Malcolm Knowles released his book The Modern Practice of Adult Education in 1970—but the lessons we can learn from there are still as relevant as ever.

In this post, we’ll look at how we can leverage adult learning theory to create eLearning courses that are designed specifically for the mind of an adult trainee.


One particularly pertinent lesson in Knowles’s book focuses on what is known as Andragogy, which is a model of assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners.

Rooted in humanistic psychology, Andragogy examines a more autonomous adult learner who is focused on growth and improvement.

There are six basic dimensions of Andragogy:

Self-concept: As people mature, they move being a dependent personality toward being more self-directed.

Experience: As people mature, they amass a growing set of experiences that provide a fertile resource for learning.

Readiness to learn: As people mature, they are more interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their jobs or personal lives.

Orientation to learning: As people mature, their time perspective changes from gathering knowledge for future use to immediate application of knowledge. As such, adult learners become more problem-centered rather than subject-centered.

Motivation to learn: As people mature, they become more motivated by various internal incentives, such as need for self-esteem, curiosity, desire to achieve, and satisfaction of accomplishment.

Relevance: As people mature, they need to know why they need to learn something. Furthermore, because adults manage other aspects of their lives, they are capable of directing or, at least, assisting in the planning and implementation of their own learning.

When these dimensions are factored into eLearning courses, adult learners benefit. Not only do they help present material that is more relevant and interesting, but it also speaks to their inner motivators for learning.


In 1975, Knowles came out with a second book, called Self-Directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers. In this piece, he expands upon the importance of self-direction in an adult learning experience.

In eLearning, we know that self-direction is often essential. The learner is in charge of moving through a course. But how can we provide more opportunities for adults to take the lead in their trainings?

Use branched scenarios. When learners have the ability to make choices and learn from their actions within courses, they are employing self-direction.

For example: Say you’re training your team how to handle a sales call with an international client. In their culture training, letting the learner choose different responses and seeing the impact on the international client is a more involved way to teach—rather than, say, just informing the learner of what cultural norms are.

Let learners self-pace. When they have the power to decide when to pause or to keep moving through material, they are self-directing (rather than having to stay with a group, like in a classroom setting).

Encourage self-assessment. Quizzes throughout an eLearning course (instead of just at the end) help adult learners gauge their progress as they move through concepts and lessons. Make sure that there are opportunities for learners to follow-up on areas where they need extra practice once they spot weaknesses through self-assessment.

Adult Learning Theory: Lessons in Learning

With just a few very basic lessons pulled from Knowles’s research, you can create an eLearning course that adult learners can appreciate.

For more reading on Adult Learning Theory, you can check out this fact sheet.