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Planning for Adult Learning


Adult Learning Theory


     If you’ve read this site from the top of the menu bar, you know I love learning and sharing thoughts on learning with people.  I’ve studied the work of so many of the pros in this business that my head spins just thinking about the genius of people like Jack and Patti Phillips, Don Kirkpatrick, Dan Brown, Robert Gagné, Patricia Cranton, Thiagi (aka Sivasailam Thiagarajan), Judy Brown, David Krathwohl, Benjamin Bloom, David Merrill, Norman Gronlund and Malcolm Knowles.  All giants in the field of learning, and that’s not even close to 1% of the people that I could list here as influencing me and so many others.  Most of us can agree that there is very little new thinking in learning these days.  Since the days of Piaget, Vigotsky and even John Dewey, most of what we read now days is a modification of something someone else started.  Even the awesome Norman Gronlund just revised and organized student assessment techniques in a much better way.  And even Don Kirkpatrick just organized and systematized the evaluations that were being done.  And you should be very familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, so much so, that I probably will not even address it here, and note, Bloom’s Taxonomy as published in both the original 1956 version and the revised version published in 2001 are the work of teams of brilliant people.  But, it appears to me that one person actually plowed new ground and all by himself, that person is Malcolm Knowles.  Knowles is recognized now as the father of “adult learning”.  His books, “The Modern Practice of Adult Education”, “The Making of An Adult Educator: An Autobiographical Journey”, “The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species”, “Andragogy In Action: Applying Modern Principles Of Adult Education”, are essential reading for anyone wanting to really understand the adult learner.  There are plenty of books and research documents now available on adult learning theory, but it’s my opinion, Malcolm Knowles really created something new and critical here, that adults learn differently from children.  In the minds of many around the adult education field, andragogy and the name of Malcolm Knowles have become inextricably linked.  Let’s discuss what his adult learning theory is all about.  His staple that is generally regarded as the genesis of the thinking of adult learning is that adult learning is different from child learning as stated in his work “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy”.  The term andragogy was originally formulated by a German teacher, Alexander Kapp, in 1833. He used it to describe elements of Plato’s education theory. Andragogy (andr- meaning ‘man’) could be contrasted with pedagogy (paid- meaning ‘child’ and agogos meaning ‘leading’).  Kapp’s definition of the word had little scientific research or backing at the time, this was almost 200 years ago now, and was finally dropped from educator language. 

     Knowles institutionalized the term Andragogy, meaning the study of teaching adults.  Knowles developed four basic attributes of the adult learner in his early work.  For Knowles, andragogy is premised on at least four crucial assumptions about the characteristics of adult learners that are different from the assumptions about child learners on which traditional pedagogy is premised.  A fifth was added later.


1. Self-concept:  As a person matures his self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directed human being.

2. Experience:  As a person matures he accumulates a growing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasing resource for learning.

3. Readiness to learn.  As a person matures his readiness to learn becomes oriented increasingly to the developmental tasks of his social roles.

4. Orientation to learning.  As a person matures his time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application, and accordingly his orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.

5. Motivation to learn:  As a person matures the motivation to learn is internal which Knowles added to his original work in 1984. 















Behavioral, Cognitive, Humanist Aapproaches to Learning Theory


      Behavioral learning theorists believe that learning has occurred when you can see changes in behavior.  I happen to be one of these people.  If I can’t see a change in behavior, which might include a performance test or some other measure, then I personally am not sure you’ve learned.  The behavioral learning model learning is the result of conditioning.  The basis of conditioning is that a reward following a desirable response acts as a reinforcer and increases the likelihood that the desirable response will be repeated.  Reinforcement is the core of the behaviorist approach.  Continuous reinforcement in every instance of desirable behavior is useful when a behavior is being introduced.  Once a desired behavior is established, intermittent reinforcement maintains the behavior.  Behaviorist theory approaches are frequently used in weight loss, smoking cessation, assertiveness training, and anxiety-reduction programs.  The importance of regularly and consistently rewarding desired behavior immediately and not rewarding undesirable behavior is crucial to the success of a behaviorist approach to learning. Learning is broken down into small steps so that the person can be successful.  The teacher provides reinforcement at each step of the process.  Cognitive learning theorists believe that learning is an internal process in which information is integrated or internalized into one’s cognitive or intellectual structure.  Learning occurs through internal processing of information.  


