modern adults are people who are secretly afraid of falling behind and being replaced. Effective workshops allow them to keep pace and grow with confidence.
  18. Adults are people who can skip certain basics. lf they are about to build a footbridge, adults may learn only the mathematical principles required to build it. For adults, foundations for the future are often irrelevant and unnecessary; the future is now. Effective workshops are not bound to basics. Effective workshops get on with helping adults to cope with present problems. Effective workshops are little concerned with remedial education.
  19. Adults are people who more than once find the foundations of their lives stripped away. The college dorm is not the same as the room back home. The newborn baby burns leisurely afternoons away. Jobs are lost. Parents die. ldeals are tarnished. Divorces occur. Bodies don't perform as they once did. Children leave home. The stock market crashes. Responsibilities are taken away. Retirement becomes mandatory. Mates die and leave them alone. Effective workshops go beyond helping adults cope, they help them to learn to live again.
  20. Adults are people who can change. This is the prime tenet of faith for effective workshops.
  21. Adults are people who have a past. Their memories are filled with regrets, guilts and nostalgia. A few are blessed with insight. Effective workshops are concerned with developing new competencies; the “whys” of the past is someone else's concern.
  22. Adults are people who have ideas to contribute. Effective workshops are those that leave room for them. Therefore…

Source: Unknown

Tips for enhanced adult learning

Provide a positive supportive learning environment


Because adults feel threatened in educational settings due to:

  • lack of recent educational experience
  • lack of developed study habits
  • need for peer acceptance and status.


  1. Avoid demands that lead to embarrassment or failure.
  2. Maintain confidentiality where result of individual achievement is concerned.
  3. Create a permissive learning environment.
  4. Reinforce often.
  5. Criticise sparingly and be constructive.

Make the learning experience practical


Because adults tend to be self directed in their learning:

  • they seek relevant knowledge and skills
  • they have low tolerance for bull
  • they are problem centred not subject centred.


  1. Offer only relevant knowledge and skills and minimise content to what is essential.
  2. Don't offer adults what you yourself would reject.
  3. centre learning around problems of practical significance, ie. “How to…”.

Acknowledge and use their experience


Because adults have learned from experience and have 'crystallised' knowledge:


  1. Provide opportunities for them to contribute to each other's learning,
  2. Create experiential learning activities.
  3. Allow for self pacing.
  4. Help them experience feedback (trial and success exercises).
  5. Encourage dialogue and minimise lecturing.

Use group learning activities


Because adult learners have a need for affiliation and share a common interest.


  1. Help them communicate with each other.
  2. Provide direction and structure to group activities.
  3. Provide for inter-group sharing.

Be accountable to adult learners


Because adult learners are voluntary participants with their own needs and learning goals:

  • they respond enthusiastically to practical, well presented and entertaining programs
  • they vote with their feet.


  1. Be sure to give them what they want even if you have to change your agenda.
  2. Accept criticism gracefully and reflect on it seriously.
  3. Be available for follow up assistance.

Barriers to learning

Some learners have a characteristics which may act as barriers to learning. For example a learner may have poor reading skills. If the training method requires the learner to read beyond their ability, a barrier is created. Another example may be hearing impairment.

adult_learning_principles.txt · Last modified: 2013/12/15 11:19 (external edit)