Lessons Learned From An Adult Learner

Who's Fault

“Andragogy is a learning theory that is designed to address the particular needs of adults, and it is based on the idea that there are significant differences in learning characteristics between children and adults (Knowles, 1980).”

What is the most significant difference in learning characteristics between children and adults? Adults can exercise their right not to learn anything from you. Period.

This was the hard lesson I learned from one of the adult learners during implementation of my second ADDIE-inspired instructional design system. The scope was to develop a training program that teaches the parents of adult children with Autism Spectrum Disorder how to find gainful employment resources and supports for their child. After meeting with my client twice to assess what should be taught and the recommended best method for the training program, I decided upon the systematic “instructivist” approach to instructional design.

This means I set goals with performance objectives, then developed the training program around:

  • what was to be taught;
  • when;
  • where; and
  • how.

After my client approved my draft, with requested modifications, I assumed my instructional design was ready and I set off to implement the training with feelings of increased self-efficacy, self-assurance, and confidence. I thought I was going to nail this one for sure.

But, what I learned from reviewing an evaluation after delivering the first module was –  I should have taken a different approach.

The Adult Learner: Respect is the Name of Their Game

In her study, Characteristics of Adult Learners with Implications for Online Learning Design, Kathleen Cercone (2008) notes that instructional designers must gain an understanding of the philosophy and psychology of adult learners before designing training for them. Cercone warns that, since learning is about change, instructional designers must carefully consider how to convince adults why they should change before asking them to do so. To prove her point, Cercone explored the five commonly accepted assumptions attributed to andragogy based on studies by Stephen Lieb (1991).

Andragogy Assumption #1: Adults are autonomous and self-directed.

First, Cercone explored the assumption that adult learners value their independence and that they prefer autonomous, self-reliant and self-directed learning. Cercone supported this assumption with studies conducted by Frey and Alman that found instructional designs, delivery and materials must lead to what an adult learner would consider as a meaningful experience (Frey & Alman, 2003). Cercone wrote that most adults were educated using the old dependent ‘sage on stage” behaviorists approach where their role was to be willing recipients of knowledge from an instructor usually imparted via lectures and worked-out examples. Therefore, she explained, the instructional designer’s first task is to convince adult learners to “move” from being a vessel into accepting responsibility for a new learning experience. In her study’s Appendix, Cercone advises this can be accomplished by actively involving the student during the instruction as opposed to reinforcing their old habits of simply following directions during the learning process (Cercone, 2008). (Oops.)

Andragogy Learning Assumption #2: Adults bring experiential experiences to the table that demand respect.

Cercone explored the second assumption by advising instructional designers to understand that adults bring knowledge, skills, and lessons learned from past events and experiences (“relevant schemata”) that must be respected during the learning process (Cercone, 2008). She referenced studies by Knowles (2009) that found it is important to recognize, acknowledge and value this “experiential learning” because it enables the adult learner to use what they already know (Knowles, 1989) to process and encode new knowledge. In her Appendix, Cercone advises this can be accomplished by integrating dramaturgical presentations throughout the instructional design that enable adult learners to share and reflect upon past experiences and how the outcomes may have been enhanced or increased if they had possessed the skills and knowledge learned during the current training program (Cercone, 2008).

Andragogy Learning Assumption #3: Adults are goal-oriented.

While exploring the third assumption, Cercone advises instructional designers must prepare an adult learner to learn by connecting instruction to a personal learning goal or benefit. Cercone again referenced studies by Knowles (Knowles, 1989) that suggests adult learners usually know what they want to learn before training begins. Lieb also advises that adults need to see an applicable reason for learning what is being taught before they can say that training has relevance (Lieb, 1991). In her Appendix, Cercone advises instructional designers meet both challenges by establishing a direct link between the learning goals and objectives using a pre-assessment that would help determine what increased “quality of life”  benefit a learner might attain as a result of the training. Cercone advises this would increase the probability that the adult learner will be eager and willing to participate and learn when training begins (Cercone, 2008).

Andragogy Learning Assumption #4: Adults are relevancy-oriented.