      From the cognitive viewpoint, how new information is presented is important.  In the first, or cognitive phase of learning, the student learns the purpose of the learning event and the sequences involved.  In the second, or fixation learning phase, the learner begins to gain skill in performing the task.  Whether a physical task is learned as a whole or part by part depends on its complexity.  Each of these tasks can be practiced as a separate activity, then combined. In the last phase of learning, the automatic phase, the student gains increasing confidence and competence in performing the task.  If this sounds a lot like training, well, in my opinion, it is. 


      Humanist learning theorists view learning as a function of the whole person and believe that learning cannot take place unless both the cognitive and affective domains are involved.  The individual’s capacity for self-determination is an important part of humanist theory.  Humanism focuses on human freedom, dignity, and potential.  A central assumption of humanism is that people act with intentionality and within their existing value structures.  This is in contrast to the behaviorist notion of operant conditioning (discussed above - which argues that learned behavior is the result of the application of consequences, either positive or negative).  Humanists also believe that it is necessary to study the person as a whole, especially as an individual grows and develops over the lifespan. It follows that the study of the self, motivation, and goals are areas of particular interest.


      A primary purpose of humanism could be described as the development of self-actualized, autonomous people. In humanism, learning is student centered and personalized, and the educator’s role is that of a facilitator.  Affective and cognitive needs are key, and the goal is to develop self-actualized people in a cooperative, supportive environment.  And this is also part of my learning philosophy.  So you could say that as a theory of learning, I like to combine the Behaviorist and the Humanist theories for education and use the cognitivist theory for training.  Bear in mind that this is a simplistic view and before you try to employ any of these theories, you should do much more research.  I recommend this from my book shelf,  “Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective” by Dale H. Schunk.  The 6th edition of this seminal work was published in 2011. 


      There is much more to learning theory than I’ve even scratched the surface on here, but my purpose in addressing it briefly here was to simply introduce you to the ideas of Learning Theory.  Let’s move on to talking about instructional strategies as part of planning for learning.


Instructional Strategy


     I’ve built literally hundreds of lessons and courses in my time and have worked with more SMEs than I can remember.  I’m always amazed at how many SMEs want to dive right in to developing content.  This might be because they are “experts” or because they really didn’t want to help build a course anyway but were “ordered” to help.  Either way, I’ve found it critical to the success of a lesson or course to develop a sound instructional strategy during the DESIGN Phase of any ISD process. 


    So what is an instructional strategy and how and why do I need one?  That question itself sums up an instructional strategy, that is, what is to be taught, how will it be taught and why will it be taught that way.   An instructional strategy serves Three Functions:

      1.   Justification and rationale of design decisions.

      2.  Keeps development efforts focused.

      3.  Provides designer’s intent to instructors (who may not be part of the curriculum development process).


And as I said, a good instructional strategy answers the questions of:  What, How, and Why.

     What Will Be Covered ?

     How Will These Be Covered ?

     Why Present It This Way ?


As you build your instructional strategy, be sure to address these critical questions:

Why are these main points (or lessons) being taught?


     What other significant decisions were made about the lesson(s) development? Why?
     What main points or lessons will be included?

     How will these main points or lessons be covered?

     Why you are approaching them in this manner?


You may need to also address these variable questions to provide a complete picture of the instructional strategy.

What is the lesson (or course) about?



     How long is the lesson (or course)?

     What method of instruction will you use? Lecture, Case Study, eLearning, Immersive Learning?

     Why is the lesson (or course) important?

     What is main point 1 (include sub points) or Lesson 1 if a complete course?

     How will you cover main point 1 or Lesson 1?

     Why is this the first main point or lesson presented?

