Types of Adult Learning and Instructional Methods

I ended my last post with a brief discussion of David Kolb’s learning styles. Although his theory is somewhat controversial because of its lack of supporting research, it is still widely used and taught. Kolb heralded the idea of experiential learning, and defined learning as a process of gaining knowledge through transformational experiences. He is considered a pioneer in advocating a problem-centered and authentic approach, instead of a subject-centered approach, to teaching adults. So, in this post I’ll discuss methods for creating experiential and authentic learning experiences for adult learners, drawing from constructivism. However, before I delve into experiential learning, I’ll cover the frameworks developed by two of the most well-known cognitive theorists in the fields of education and instructional design, Benjamin Bloom and Robert Gagné.

It’s probably safe to assume that most instructional designers and trainers have heard of Bloom’s taxonomy. The taxonomy is used primarily for creating learning objectives for educational curriculum, including workplace training programs. The taxonomy is divided into three categories of learning: cognitive (thinking), affective (feeling), and psychomotor (rote physical skills). Although workplace training can involve all three of these categories of learning, most instructional designers tend to focus on the cognitive taxonomy (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998). Below is an illustration of the revised taxonomy (by a student of Bloom’s in the mid-1990s). I’ve added some examples on the left and some verbs that can be used in objectives on the right. You’ll see that the more experiential categories in Bloom’s taxonomy—apply, analyze, evaluate, and create—are considered “higher order thinking skills.”

Blooms Cognitive Domain

Gagné’s performance categories and instructional events are also well known in the field of instructional design. Gagné proposed that there are five categories of human performance and nine instructional events that should guide instructional design. Although research continues about the effectiveness of various instructional methods, particularly with the growth of neuroscience, Gagné’s theory provides instructional designers and trainers with a reliable, and widely accepted, way of designing learning programs (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998). Below I’ll describe the five performance categories and nine instructional events, and then list in a table some of the instructional methods that map up to each category and event.

Gagné’s five performance categories (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998):

  • Verbal information – Also called “declarative knowledge,” involves the ability to declare or state information, such as an idea or fact. Reciting a policy or mission statement are examples of this.
  • Intellectual skills – Also called “procedural knowledge,” involves the ability to accomplish tasks (simple or complex) through following rules, concepts, and procedures. Using APA style guidelines to write a paper is an example of this.
  • Cognitive strategies – Also called “strategic knowledge,” involves the skills to learn, think, and remember. Cognitive strategies enable us to determine which declarative information and procedures we need to perform a certain task. Determining an approach to take to complete a project or solve a problem are examples of cognitive strategies.
  • Attitudes – Involves internal states of mind that influence our behavior. Attitudes are often shaped by personal experiences and outside influences, and can be hard to change. Views about money or how to treat others are examples of attitudes.
  • Motor skills – Involves using our bodies to accomplish something. A task involving motor skills can only be improved through practice, often through rote drills and repetition. Learning to type or ride a bicycle are examples of motor skills.

Gagné’s nine instructional events (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998):

  1. Gain attention
  2. Inform learner of objective(s)
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
  4. Present material to be learned
  5. Provide learning guidance
  6. Elicit performance (practice)
  7. Provide informative feedback
  8. Evaluate learner performance
  9. Help learners retain and apply information


The cognitivist theories of both Bloom and Gagné are considered “classic” in the field of instructional design and are still very much in use today, even as instructional designers move toward more constructivist models for designing learning events (i.e., authentic , experiential, and problem-based). Cognitivist strategies of instructional design are particularly useful for teaching knowledge and skills that are new to learners (Cooperstein & Kocevar-Weidinger, 2004). Techniques such as advance organizers, chunking, whole-parts-whole instruction, metaphors, and mnemonics are great for helping learners organize and remember information that is new to them. However, more and more, instructional designers are using constructivist techniques in workplace learning programs because they realize that not only do adult learners have a lot of experience and prior knowledge to apply, but also that they expect that training will help them solve real problems they are experiencing. Adult learners also expect to actively work on problems during a training session, not just sit there and watch someone else perform a task or listen to long lectures about concepts and principles. They want and expect experiential, authentic learning experiences. For example, they want to actually use new software during training in the same way they’ll use it back on the job, or actually practice making decisions about complex problems in an environment where they can make mistakes and receive feedback.