Cercone explored assumption four by referencing work by Merriam and Caffarella that argues adults are more problem-centered than subject-centered (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 272). Cercone explained this means instructional designers must ensure training design emphasizes and/or reinforces what the adult learners are expected to learn throughout and how this learning will help them solve a current and pressing problem in their lives. In her Appendix, Cercone advises this can be accomplished by repeatedly referring to problem-solving during instruction and extending that to include group problem-solving activities followed by acknowledgments that the group’s normative solutions will indeed help solve that problem (Cercone, 2008).

Andragogy Learning Assumption #5: Adults are practical grown-ups.

Finally, Cercone explored the fifth assumption that adults want the WIFM (What’s In It For Me) factor aligned with personality characteristics. She referenced Merriam and Caffarella who advocates this may be the need for adults to feel comfortable and safe in their environments (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 272). Cercone also referenced Lieb who advocates that adults may be looking for opportunities to self-reflect on their personal experiences and/or opinions as a means of self-validation (Lieb, 1991). Thankfully, in her Appendix, Cercone advises instructional designers can meet both needs by including opportunities to engage adult learners in constative activities that allow them to:

  • Test the truth of their assumptions compared to what is being taught;
  • Participate in group normative normative discussions that allow them to test their new and old knowledge by bouncing it off their peers to determine if what they think they know aligns with societal and collective thinking;
  • Provide opportunities for self-reflective (dramaturgical expressions) for self-validation that they now know what they should know (Cercone, 2008).

Lesson learned?

The learner’s evaluation of my first workshop clearly indicates that I had not considered these assumptions while designing my second program. As a result, the hard lesson I learned was, it did not matter that a second adult learner responded that she felt the information provided was useful and that she could use it in the future. The fact was that another adult learner felt that I had not valued what she already knew and that I had failed to respect her past experience means the instructional design was only an “event” for her that did not represent a “new learning” experience. (Not good.) As a result, she indicated in her evaluation that the information provided during training was pretty much old news and was not useful or relevant for her. Knowing what I know now, I have to agree.

Experience is a powerful teacher.  That evaluation inspired me to recognize that the constructivist approach is more suited for creating and implementing instructional design systems targeted toward adult learners.  I also learned I should always include components that enable adult learners to share and express experiental knowledge and experiences.

What that adult learner taught me was that I should take extra precautions in the future to ensure I do not to run the risk of not meeting an adult learner entrusted to me within their zones of proximity (Vygotsky, 1978).

This hard-earned lesson also taught me to recheck and validate that my instructional designs can be preceived as efficient, effective, productive and relevant by all learners by insisting upon a pre-needs assessment before I develop training goals and objectives for my training programs.

Thank you, Lady.  I got it.


Cercone, K. (2008). Characteristics of Adult Learners with Implications for Online Learning Design. AACE Journal, 2(16), 137-159. Retrieved from https://wit.edu/sites/default/files/article_24286%20(1).pdf

Frey, B. A., & Alman, S. W. (2003). Applying Adult Learning Theory to the Online Classroom. New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 17(1), 4-12. doi:10.1002/nha3.10155

Guglielmino, L. M. (1992). Merriam, Sharon B., and Caffarella, Rosemary S. (1991). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Adult Education Quarterly, 42(3), 198-199. doi:10.1177/074171369204200310

Lieb, S. (1991). Principles of Adult Learning (Doctoral dissertation, South Mountain Community College). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0ahUKEwjm69O5xsDVAhVK7SYKHXa-DxkQFggrMAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.life-slc.org%2Flearningprinciples%2FPrinciples_of_Adult_Learning.pdf&usg=AFQjCNHlzuzCHWwKvFIPfmVo_XAjh0bqYQ

Smith, M. K. (2002). infed.org | Malcolm Knowles, informal adult education, self-direction and andragogy. Retrieved from http://infed.org/mobi/malcolm-knowles-informal-adult-education-self-direction-and-andragogy/

Tiedeman, D. V. (1979). Book Reviews: Malcolm Knowles, The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (Second Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Co., 1978. 244 + x pp. Educational Researcher, 8(3), 20-22. doi:10.3102/0013189×008003020

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. From: Mind and Society (pp.79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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