     What is main point 2 (include sub points) or Lesson 2?

     How will you cover main point 2 or Lesson 2?
     Why is this the second main point or second lesson in the curriculum?

     Repeat for additional main points or lessons as necessary to complete the curriculum.


     I’ve found it useful to build a simple “4X4” table to complete the strategy draft.  This can easily be converted into a fluid paragraph once the table is filled in.  With practice, you won’t even need to use the table, you’ll just automatically think in terms of WHAT AM I TEACHING, HOW WILL I TEACH IT, and WHY AM I TEACHING IT THIS WAY.






     The what is pretty simple, the SMEs can readily provide the “what”.  The more complex part is how it will be covered and why present it to the students in a particular way.  Remember that there are 5 patterns of communication used to inform and 3 to persuade. 








    All of these methods work well, depending on the content you are developing.  For example, within a chronological pattern you can have a sub pattern of General to Specific, or perhaps, Least Important to Most Important. 


Learning Styles


     As part of your lesson or course development, you also need to consider the learning styles of your audience.  You should have a good idea of the type of students you have from doing a detailed learner analysis back in the analysis phase of the project.  That analysis will now serve you well as you consider the learning styles of your prospective students. 


    It has long been recognized that students have preferred learning styles.  It withstands the logic test to say that if we agree learning styles exist, then the more we can accommodate those styles in our curriculum development and teaching, the better the student is likely to learn.  In their simplest form, learning styles establish singular preferred ways that people prefer to learn. Everyone has a mix of learning styles and normal people can learn in a variety of styles, but we generally have one, innate preferred style.  Some students may find that they have a clearly prevailing style of learning, with much less use for the other styles.  Still other students may excel in using different styles in different circumstances.  There is no perfect or “correct” style or mix or styles.


    Instructors have used learning styles in the classroom for well over 40 years, but using learning styles to develop curriculum is a relatively new approach.  Traditional learning used (and continues to use) mainly auditory and visual teaching methods.  It also uses a limited range of learning and teaching techniques.  So much instruction in use today still relies on classroom and book-based teaching, student repetition, and high pressure exams for reinforcement and review and measures of success.  And unfortunately, student testing is usually an afterthought in teaching and not part of a systematic curriculum development effort.  This creates a labeling for both the “brightest” and “slowest” students.  And this labeling seems to always result in unintended consequences. 


    The first step in developing curriculum based on learning styles is to analyze your audience.  However, unless you have a truly homogenius student population, this will not get you far.  Most student populations are generally hetreogenius when it comes to learning styles so the question then becomes, How can I accommodate all the various learning styles?  It boils down to developing curriculum that is attractive to a variety of learning styles, rather than just a single style.  Let’s look at the commonly accepted learning styles. 


        Visual - also called spatial:  This learner prefers using pictures, images, and spatial understanding. 
                      Some research estimates that as high as 70% of the US population are visual learners.

        Aural - also called auditory:  This learner prefers learning using sound and music.

        Verbal - also called linguistic:  This learner prefers using words, both in speech and writing.

        Physical - also called kinesthetic:  This learner prefers using your body, hands and sense of touch.

        Logical - also called mathematical:  This learner prefers  using logic, reasoning and systems.

        Social - also called interpersonal:  This learner prefers to learn in groups using the interaction of other people to
                     clarify and expand the learning activity.

        Solitary - also called intrapersonal:  This learner prefers to work alone and use self-study.


    It’s important to note that understanding your personal learning style is important as you begin to develop curriculum.  Your innate learning style will inadvertently drive your curriculum development.  You are very likely to develop curriculum that you would be comfortable delivering and receiving.  If you are developing curriculum as part of a team and if all of the team members share the same learning style, it’s very likely that a particular learning style will drive the curriculum development effort.  


    To help you understand your personal learning style, I recommend taking one of the many free on-line learning style assessments readily avaliable on the internet.  Just be careful about entering personal information and that includes your email.  Bear in mind that many of these “free” assessments are marketing ploys to get your contact info.  When I find one of these that I’m particularly interested in, I’ll set up a free “hotmail” or “Ymail” account just to get through the hoops, then delete the email account later.  I never give out my “real” email to these marketeers. 