Kolb suggests that there are four steps in an experiential learning event, which instructional designers can use when designing learning programs (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012):

  1. Concrete experience – Full involvement in new experiences.
  2. Observation and reflection – Observing and reflecting on new experiences from many different perspectives.
  3. Formulation of abstract concepts and generalizations – Creating concepts that organize observations into logical theories.
  4. Testing new concepts in new situations – Using theories to make decisions and solve problems.

E-learning courses present a challenge for instructional designers who want to create authentic, experiential learning experiences. But, I recently came across a great example of experiential learning in an e-learning course I reviewed. After covering some foundational concepts using video of models/experts, the designer presented real-life problem scenarios that learners needed to respond to. For each problem, learners were exposed to several different perspectives and asked to reflect on them all before deciding how to respond. After learners made a choice and acted on it (in a simulated situation), they received specific feedback and coaching. There were about ten scenarios presented, and each one helped learners discover concepts and generalizations that could be applied to the next situation. This was one of the best authentic learning experiences I’ve seen in an e-learning course recently, and it’s a good example of the constructivist method of problem-based learning.

Constructivist instructional strategies are based on the idea that learners should discover and experience for themselves why performing a task or solving a problem in a certain way is effective, instead of merely being told why, therefore encouraging higher order thinking skills and greater motivation to transfer. Instructional principles derived from constructivism include the following (Wilson, 1996):

  1. Anchor learning activities to a larger task or problem, establishing relevance.
  2. Support learners in taking ownership for problem or task (i.e., WIIFM).
  3. Design an authentic task.
  4. Design the task/problem to reflect the complexity and context of the learner’s environment.
  5. Give learners freedom to develop their own problem-solving processes.
  6. Design learning to support and challenge learners.
  7. Encourage testing ideas from multiple perspectives and contexts.
  8. Provide opportunity for reflection on both content and learning process.

Problem-based learning is being used more and more in workplace learning programs because it teaches employees to think critically and enables them to grapple with complexities that they would encounter in real life. Instead of being told what to do or how to solve a problem, learners are coached and guided to examine different approaches and solutions. But, in order for problem-based learning to be effective, instructional designers need to make sure they understand the real problems employees face, or will face, on the job and in what contexts. They also need to be able to construct problems that realistically represent the complexity-level of the problems learners encounter in their day-to-day work (Kolodner, Hmelo, & Narayanan, date unknown). This requires a lot of front-end analysis and input from those who have a full understanding of how the new skills or knowledge will be used.

Can experiential methods be used within the confines of classic learning theory (i.e., Gagné and Bloom)? I’ve seen many discussions in various online professional forums questioning whether designing learning according to Gagné’s nine events is still relevant and effective (some say it’s “cookie cutter” and “boring”). With some creativity, instructional designers can find ways to make Gagné’s method less formulaic , expository, and subject-centered by designing courses around authentic problems and using more constructivist techniques.


Cooperstein, S.E. & Kocevar-Weidinger, E. (2004). Beyond active learning: a constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review, 32:2, pp. 141 – 148.

Desimone, R. L., Werner, J. M., & Harris, D. M. (2002). Human resource development. Mason, OH: Thomson Learning.

Gagné, R.M. (1992). Principles of instructional design. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston

Knowles, M. S., Swanson, R. A, & Holton, E. F. (2011). The adult learner, seventh edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Kolodner, Hmelo, & Narayanan. (date unknown). Problem-based learning meets case-based reasoning. Retrieved from: http://www.cc.gatech.edu/projects/lbd/pdfs/pblcbr.pdf

Rothwell, W. J. & Kazanas, H. C. (1998). Mastering the instructional design process: A systematic approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, B.G. (1996). Constructivist learning environments: Case studies in instructional design. City, State: Educational Technology Publications.

