The pandemic has transformed the way that educational entities and training providers deliver their courses and material. The way that people learn, however, has remained constant. Jaco de Klerk reports.

It is essential that training and education professionals understand the unique learning requirements of adult learners, says Sarah Cordiner, a qualified course creation specialist trusted by more than 20 000 course creators and educators in 146 countries. 

“The process of engaging adult learners in a learning experience is known as andragogy,” she explains on her website ( In her piece, “The 8 Fundamental Principles of Adult Learning That Every Course Creator and Training Professional Should Know”, she notes that the term “was originally used by Alexander Kapp (a German educator) in 1833, but was later developed into adult education by the American educator, Malcolm Knowles, who arguably stands as one of the most influential writers in this field.” 

She highlights the following core principles of adult learning: 


The first difference Knowles proposes is that adults are autonomous and self-directing, meaning that they live with a large degree of self-governance and according to their own laws, beliefs and values. 

They need to know the benefits, values and purposes of a learning programme. 

Learn by doing

Adults learn through direct experience; therefore, their training and learning interventions must include active and practical participation and offer implementable techniques and methodologies that will immediately improve their everyday lives. 


The content of a training programme must be meaningful and relevant to the adult learners, their lives and their business. They have to see clearly why and how this is important to them personally and how it applies to their lives. The immediate usefulness of the learning needs to be clearly understood.  


Adult learners need to be able to draw upon their past experiences to aid learning. Training needs to be contextualised to use language that they are familiar with. Relatable case scenarios and examples referring to their direct past life, work and social experiences should also be used to bring the meaning of the learning into their world as they understand it. 


Adult learners are often engaged in learning because a problem needs to be solved. Practising skills in a controlled environment allows them to grow self-efficacy in new tasks that prepare them to act autonomously outside of the learning environment.  

Personal development

The intrinsic personal desires and ambitions of an adult learner need to be considered when planning and delivering adult learning programmes. As learners get older, their reason for participation in learning programmes often moves from external drivers (such as getting a promotion) to internal drivers, like simply learning out of pure pleasure or interest in learning something new. 


Effective adult learning programmes allow for learner feedback and consultation. Adults need to feel as though they have a sense of responsibility, control and decision-making over their learning. They need to be involved in the planning, evaluation and consultation of the process to be fully on board with its successful execution. 

In terms of education, this requires flexibility of the learning situation, the learning programme and, most importantly, the educator, so as to actively involve the participants in a way that allows them to have a degree of control over what they do or, in fact, how much they learn. 

All of the senses

Adult learners need multi-sensory teaching methodologies. Learning interventions must have appropriately proportioned delivery techniques that meet the needs of audio, visual, reading or writing, kinaesthetic, dependent and independent learning preferences. 

Deb Calvert – president of the company People First Productivity Solutions – notes that, as children, we had no barriers to learning. “Everything was new and our primary focus in our work and play was to understand and make sense of the world around us,” she explains in her piece, “Six preferred learning styles for adults – Adapt your message for a better response” (published on 

“Over time, though, what we learned became a barrier to new learning. Once we think we ‘get it’ we stop trying to understand. And that’s only the short answer for why it’s more difficult to teach adults.” 

She reiterates Cordiner’s point that presenting information in a variety of ways can keep participants engaged. “What’s more, mixing up the style of delivery will ensure that everyone in a group is learning.” 

Calvert elaborates on the six perceptual modalities (preferred learning styles) of adults:

1) Visual. Visual learners need to see simple, easy-to-process diagrams or the written word. 

2) Aural. Aural learners need to hear something so that it can be processed. They may prefer to read aloud if presented with written material. They enjoy lecture format learning. 

3) Print. Print learners process information by writing it down. They take a lot of notes – notes that they may never look at again. 

4) Tactile. Tactile learners need to do something in order to learn it. They are likely to avoid written instructions and dive right into a hands-on attempt to work it out. 

5) Interactive. Interactive learners need to discuss learning concepts. Breakout discussions and question-and-answer formats support this type of learning. 

6) Kinaesthetic. Kinaesthetic learners learn through movement. Role playing and training exercises help. Giving people the flexibility to stand and move about the classroom also helps these learners. 

“It is useful for you to know your own preferred learning style. Your preferences will influence your delivery method, and you should be aware that what you would consider to be effective won’t be equally effective with others,” Calvert points out. 

“Knowing your style will help you consider mixing it up. It’s also a good practice, when feasible, to ask people what they prefer. Most adults can tell you exactly how they learn best, as well as what learning methods feel deadly dull to them.”  

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