    We’ll get into the “right brain” vs “left brain” discussion a little later, but for now, there is significant research that points to each learning style using a different part of the brain.  By involving more of the brain during learning, we retain more of what we learn.  Researchers using brain-imaging technologies have been able to determine the key areas of the brain responsible for each learning style.


     So the bottom line here is, be aware of the various learning styles as you develop curriculum.  Don’t fall into the trap of developing curriculum only based on your personal learning style, vary the methodologies and your curriculum will be more interesting and better received by your students.

Delivery Methodology


     After we’ve developed our curriculum, it’s time to  turn our attention to delivery methodologies.  It’s important to realize that the surest way to kill your students (and your program) is death by powerpoint.  While PowerPoint is a terrrific visual medium, it has unfortunately turned into the standard in so many classrooms where instructors end up reading the slide content rather than actually interacting with students and really teaching them the content.  Let’s review the basic methods of teaching. 


     Let’s begin by looking at the most overused, albeit easiest to use teaching method; the lecture.  Lectures come in two flavors, Formal and Informal.  The formal lecture works best for large groups of more than 30 or so.  The problem with a formal lecture is there is no active participation by the students so the learning experience is passive for the students.  This translates to very little retention unless the subject and the speaker are extraordinarily interesting and entertaining.  On the plus side, it’s a great way to present many facts or ideas in a short time and it’s particularly suited for introducing subjects to new students.  Lectures are the generally used method when organizations are faced with getting a lot of time sensitive information out to a large group of employees. 


     The informal lecture is usually best for smaller groups under 30 or so.  This size group lends itself more to verbal interaction between the instructor and students to allow for some questions between the instructor and the students.  The delivery style is more conversational than formal lecture and is more suited for adult learners.


     The teaching interview (TI) is a personal favorite of mine when I’m not a subject expert on the subject I’m teaching.  We are geared mentally to the teaching interview as we see them routinely on television, everywhere from the Tonight Show, to Oprah to Ellen DeGeneres.  They all use the “teaching interview” technique with great success.  Let’s break a teaching interview down into what makes it successful.  First, it’s a controlled conversation aimed at achieving specific objectives.  In the case of the aforementioned TV shows, the objective is to entertain or disseminate information on a particular topic.  In our training, education or learning situations, our objective is a more formally prepared and stated learning objective.  The TI then pairs a skilled instructor with a recognized expert in a given field.  I have been both the teacher and the “expert” on various occasions, depending on what the subject is.  The instructor uses questions to draw out knowledge and understanding from the expert.  And keep in mind, none of us are experts on everything, so it’s a great idea to draw on the experts we know for the areas we may not have the most expertise.  This method also shares the teaching responsibility between two experts, a teaching expert and a content expert.  In the TI, the teaching expert guides and controls the interview by asking planned and spontaneous questions.  The subject expert is relieved of the responsibility of planning a presentation, other than coordinating with the teaching expert.  This also allows the teacher to solicit questions from the students for the expert, allowing more interaction (and thus retention of the information) between expert and students.


     The primary method used for “training” is the Demonstration Performance (DP) method.  This is the proven method for teaching mental or physical skills that require student practice for skill mastery.  The DP method is based on the principle that students learn best by doing.  The instructor presents the process at least once, perhaps several times depending on the complexity of the skill being presented.  Students then practice a sufficient number of times to master the skill, then are tested by the instructor. 


     An outstanding technique for reaching higher up the cognitive taxonomy is the Guided Discussion (GD).  The GD is an instructor-controlled group process in which students share information and experiences to achieve a learning objective.  A skilled instructor guides a discussion by using planned and spontaneous questions structured to lead the discussion in a particular direction.  (And no, you cannot write down your spontaneous questions in your lesson plan.  I say this with a smile because I once had a student do this and it was clear he was not sure what the defintion of “spontaneous” was.)  It’s important for the instructor to query all students and to manage the flow of communication among all students.  The instructor’s questioning and summarizing skills are critical to ensuring all students meet the learning objective. 


