Want Better Training Outcomes? Let Learners Take the Lead

Workplace training isn’t usually a magnet for excited learners. Most people attend because their boss forwarded them an email from the L&D department with a note saying, “Go to this.” Then comes the employee’s eyeroll and thoughts of, “How can I get the TPS report finished AND do this training?” How do we engage reluctant learners so they leave our classes armed with knowledge and skills they want to apply to their job?

Understanding more about how lesson design supports adult learners is a great place to start. Let’s look at a theory of adult learning and how it can be used to engage learners and improve performance.

How Do Adults Learn?

Much of what we know about adult learning, or andragogy, began with Malcolm Knowles’s assumptions, originally published in the 1970s. Even though Knowles was hardly the first person to conceive andragogy, his name became synonymous with the field. In Learning in Adulthood (2020), Merriam and Baumgartner describe Knowles’s assumptions: 

  1. Adults are more self-directed learners (compared to children)
  2. Adults have experience that forms a basis for learning
  3. Adults need to be involved in planning and evaluation of learning
  4. Adults want to solve a specific problem, right now
  5. Adults need to know how the information will help them
  6. Internal motivation drives learning more than external motivation

Applying to Training

How can we apply these assumptions to training and create a learning environment that encourages engagement, even from the most reluctant learners?

  • Let the learner take the lead. Generally, adults have developed a higher degree of autonomy, compared to children. Christopher Pappas suggests limiting the amount of time you spend talking to the class. Provide opportunities for hands-on practice, interactive activities, and discussion to encourage engagement.
  • Know your learners’ experience and build on it. Consider two things related to experience: First, what do learners know? Then, how can you build on that existing knowledge? Adult learners bring their own, differing experiences. Take that into account as you design. Relate new material to something they already know, and the learner will connect with the new material more easily.
  • Get learners involved in training design. Adults are more engaged when they have a stake in what they’re learning. Roundtable learning suggests getting learner opinions while developing the training. After each session, ask participants to complete evaluations. Implement changes based on their feedback—and don’t forget to tell them you did!
  • Demonstrate how the learning is relevant. Adult learners need to quickly and easily see what problem your training is helping them solve. As early as possible, tell them. Explain exactly what the training is helping them do, and how they’re going to do it. Provide real-world scenarios that demonstrate the skill or concept you’re teaching, as Roundtable Learning suggests.
  • Support motivating factors. As Merriam & Baumgartner pointed out, adults need to know why they’re doing something. Connecting to a task and explaining how this training solves a problem is one facet. Take things a step farther and explain what each lecture, activity, and exercise helps them accomplish. 

It is important to note that these are Knowles’s “assumptions.” As David Cotton points out in his article Essentials of Training Design, these assumptions represent an ideal learner. We want self-directed learners who are ready to learn and participate because they want to. What we usually get are reluctant learners, who may be interested in what we have to say, but have competing demands on their time. These suggestions are ways to cater to adults in a single training experience. However, a wider application of Knowles’s assumptions can promote even greater self-directed learning. 

Self-Directed Learning:
How Learners Take the Wheel

Roger Hiemstra, scholar and founder of the International Society of Self-Directed Learning, explained in a 2003 article that Knowles turned his ideas into “a teaching and learning guide” to promote self-directed learning, or SDL. As Heimstra notes, [VS1] this method puts learners in control of what they learn, when, and how. Trainers are no longer the source of all information. Instead, they become facilitators who guide learners on their journey. SDL can be applied in a wide variety of situations, but for this method to work, instructors need to create an environment that supports it.

A group of medical educators developed a curriculum using Knowles’s assumptions. Their goal was to help pediatric residents deliver primary care in the office setting. Each week, residents received an email with learning material requiring 10-15 minutes of independent study. At the end of the week, residents gathered for a 15-minute discussion about how to apply the information in a clinical setting. The educators also created a steering committee of resident doctors to ensure each module contained relevant and clinically accurate information . Already, we can see how each of Knowles’s assumptions have been applied to this training:

Self-direction Residents are free to complete coursework whenever, wherever they choose. They have the option to explore the topic more on their own.
ExperienceResidents have likely seen these cases before and can relate the module to a real-world experience.
InvolvementThe steering committee is comprised of residents in the program, making them responsible for their own learning program.
Need to KnowEach week’s topic relates to common illnesses or medical scenario residents encounter during practice.
MotivationResidents are internally motivated by the desire to provide better care. It is easy to see how each module relates to their work.

After nearly a year, the educators found that about half the residents used the learning management system (LMS) to access the modules. Residents were not always able to complete pre-work assignments prior to discussion sessions because of the need to see patients. Despite that, residents actively participated during discussion sessions, and reported that they “liked the LMS,” “appreciated” multiple content formats, and said the topics aligned with what they encountered during practice. Residents also self-evaluated that they knew more after the program, than when the program began. Educators concluded that relying on Knowles alone was not enough to get the desired outcome. Sometimes addressing factors outside the training environment, like providing time to complete the work, is needed.


Adult learning theory: Applications for independent learning. (n.d.) Roundtable Learning. https://roundtablelearning.com/independentlearning/

Cotton, D. (2014). Essentials of training design part 5: Adult learning theories and design. Training Journal, 2014(May), 22-27. https://libproxy.boisestate.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.boisestate.edu/trade-journals/essentials-training-design-part-5-adult-learning/docview/202947344/se-2?accountid=9649

Hiemstra, R. (2003). More than three decades of self-directed learning: From whence have we come? American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, 14(4), 5-8. https://doi.org/10.1177/104515950301400402

Hiemstra, R. (2013). Self-directed learning: Why do most instructors still do it wrong? International Journal of Self-Directed Learning, (10),1, 23-34. https://6c02e432-3b93-4c90-8218-8b8267d6b37b.filesusr.com/ugd/dfdeaf_e996f035b2094c38a1492317121bacf1.pdf

Loeng, S. (2018). Various ways of understanding the concept of andragogy. Cogent Education(5), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/2331186X.2018.1496643

Merriam, S. B., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2020). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (4th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Nicklas, D., Lane, J., Hanson, J. (2019). If you build it, will they come? A hard lesson for enthusiastic medical educators developing a new curriculum. Journal of Graduate Medical Education, 11(6), 685-690. https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-19-00246.1 Pappas, C. (2014, August 15). 9 tips to apply adult learning theory to eLearning. eLearning Industry.https://elearningindustry.com/9-tips-apply-adult-learning-theory-to-elearning