Types of Adult Learners

When assessing adult learners, there are many factors to consider. In the “Andragogy in Practice Model” that I reviewed in an earlier post, Knowles suggests that knowledge of individual differences should help guide the development of adult learning programs (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012). Although it would be nearly impossible to design programs that appeal to every type of adult learner, it’s important to realize that a “one size fits all” approach will probably lead to some learners feeling disengaged and bored and others feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. So, when you’re in the analysis phase of training program development, it’s important to get a sense of the different types of learners in your audience so that you can at least attempt to tailor training to both their similarities and differences. Factors to consider include: education level and work experience, age, cultural background, attitudes about learning, learner characteristics, and learning styles.

Understanding an audience’s education level and work experience is usually a good place to start when designing a training program, and it’s probably the most essential information to have. You could completely miss the mark if you assumed that your audience had a certain literacy level or a certain number of years experience in a subject/field. These days, most instructional designers develop role-based training, so it’s relatively easy to gather background data on an audience from job descriptions, human resources personnel, and managers.

Not considering the age of your learners or misunderstanding cultural differences can also derail your training efforts. Older learners may be less comfortable with technology and may take longer to learn material, but provided with the right kind of learning environment and activities, studies have shown that older adults can attain the same performance levels as younger adults (Desimone, Werner, & Harris, 2002). Younger learners may have higher expectations for exploring and discovering new information on their own and for learning through games and technology-based mediums (wikis, podcasts, etc.). Having a group of trainees of many different ages can pose a challenge, but there are ways to meet the needs of different age groups through techniques such as pre-training and blended learning, and by providing learners control over the pace and amount of guidance provided in e-learning modules.

With the increase of globalization and outsourcing, instructional designers need to be aware of cultural issues that need to be considered in course design, whether training expatriates or groups containing people from countries other than their own. Cross-cultural researcher Geert Hofstede identified four cultural variables that should be considered when designing training programs (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998). The table below gives examples of characteristics that indicate the degree to which a culture values/accepts each variable and a few examples of rankings for specific countries:


To create effective cross-cultural courses, instructional designers and trainers need to learn about the culture of those they’re teaching and be sensitive to their norms, rules, and ways of learning and working. So, for example, if you were designing an instructor-led course for a high power-distance country you would want to create an orderly and structured classroom environment with a formal teacher-student delineation, unlike the less formal, group-oriented and “trainer as facilitator” environment you’d create for a low power distance culture. Ultimately, as an outsider, it’s unlikely you’ll ever fully understand the other culture you’re working with, so it’s crucial to involve learners and/or a cultural consultant in course design and development (Rothwell & Kazanas, 1998). The Hofstede Center’s website (http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html) provides a great look-up tool that rates countries on the four variables (plus two additional ones—long term orientation and indulgence vs. restraint). The Hofstede Center website also contains a lot of other resources for learning about different cultures, including courses and certifications.

There are also attitudes about learning and other characteristics of adult learners to consider when developing a training course, again pointing out that one size does not fit all. It’s worth conducting some analysis (i.e., surveys and/or interviews) to uncover information about your learners that may help you design training that will increase motivation and transfer. Following are some learner characteristics to consider analyzing (Desimone, Werner, & Harris, 2002). You’ll notice that many of these resonate with the work of Knowles and other research I’ve covered in previous posts.

  • Instrumentality – Concerned about immediate applicability of concepts/skills.
  • Skepticism – Questions information; needs logic, evidence, and examples.
  • Resistance to change – Fears the unknown or what can’t be controlled.
  • Expectation level – Expects a certain level of quality or quantity of information.
  • Interest – Needs a personal or job-relevant interest in a topic.
  • Self-efficacy – Has either low or high confidence in abilities to learn and apply information.
  • Locus of control – Has either negative or positive perception about training being implemented back on the job.

