Table of Contents

What is Adult Learning?

Have you ever put together a really good training program and then wondered what made it so good? What was it about your training program that you wish you could bottle and pour out into your next training program, and the training program after that?

Having a solid foundation on the principles that can make your training programs consistently effective is one of the most fundamental things you can do as someone in the field of learning.

Welcome to the third year of the Train Like You Listen podcast. This year we’re going to change the podcast up from time to time. For example, take this week – I’ve recorded a short podcast (without a guest), sharing some thoughts on what “adult learning” is and why it’s important (hint: it holds many of the principles that can help make your training program consistently effective).

Next month, you’ll find another, different, format. It’ll be February, so why not create a series of love letter-like podcasts for specific elements in the field of learning?

Don’t worry, we’ll still be bringing some guests into the podcast room from time to time so you can hear a variety of perspectives as well.

So what is “adult learning” and why do you want to integrate principles of adult learning into your training? Without further ado, here is the first podcast of 2022…


Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I am your host. I’m the Co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning. And today I don’t have a guest – it’s just me. And I’m going to be talking a little bit about adult learning today. 

Before I go any further though, I want you to know that Train Like You Listen is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that helps take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing a live, instructor-led training. In about five minutes it takes care of that stuff. So basically you tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people will attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what are your learning objectives, and then Soapbox does the rest. It instantly generates a training plan for you with clusters of training activities that are designed to help you accomplish the learning outcomes that you set for your training program. For more information on that, visit

What is Adult Learning Theory?

All right. So, today we are talking about adult learning theory. And what is it? And so basically adult learning theory is a theory that says, “Learners are most likely to succeed when certain criteria are met.” What are those criteria? Well, first of all, making sure that the content is relevant. Secondly, offering content or strategies that help solve a problem. And thirdly, when possible or appropriate, the learning should be self-directed or self-driven as well. Now that doesn’t always happen in practice.

Adults Learning

In fact, a lot of times, as a supervisor, you will need to recommend that somebody takes a certain learning program or somebody else will need to kind of guide somebody and direct them to what they’re learning. But basically, adult learning theory is talking about relevant content. It’s talking about content or strategies that solve a problem. And maybe it’s self-directed as well. 

What Does Adult Learning Theory Look Like in Practice?

What does this look like in practice? It’s one thing to talk about theory, and we can talk about that all day. There’s plenty of things online – debates about andragogy versus pedagogy, or even how you pronounce some of those things. 

But let’s talk about adult learning. And basically what we want to know is: what does it look like? I’m going to give you two examples.

Adult Learning Example #1: Software Training

One is software training, which is a pretty common type of training that a lot of us have been exposed to. And most software training that I’ve attended is characterized by someone walking me through various fields in a database, or maybe various screens that make up the database. While it’s probably good information that they’re walking me through, maybe it’s even important information, I also find that watching someone else navigate screen after screen of a software does not help me adopt the technology. Nor does it make me want to use the software. Usually because three days later, after the training, I really have forgotten everything I was shown. 

So, the most effective software training I’ve ever taken part of included a few things. One, it included a digital scavenger hunt even before I attended the training. We had to use our login credentials to see if we could find things on our own. And then the actual training event walked us through the digital scavenger hunt, making sure that we were able to find the things. But then when the trainer went to show us more advanced features, I already felt a connection between what I had already discovered on my own in that scavenger hunt and how some of the more advanced features could help me as well. So that scavenger hunt, it also gave me time to think about what questions would I want to ask, or would I need to ask, that could make the training even more relevant to how I’d use the software? So that’s one example of adult learning theory in practice. 

Adult Learning Example #2: Sales Training

A second example would be sales training. Again, sales training is a pretty common type of training in our field of learning and development. And every sales training that I’ve been a part of has included some sort of multi-step sales process and a discussion about features and benefits of new products that are going to be sold.

Let's talk about how adult learning theory can change what is traditionally and conventionally done in our field.

Some of the more conventional sales training sessions, they include PowerPoint slides that walk through the steps of the sales process, and then some marketing materials on the features and benefits of products that are being sold. But again, let’s talk about how adult learning theory can change what is traditionally and conventionally done in our field. 

The most effective sales training programs I’ve seen spend some time modeling what they’re trying to teach. And in sales, the most important thing to teach is how to listen. So one training program in particular that I’m thinking about put adult learning theory on display simply by asking participants about their best experience as a customer. And then the facilitator broke down those experiences that were shared, and they outlined how certain aspects of those experiences illustrated each step in the sales model they were trying to teach. 

So both of these examples show that at the end of the day, just giving the right information doesn’t necessarily help. Adult learning theory says that you need to help people understand why it’s the right information. And even more importantly, how that “right information” can be useful for the learners personally. 

What Happens When We Don’t Use Adult Learning Theory?

Why does adult learning theory even matter? Or maybe asked differently: what happens when we don’t actually use adult learning theory? Some of you may be saying to yourself, “Well, I learned plenty of things by sitting and listening to lecture” – whether that was in college or other training programs that you’ve attended– “so why do I need to get all touchy-feely with these theories and activities and engagement?” Maybe you’re not actually asking yourself that because you kind of get a hunch that adult learning theory is important. Maybe you know other people, colleagues, maybe supervisors, other folks that would be asking that question. Why? Why do we even need to use this? Why can’t we just give them the information? And I would respond by saying, “Sure, you remember sitting through plenty of lectures, but how much of the actual content from the lectures do you remember?”

