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How Adult Learning Principles Apply to Your Online Course

How Adult Learning Principles Apply To Your Online Course

Adult learning principles can be considered guides when designing your online course. Let’s look at each of the principles in depth.

Adults must want to learn

Adults must have a motivation for learning. This motivation can be intrinsic, coming from within themselves, like,

  • I want to be a better knitter
  • I’ve always wanted to learn how to speak another language
  • I want to be an expert in _____ field.

And motivation can be extrinsic, brought on by an outside force, like

  • I have to get certified or I will lose my job/to get a job
  • My doctor says I have to get my stress levels down or I’ll end up in the hospital
  • I need to set up a website for my business to grow, but I have no idea how.

Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn

There’s never enough time in the day, week, month, year. Our lives are so busy with work, families, and upkeep that we are stingy with what we do with the leftover time. Or there is no leftover time so we need to cut something out to make time for something like an online course.

That’s why is so important that a course be relevant. It has to be something the adult needs in order to give up some of their precious time.

Adult learning focuses on problem-solving

Say you want to learn how to make enchiladas. Do you start by learning the theory of cooking? No. You search for a recipe that has great pictures and relevant details to help you get through the tough parts. Maybe that recipe blog post also has some theory in it, the why of what you’re doing, but that’s not the focus.

Remember the part about relevance? Adults only learn what they need to learn. You’re only concerned with making enchiladas. Once you make that enchilada recipe and it works out beautifully, you may go back and look at some of the why behind it. But only if you think it will help you in future cooking adventures. (Relevance, again!)

The internet has turned into a huge learning resource. I’ve used it recently to figure out how to take apart (and put back together) a recliner. I’ve had my phone sitting on the engine of my car playing a YouTube video on how to get the battery out. (That was a tough one.) We use it for what we need right then.

Adults learn by doing

There’s another way to look at the problem-solving principle. Do you remember sitting in school and reading all the background information in the textbook before teachers ever let you touch any of the hands-on stuff?

Adults don’t put up with that. They work better if you give them a problem to solve within the learning and then move them through the solution after they’ve tried it themselves.

Generating our own learning is powerful.

One way to help learners generate their own learning in an online course is to give some basic information and then present a challenge. Course participants are given a chance to apply their learning to try to puzzle out the challenge. Then in the next section (where they have to click to get there), review how you would solve the challenge and other possible solutions.

This allows the learner to really engage with the material and gain some experience with it. And experience is its own topic!

Experience affects adult learning

Every adult has a sum of experiences that no one else has. We’ve traveled some of the same roads, but our perception and circumstances make our experiences our own.

When we learn new material, brain theory shows that we learn it more deeply if we can connect that new material to something we already know. And that’s where our experience comes into play.

If a learner is a firefighter, then their brain will frame what they are learning in firefighting ways. I am an educator, so when I am learning something new, I connect it to what I know about teaching and learning.

These connections are extremely important. They help the learning stick and move into long-term memory.

But everyone has different experiences. How are you, as the course creator, supposed to connect to all those experiences?! You don’t even know what they could be.

In the previous section, Adults Learn by Doing, I mentioned putting challenges or problems for the learner to solve first and then going deeper into the lesson and how you might solve it. Having the learner try first gives them experience with the problem. Now you have a shared experience to build on that you know all your learners have! You can leverage those shared experiences as you go deeper into the course.

Adults learn best in an informal situation

As I mentioned earlier, adults won’t follow a set curriculum that takes them through information they feel they don’t need. They really don’t have time to spare.

That’s one of the reasons that asynchronous online courses work so well for adults. They can work in them at their own pace and in their own space. They don’t have to shuffle their responsibilities and schedules to be somewhere, whether it’s a stick and brick or online, at a specific time.

Some online courses do run along a set timeline where all students enter and end together. While these synchronous courses are not as flexible as a self-paced course, they have the added benefit of building a community during the course. Discussion boards allow learners to collaborate and network. It’s the course creator’s task to make that community inviting.

Adults Want to Be Equal Partners in the Learning Process

Since adult learners seek out your course, they have a problem they need to solve. They see your course as a way to help them solve that problem. They understand that they will have to apply what they learned to solve their problem

In this way, you, the course creator, and the learner are partners. You research and develop content that you believe will help the learner in some important way. The learner consumes the content and decides what is important and useful to them and what can be ignored.

Adult learners will not go through information that they feel doesn’t apply to them. Your job is to make sure your course has what they need with very little of what they don’t need.

Since all adult learners come with different experiences and you want to address as many learners as possible, you will likely have some information that one learner may already know but another learner doesn’t.

If that information is a foundation for deeper learning, you need to include it. You trust that learner who already knows that part will skim through and move on without giving up on your course.

Including specific learning targets at the beginning of each lesson will help your learner decide to keep reading or move on.

A Review of the Adult Learning Principles

  • Adults must want to learn
  • Adults will learn only what they feel they need to learn
  • Experience affects adult learning
  • Adults learn best in an informal situation
  • Adults want guidance and consideration as equal partners in the process

You likely recognize yourself in these principles.

Your Turn

Think about yourself as a learner. Can you find examples from your own learning experience that match with an adult learning principle or two? Jot down as many examples as you can think of.

Community Conversation

Next, join the community conversation in the comments of the video. Share one of your examples and how it connects to one of the principles. I look forward to reading your example.

Want More?

If you’re looking for more information on creating online course for adult learning, you might like some of these articles:

You can also download my free ebook Online Course Creation Made Easy: 25 Activities to Engage Your Online Learner.

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