Lastly, I want to discuss learning styles and preferences. David Kolb is well known for his theory about learning styles. A learning style is an individual’s preferred method of processing information. Kolb theorized that learning styles are developed through life experiences and are also partly hereditary. The four styles he identified are (Desimone, Werner, & Harris, 2002):

  • Thinking and doing (convergent) – A combination of conceptualization and active experimentation, with a focus on decision making, problem solving, and applying ideas to everyday situations.
  • Feeling and watching (divergent) – A combination of concrete experience and reflection, with a focus on imagination, awareness of values, and alternative views and options.
  • Thinking and watching (assimilation) – A combination of conceptualization and reflection, with a focus on inductive reasoning, integrating different observations into an explanation, and theory.
  • Feeling and doing (accommodative) – A combination of concrete experience and active experimentation, with a focus on accomplishment, goals, and new experiences.

Kolb developed a self-scoring questionnaire that can be used to assess learning styles, called the Learning Style Inventory (LSI). It can be a useful tool for analyzing the needs of learners, as well as understanding your own learning style. You can find different versions of the inventory if you search for “Kolb LSI” on the Internet.

Related to learning styles are learning preferences, which has to do with the sensory channels learners use to acquire information. Most instructional designers are familiar with the idea that courses should be designed to appeal to a wide range of learner preferences, including (Desimone, Werner, & Harris, 2002):

  • Visual (text, graphics, charts)
  • Auditory (narration, lecture)
  • Interactive (discussions)
  • Tactile/kinesthetic (hands-on, role playing)

In my next post, I’ll be discussing learning strategies and instructional methods for both different types of adult learners and different types of adult learning, drawing from theorists such as Bloom, Gagne, and others.


Desimone, R. L., Werner, J. M., & Harris, D. M. (2002). Human resource development. Mason, OH: Thomson Learning.

Knowles, M. S., Swanson, R. A, & Holton, E. F. (2011). The adult learner, seventh edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Rothwell, W. J. & Kazanas, H. C. (1998). Mastering the instructional design process: A systematic approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Motivation to Learn and Transfer Learning

What motivates adults to learn something new? And once learning occurs, what motivates adults to use what they’ve learned–to “transfer” learning to their personal lives and/or jobs? These are important questions for anyone involved in adult education, but they are particularly important for workplace learning professionals because of the financial investments involved. It’s estimated that US companies spend over $55 billion a year on formal training, and that only about 10% of what’s invested into training programs results in employees transferring what they’ve learned back to their jobs (Knyphausen-Aufsess, Smukalla, & Abt, 2009). Just about every organizational training group I’ve worked with has brought up the importance of measuring whether employees are applying what they’ve learned and whether training is having an impact on the business (often referred to as “level 3 and 4″ assessments, using the language of Kirkpatrick). But, I’ve seen very few that actually try to measure these things, and even fewer that are interested in not only whether training was effective, but why it was effective. In this post, I’ll share the findings from a study that reviewed 58 empirical studies on training motivation and transfer conducted between 1998 and 2008. The goal of this ten-year research review was to try to provide training managers and executives some insight into the motivation and transfer factors within their control that have the greatest return on investment (ROI).  I’ve represented the findings from the study in graphical format at the end of this post, along with questions for evaluating learning motivation and transfer factors. If you skip right to the findings, come back to the article if you want to learn more about the 13 different factors listed in the ROI categories.

Adults are motivated to learn when they perceive a gap between what they currently know and what they need to know to accomplish something important to them. Adults tend to be more motivated to learn when they have a problem they need to solve or when there is some kind of internal payoff involved (intrinsic motivation). Although external payoffs can also be motivating (i.e., pay increase, promotion, etc.), adults are usually more motivated to learn when they expect that some internal need will be satisfied; for example, a need for security, self-esteem, achievement, acceptance, power, increased performance, or pleasure. In the workplace, adults aren’t always aware of what they need to learn to be successful, may not be able to accurately assess gaps in their knowledge or performance, and may not be motivated to learn what’s needed or required for their role, especially if they can’t connect the learning to a payoff that they value (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012). Even if they are convinced that they need to learn something and are motivated to learn, there are many reasons why they may not transfer what they’ve learned. “Transfer” is defined as the extent to which trainees apply competencies gained in training to their job and sustain learned behaviors over time (Knyphausen-Aufsess, Smukalla, & Abt, 2009).

