How Adults Learn Best


Diversity is now a given in large, medium and small businesses in every sector, all over the world. And because globalization and diversity engender and support each other, to say one is working in a both global and diverse environment is redundant. To address the importance of diversity, many multi-national organizations, large and small, have engaged their employees in cultural competency and inclusiveness training with varying degrees of success. These programs usually share similar course objectives, theoretical frameworks, definitions, analogies and models. However, the way these programs are delivered to adult audiences is just as important as their content.

Malcolm Knowles, considered the father of today’s adult learning field, put forth the theory of “andragogy,” which emphasizes that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions. Therefore, according to Knowles, adult-learning programs must accommodate these fundamental facets. 

Knowles posited that adult learners:

  • Need to know why they have to learn something
  • Learn experientially
  • Approach learning as a problem-solving endeavor
  • Learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

In practical terms, andragogy means that instruction for adults needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Instructors do best to act as a resource or adopt the role of facilitator, rather than act as a lecturer or grader. They should introduce pedagogical content in short bursts, starting a new and different activity or subject approximately every nine to 11 minutes; introduce theories of intelligence, including emotional intelligence and “multiple intelligences”; and concentrate on learning conditions, that is, the environment in which learning takes place. Making use of case studies and interactive learning exercises such as role-playing, simulations, games, scenarios, skits, discussions, interactive media vignettes and self-evaluation is also effective.

Companies do well to recognize the importance of providing employees with cultural competency and inclusiveness training. However, those delivering sessions need to think about the specific ways adults learn best in order to better tailor their courses to today’s adult learners.  

Cheryl Williams