Don’t forget Malcolm’s adult learning principles

Practical tips for applying adult learning principles to elearning

You are busy with your elearning module, taking into account the budget and planning, making sure that the graphic design is appealing and the navigation works well. But did you think about Malcolm?

Adults learners differ from children when it comes to learning. Adults come with (life and work) experience and they want the learning to be practical and relevant to their workplace. Malcolm Knowles (USA, 1913-1997) recognised the differences and developed his 6 adult learning principles in the 70’s that are still valid to date. These principles help us to understand the adult learner and improve our instructional design for adult courses.

The question is how we can apply the adult learning principles to elearning. Below I will give you tips on how to apply Malcolm Knowles’ principles in your next elearning course.

1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed

Give the learner control over their elearning course. Let them choose how to navigate through the content as much as possible. Give them the option to go back and forth as often as they would like.

Encourage the learner to be an active learner by adding case studies or workplace issues they need to solve before they can continue to the next chapter. Ensure that these case studies cover the information provided in that chapter. This will prevent the learner from clicking through to the end without absorbing any information.

2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge

Customise the elearning module to the individual learner by using an assessment at the start of the course or chapter. Based on the outcomes, the learner then only needs to spend time on the content they are not familiar with. This is a perfect way to respect their knowledge and life experiences, while cutting the time spent on training.

Ask the learner to read or watch a scenario at the start of the course, followed by a question. Provide a free text box for their answer. This shows respect for their experience and draws on their existing knowledge. At the end of the course, you show them the same scenario and their previous answer, asking if they have changed their opinion based on the course. You could, for example, use this in WHS training or non-conscious bias training.

3. Adults are goal oriented

Define clear learning objectives at the start of your elearning course. The learner wants to know “What’s in it for me?” Encourage the learner to take the course by providing practical examples of learning outcomes: how would this course help them to improve their performance?

Provide feedback to the learner. This will help them to understand when they are reaching their goal. The feedback option in your authoring tool gives you the possibility to provide valuable feedback with every answer. Not just correct, incorrect or please try again, but you can offer the learner an extra moment to learn from their mistake. Even if they pick the right answer immediately, it will give you the opportunity to reinforce their learning.

And why not give them the thumbs up, their score and/or cheering characters at the end of the elearning course?

4. Adults are relevancy oriented

Add real life examples or scenarios to your elearning course to show the relevancy of the content. This could be done by storytelling, with or without audio or video. This will show the relevancy for your learner (and make it more interesting).

Use images from the workplace or try to find stock photos that match the work environment. You could use characters combined with a workplace background to set the scene.

Cut out the ‘nice to know’. It can be hard and might require some discussion with your client, but only include the ‘need to know’. Your learners will love you for it.

5. Adults are practical

Give them activities! Let the learner apply their gained knowledge and practise new skills. You could use ‘assist buttons’ linking to extra resources if they need more information. These activities will give them the confidence they can apply their knowledge in the workplace.

Provide tips on how to apply their knowledge in the workplace. You could use an avatar who gives practical tips throughout the course.

6. Adult learners like to be respected

Make sure your course is visually appealing for adults and that the navigation is self-explaining. Take in consideration the language, literacy and numeracy levels of your learners when designing the course. Some learner groups might need more explanation or a different approach.

By applying Malcolm Knowles’ 6 principles for adult learning to your next elearning project, you’re on the right track to improve the engagement of your adult learners. Please be aware that these principles are not only useful for elearning but can be used for any adult learning design.

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