However, this study found that there are factors within an organization’s control that can increase both motivation to learn and motivation to transfer learning. These generally fall into 3 categories: work environment, training design/delivery, and learner characteristics. The study found 13 factors that could be mapped to both ROI and organizational control–the authors described this as a “portfolio of training transfer variables,” which is what I represent in the graphic. I’ll describe the 13 factors as they are organized in the graphic, according to level of ROI, but I’ll also explain why organizations have either significant, some, or little control over the factors. By considering both ROI and the amount of organizational control for each factor, learning professionals can make better decisions about what to focus on to increase both employees’ motivation to learn and to transfer learning back to the job (Knyphausen-Aufsess, Smukalla, & Abt, 2009).

The study found that the factors that contributed to the highest ROI were: supervisor and peer support; training content and design; and learner goal orientation. The extent to which supervisors communicate training outcome expectations and support learning impacts both motivation to learn and motivation to transfer learning, and both are highly controllable. Do managers and/or leaders provide learning opportunities to employees, recognize their achievements, and support using the learning on the job? Managers who don’t do these things are overlooking relatively simple ways to increase training ROI. Peer support has been found to be an equally important factor for increasing ROI. Do colleagues encourage each others’ learning, share knowledge, and mentor each other, or do they compete with each other and hoard knowledge? If it’s the latter, perhaps management is sending the wrong message about teamwork. It makes sense that training content and design would have a big impact on motivation and transfer. Training content and design factors that were shown to have the most impact on ROI were: pre-training learner preparation, overlearning, authentic and relevant interactions, error-based training with clear feedback, guided exploration, and enactive (unstructured) exploration. Learner goal orientation was found to be the least controllable factor, although it can greatly impact ROI. Learning-oriented learners view training as a way to learn new skills, whereas performance-oriented learners view training as a way to avoid losing out or avoid being viewed as incapable. Performance-oriented learners have been found to be less motivated to learn and less motivated to transfer learning to the job (Knyphausen-Aufsess, Smukalla, & Abt, 2009). Some of this has to do with learner self-efficacy, which is closely related to self-confidence. If a learner lacks self-efficacy, he/she may resist change and be pessimistic or anxious about being able to learn new things. Can a manager spot a learner with a performance orientation or low self-efficacy? Yes, but often these beliefs are deeply ingrained in a learners’ mind from past experiences and are hard to change. However, it can be effective to allow these types of learners to have “small wins” that gradually increase their confidence during the learning process (Reeve, 2009). (I wrote a previous post about how to identify and help employees with low self-efficacy, if you want more ideas. The link is in the references section below.)

The study found that the factors that had a mid-level ROI were: opportunity to use learning; post-training variables; job/career factors; perceived content validity; and valence/expectancy. Opportunity to use learning immediately after training and post-training techniques, such as goal setting, are factors that are highly controllable. An employee’s manager can take steps to ensure that the conditions are right for using the skills/knowledge learned in training; for example, making sure that a new software program is installed or that a process is in place for evaluating new behaviors and/or skills. Setting both short- and long-term goals post-training has been shown to be highly effective for learning transfer, given managers hold employees accountable, check in with them regularly, and provide feedback. The study found that employees who are more involved in and committed to their jobs or are seeking to move up in an organization view training as a way of increasing their competencies and performance, and are therefore more motivated to transfer learning back to the job. Job satisfaction and career advancement are both somewhat controllable by an organization. Situations affecting an employee’s satisfaction and commitment, or lack of opportunities to advance, therefore, can hinder learning transfer. Perceived content validity is also somewhat controllable; learning professionals should ensure that training content is developed: 1) from careful analysis to ensure it relates to trainees’ jobs, 2) by/with subject matter experts, and 3) by/with people who have experience with what’s being taught. Expectancy theory is a classic theory of adult motivation that proposes that adults are motivated to learn when they believe that learning will result in a specific outcome (for example, increased performance, accountability/recognition for using skills, a promotion, a raise, etc.) and when they value or desire that outcome (Knyphausen-Aufsess, Smukalla, & Abt, 2009). These two factors are somewhat controllable, especially prior to the training event; managers, trainers, and/or instructional designers can take steps to help learners understand the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) of a training event and connect learning to intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. Sometimes, employees may not be ready to learn–they don’t see the need for learning something (if they can’t see the connection to job requirements), or may be unaware of their own skill/knowledge gaps. In these cases, it’s the role of the instructional designer or trainer to help them discover the need/gaps or to deconstruct faulty beliefs in order to motivate them to learn.