The people we put training together for, they're generally busy people and generally don't have time for ineffective training - for just being told something without understanding why.

And that’s not a rhetorical question. The people we put training together for, they’re generally busy people and generally don’t have time for ineffective training – for just being told something without understanding why. How much would you actually remember if the content that you were being taught wasn’t relevant to you? How likely would you be to use something you were trained on if you couldn’t see how it could solve a problem for you – now or even in the relatively near future? 

Applying adult learning theory to your training projects doesn’t mean that you must eliminate all lecture. The way that I see it, you can use a variety of strategies, whether that’s lecture, whether that’s rhetorical questions, whether it’s guided visualization, whether it’s simply asking participants to do something.

Adult learning theory simply means asking yourself, “How do I make this information relevant for my audience?

Adult learning theory simply means asking yourself, “How do I make this information relevant for my audience? And how can I motivate or inspire them to want to use my information when they’re finished with whatever the learning experience I designed is going to be?” 

So if you can do that through lecture, great. If you need to find other ways because now you have these questions that need to be answered, such as: how do I make this relevant? How can I motivate and inspire people to use it? Then maybe lecture isn’t the way to go. It’s up to you. 

More Resources For Information About Adult Learning Theory

I’m going to end it here. There are a lot of smart people who have done a lot of writing about this topic. And so if you want more information– I’ll put all the links to this in the show notes– but if you want more information, one of the best books to read is by Malcolm Knowles and several co-authors. Malcolm Knowles is widely considered the father or the grandfather or the godfather of adult learning theory. And he wrote a book called The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development

Adult Learning Theory - Element 12 in the Periodic Table of Amazing Learning Experiences

Also, you can go online and check out that includes the periodic table, which we created at Endurance Learning – Element Number 12 is adult learning theory. You can also check out the debate between andragogy and pedagogy and Clark Quinn’s LearnLets. If you take a look at show notes, or if you just go Google andragogy versus pedagogy – Clark Quinn, you’ll find some interesting information because sometimes people like to debate: well, what’s the difference between adult learning theory and how kids learn? 

And the last thing I want to do is to say Happy New Year. Thank you for listening. If you know someone else who might find today’s topic of adult learning theory important, please pass the link to this podcast onto them. If you want to make sure that you’re notified of a new podcast when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe – Apple, Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. And even better would be, if you were able to give it a like or give it a review. It’ll take you a minute and would mean a lot to me. Until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

Articles Similar to What is Adult Learning?

Nate Martin on Escape Room designs for training
Instructional Design
Brian Washburn

Instructional Design & Escape Room Design

If you’ve ever been to an escape room, you can observe what a group of highly engaged people look like for 60 straight minutes. Is there a way to harness escape room design elements and bring them into the world of corporate training?

How to create a training plan in under 10 minutes

Using a lesson plan template (which is the most downloaded resource from this blog) can help give you structure. Using Soapbox can save you all sorts of time (and still give your presentation some structure)!

Does training actually change behavior?

Does training actually change behavior? It’s a question we should be able to answer honestly. (And the answer is: No, not 100%… and yes, but seriously, not 100%)

Hybrid Learning: When to use it

Recently I had an opportunity to talk with the folks at Mimeo about hybrid learning and when to use it. In today’s post, I share a link to that podcast, which is one in a series of podcasts they did with industry leaders on hybrid learning strategies.

L&D Lessons Learned from Being a Parent (Part 5 of 5)

Once we get into a comfortable routine, how easy is it to want to try something new? Erin Clarke shares a few ah-ha’s about what she discovered and how she became better when she decided to leave her comfort zone and try something new.

Subscribe to Get Updates from Endurance Learning

Brian Washburn, Author

Brian Washburn
CEO & Chief Ideas Guy

Enter your information below and we’ll send you the latest updates from our blog. Thanks for following!

Grow your L&D Career Today!

The Foundations of L&D course through the L&D Pro Academy provides the concepts and practical experience you need to grow your confidence and abilities as a well-rounded L&D professional.

Enter your email below and we’ll be in touch with an info sheet!

L&D Pro Academy

Find Your L&D Career Path

Explore the range of careers to understand what role might be a good fit for your L&D career.

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the PDF of the What’s Possible in L&D Worksheet.

What's possible in L&D

Let's Talk Training!

Brian Washburn

Brian Washburn
CEO & Chief Ideas Guy

Enter your information below and we’ll get back to you soon.

Download the Feedback Lesson Plan

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the lesson plan as a PDF.

feedback lesson plan
MS Word Job Aid Template

Download the Microsoft Word Job Aid Template

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the Word version of this template.

Download the Free Lesson Plan Template!

Enter your email below and we’ll send you a Word document that you can start using today!

free lesson plan template
training materials checklist

Download the Training Materials Checklist

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the PDF of the Training Materials Checklist.

Subscribe to Endurance Learning for updates

Get regular updates from the Endurance Learning team.