     My personal all-time favorite teaching method is the Case Study (CS).  The CS presents students with real life challenges geared to achieving a defined lesson objective.  Case studies bridge the gap between theory and practice by using a real world situation that focuses on previously learned information.  They can be one of the most flexible teaching approaches to achieve higher level learning objectives.  They are not recommended for large classes as they are most effective when all students have a chance to participate verbally.  They are not recommended where students are learning a procedure or a single solution nor for knowledge level lessons.  I’m often asked, “where do I get a case study?”  Sometimes it’s easy to write your own case, but there are clearing houses on line that offer free case studys as well as multiple other sources.  No matter where your case comes from, Harvard Business School or your own brain, the key is to make sure the case matches the lesson objective.  Cases are most often written documents that students study before the class, sometimes they are video clips from a movie or even from YouTube.  Once the students have been sufficiently exposed to the content, the instructor presents the case elements, typically on a dry erase board, chart paper or similar visual medium.  This can even be on a computer screen that the instructor can write on and project onto a screen for the students to follow along.  After appropriate lesson setup as with any lesson, the instructor asks probing questions related to the case elements as displayed.  Student responses are recorded by the instructor.  Students love seeing their input on the “big screen”. There are two primary CS formats:  a process case and a product case.  A process case is just as the name implies, used to teach a particular process.  The process can be most anything as long as it’s clearly explained to the students and they have the opportunity to participate in the CS. 


     As I said, there are two types of cases, the process case and the product case.  For a process case, the process might be how to: close a loan at a bank, develop a vaccine, write a term paper, rebuild a carburator or most anything where a defined process is used.  The learning objective is simply to master the process.  Sometimes, once the process is mastered, the students move into a product case using the newly learned process, but this is not always the case nor is it always even appropriate.  The product case is used to reach a very specific learning objective.  In a product case, the steps are variable and up to the curriculum developer as a way to reach a predetermined lesson objectives.  For example, if the lesson objective is for the students to “understand” (Bloom’s revised taxonomy, 2001) the necessity for leadership in adverse situations.  The case steps might be something like:  Planning, Competence, Caring for People, and Use of Resources.  These categories would guide the discussion by the instructor as the students arrive at the predetermined lesson objective of the “necessity for leadership in adverse situations.  There are countless examples from movies that could be used for this.  For example, war movies are great for showing leadership.  My favorites are 12 O’clock High, Gettysburg and Tora, Tora, Tora.




























     We have discussed methodologies that generally range from least effective, and easiest to develop and deliver, to the most effective and most difficult to develop and deliver.  Let’s wrap up this primer by covering the most complex and often the most engaging for the student, the Immersive Learning (IL) method.


     Immersive Learning has many names:  experiential, games, gamification, adventure learning, action learning, and active learning.  You can read more about games and gamificaiton on the “games and gamification” page.  Each of these terms has their own unique definition but for our purposes, I will subsume them all under the heading of Immersive Learning.  Immersive Learning introduces interaction and challenge not associated with other lessons.  Both adults and children enjoy and benefit from this method as IL maintains student attention and motivation by providing a diversion from the normal lecture and getting the students involved.  IL can reinforce information already learned or new information in a non-threatening learning environment.  The key difference in more advanced IL lessons is that there are consequences for negative responses by the students.  This doesn’t mean they get an electrical shock, (but it might J) but rather there are some negative consequences for negative responses.  This is often done in a points or rewards system.  Think of the television show, Jeopardy.  Participants win money with correct answers but face negative consequences by providing an incorrect answer, that is, they lose money.  Occasionally, participants end up in the most dire of negative situations and win no money.  I’ve often thought that if they were in the negative category, they should have to pay the program for their errors.  And that philosophy can carry over into developing IL lessons.  If students continually fail to grasp the material, there should be some significant consequences for their failure.  I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to how to implement that.  But, I’d like to hear your ideas at  


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