The study found that the factors that contributed to the lowest ROI were: organizational culture; situational variables; ability variables; and personality variables. An organizational culture that values innovation, quality, and excellence, and  that promotes learning as a way to achieve those things positively contributes to learner motivation and transfer of learning, whereas a culture that resists change, or sees change as a threat, greatly contributes to low motivation and transfer. Organization-wide culture can be difficult to change, which may be why it’s considered a factor with low ROI. Perhaps managers can take steps to promote a micro-culture within their teams that contributes positively to motivation and transfer. Like organizational culture, situational variables are considered to have low ROI, even if they are somewhat controllable. Specifically, situational factors include organization type, specific organizations, and training types. The study found that people working for nonprofits are more motivated to learn and transfer learning than those working in public or private organizations. And that those attending spiritual/inspiration trainings perceived a greater ability to transfer learning than other types of trainings. Ability (intelligence) and personality variables are considered to have low ROI and to be factors that organizations have little control over. The studies found that people with highly developed cognitive skills are able to transfer learning more easily, but that people with low literacy skills are more motivated to learn. Although employee ability/intelligence is a factor that organizations have little control over, it’s important that instructional designers and trainers fit their training methods to trainee abilities. Personality is also a factor that organizations have little control over; however, understanding personality traits that affect motivation and transfer is important (Knyphausen-Aufsess, Smukalla, & Abt, 2009). For example, the studies found that emotional stability is positively correlated to learning motivation and transfer, and that introversion is negatively correlated. So, a manager or trainer who knows there are “anxiety-ridden” and introverted employees participating in a learning event can take steps to ensure that training is framed in a positive light, not attached to negative consequences (i.e., “either learn or lose your job”), and that activities take into consideration that not everyone is comfortable with role playing or teach-backs.

Research on why training programs are successful is incredibly important for those who work in the training and human resources development fields. Training departments are often one of the first places executives look when they need to reduce spending. Perhaps those of us who cringe at the idea of doing level 3 and 4 assessments would be more excited about the idea if our training programs incorporated evidence-based methods for increasing learning motivation and transfer. Hopefully this study will influence learning professionals to incorporate the most controllable, mid-high ROI motivation and transfer factors into their training programs.

Although this study was published in a German academic journal, more than half of the studies were conducted in the US. This may be considered a strength to organizations in the US, but the authors recognize this as a limitation of the study, saying that more studies are needed to find out whether, why, and how learning motivation and transfer differs across cultures. Additionally, the studies that contributed to the development of the “portfolio” did not use employee performance to measure learning transfer. Although performance improvement often drives training program development, poor performance isn’t always caused by learning deficiencies. Also, performance measurement can be highly subjective, so it makes sense that the studies separated transfer and performance.



Knowles, M., Swanson, R., and Holton, E. (2012). The Adult Learner, Seventh Edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Knyphausen-Aufsess, D., Smukalla M., and Abt, M. (2009). Towards a new training transfer portfolio: A review of training-related studies in the last decade. German Journal of Research in Human Resource Management, 23(4), 288-311.

Reeve, J. ( 2009). 5th edition. Understanding Motivation and Emotion. New York: Wiley Press.

My Blog Entry – Employee Self-Efficacy: How to Identify, How to Help http://psychlearningjournal.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/employee-self-efficacy-how-to-identify-how-to-help/

Andragogy in Organizational Learning

In my previous post, I contended that pedagogical theories can be, and often are, applied to adult learning in the workplace. Although many of the theories developed about how children learn can also be applied to adults (cognitivism, social learning, constructivism), pedagogical principles, assumptions, and methods should not be, in most cases. In this post I’ll introduce andragogy (the teaching of adults) by touching briefly on its history and describing its principles, assumptions, and methods, and then describe some challenges that can get in the way of applying andragogy to workplace training programs.

Many early theories of adult learning came from scholars and educators in Europe in the early to mid-1900s. One of the most prominent theorists, however, was an American educator named Eduard Lindeman. Lindeman was the inspiration for the work of Malcolm Knowles, who is probably the most recognized for popularizing andragogy. Knowles expanded on Lindeman’s work to create a more comprehensive andragogical model. Andragogy also has its roots in humanistic and pragmatic philosophy, and was influenced by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who advanced the idea of self-actualization, and John Dewey, who believed that knowledge should be gained from experience not formal authority (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012).

Andragogy, as advanced by the work of Knowles, is comprised of six core adult learning principles: 1) the need to know, 2) self-concept, 3) prior experience, 4) readiness to learn, 5) orientation to learning, and 6) motivation. I’ll describe each of these in more detail shortly. One of the past criticisms of Knowles’ andragogical model is that it seemed to be a “one size fits all” approach to teaching adults, without considering other factors that impact adult learning, namely situations, individual differences, and goals/purposes for learning. In response to this criticism, Knowles “rounded out” his model to include these three factors, and called it the “andragogy in practice” model, which is shown below (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012):


When considering how children and adults learn, there are assumptions that help guide teachers, trainers, and other educators as they consider methods and processes to facilitate learning. The following table describes these assumptions as they relate to the six principles (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012):


In addition to principles and assumptions about adult learning, andragogy also provides a model for the process of designing learning programs that can be used by instructional designers (IDs) or trainers in the workplace, or anyone working in adult learning. The following table lists each step of the process and compares the pedagogical approach to the andragogical approach (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012):


Now, I want to take a closer look at a few of the assumptions and processes in the tables and explain some of the challenges of addressing them in workplace learning programs. The assumption that learners need to know why they are learning something is embraced by most IDs and trainers. This is often referred to as the “WIIFM,” which means “what’s in it for me.” However, I’ve been involved with many training programs that skip over practical benefits of learning the material and dive right into the content. Without explaining the “need to know,” an ID/trainer is possibly creating a motivational deficit in learners. An adult who can’t relate what they’re learning to a real job-related issue or problem they’re encountering (or may encounter in the future) is less likely to pay attention and less likely to retain and apply the material (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012). Although the “WIIFM” is usually covered at the beginning of a training program, it can be reinforced throughout by using job-related scenarios and other experiential exercises related to real-life situations.

Often, there’s a “business case” for teaching employees about a particular topic that doesn’t relate to a perceived real-life/workplace problem for learners but relates to compliance issues that Human Resources must convey or strategic initiatives that executives want to implement. In these situations, the ID/trainer should at least present a logical case for the value of learning the material; for example, explain “previously undisclosed” future benefits or other reasons learners may not be aware of. In other cases, for example competency training programs, employees may be unaware of gaps in their knowledge or skills (or are overconfident), and may need to discover for themselves why they need training. To address this, an ID/trainer could include pre-training assessments or exposure to role models (among other methods) to raise awareness of “need to know” (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012). However, pre-training assessments are often part of measuring training effectiveness, when combined with post-training assessments, which may not have the same motivating effect on learners.

Referring back to the issue of training programs that are designed for compliance or executive initiatives, several other assumptions about adult learners are often overlooked–the learner’s self-concept and life experience. One self-concept that most adults hold is that they are responsible for their own lives and for making changes. Most adults resent and resist the attempts of others to control them. In a training situation, the implicit or implied notion that changing behavior is required “or else” sets up an environment for adult learners to either disengage or take on the role they played in school–acquiescent, dependent, and motivated by external reinforcements. This usually creates an authority-oriented and formal climate instead of the warm, informal, trusting and supportive environment in which most adults learn best. When learners are disengaged or feel as if they are back in high school (or worse, elementary), they are less likely to bring their own experiences into the learning environment, and may be less likely to participate in discussions, group exercises, and other experiential techniques that promote learning. To make matters worse, it’s common that IDs/trainers will be more likely to rely on lecture in these situations (to be sure all the required information is conveyed) and won’t give learners much opportunity to reflect on or apply their life experiences. This also sets up an environment where learners are less likely to share biases and misconceptions that could be discussed, challenged, and possibly turned around during training (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012).

At the heart of Knowles’ adult learning model are the fundamental human needs to experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Even well-intentioned IDs/trainers who embrace the principles of adult learning can sometimes fall back on pedagogical assumptions and processes, especially under pressure to create training programs quickly or when working with stakeholders who have no background in adult learning/instructional design. However, there may be times when some pedagogical approaches are necessary; for example, when training programs must cover subjects that are very unfamiliar to learners. In these situations, it would be appropriate for the ID/trainer to set learner objectives, design learning plans, and use more transmittal than experiential techniques to build a base of knowledge. However, when it’s possible to involve learners in analysis, design, and development, IDs/trainers can create better training programs. This may take more time and effort, but can greatly increase employee retention and application of material, adding more value to an organization in the long run (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2012).


Knowles, M., Swanson, R., and Holton, E. (2012). The Adult Learner, Seventh Edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Pedagogy in Organizational Learning

Theories of learning seem to be just as vast as theories of personality, and just as (if not more) controversial. I could spend many months (probably years) studying this topic! So, this post will just scratch the surface of the most prominent pedagogical learning theories (theories about how children learn), and relate them to adult learning practices in the workplace. I’ll start by answering the question, “What is learning?” and then will review four major learning theories–behaviorism, cognitivism, social cognitive theory, and constructivism. Future posts will cover additional learning theories, particularly andragogy, and will delve into theories of instruction and motivation, also.

What is learning? A simple definition of learning is that it’s the process of gaining knowledge and expertise (Knowles, Swanson, and Holton, 2011). A more prolific description is that it’s the acquisition of habits, knowledge, and attitudes that enable people to make personal and social adjustments. Learning involves change, so any change in behavior and/or cognition indicates that learning has occurred. Learning helps us make the changes needed to adjust and deal with our environment and is the by-product of experience. Learning is also related to the concept of “growth.” Many theorists see learning as the development of competencies and the fulfillment of potential, both emotionally and cognitively, in other words as “growth” (Knowles, Swanson, and Holton, 2011).

So, how does learning occur? There are primarily two “camps” for learning theories–behavioral and cognitive. In the behavioral camp are  theorists such as Thorndike, Watson, Pavlov, and Skinner, who believed in the “stimulus, response, reward” process of learning. In the cognitive camp are theorists such as Gagne and Ausubel who believed that learning is more than merely a response that can be manipulated, but involves complex cognitive processes (Knowles, Swanson, and Holton, 2011). There are other theories that don’t fit neatly into either of these camps, including social learning theory and constructivism.

Behavioral learning theory stems primarily from experiments with animals. Behaviorists, such as Pavlov and Skinner, defined learning as the acquisition of new behaviors through conditioning. Behaviorism is based heavily on rewards and punishments, which are used  to reinforce desired behavior. Behavioral theories are also based primarily on observable behavior and observable learning, and don’t give much consideration to cognitive processes involved in behavioral changes (because they can’t be observed). Generally, behavioral methods are used with children; this makes sense to me because it seems that children are more likely to respond to external reinforcement, whereas adults usually rely on intrinsic reasons for learning something new and  seem likely to feel coerced and controlled by behavioral learning techniques. Also, children’s brains are less developed and therefore cognitive abilities are limited. Some examples of behavioral learning theory in practice include (Slavin, 2007):

  • The Premack Principle — Promoting less-desired activity by linking it to a more desirable activity; for example, telling a child she can go outside and play if she finishes her homework.
  • Positive Reinforcement — Reinforcing desired behavior by linking it to positive consequences or rewards.
  • Negative Reinforcement — Reinforcing desired behavior by linking it to the removal of a negative consequence.
  • Punishment — Discouraging undesirable behavior by linking it with negative consequences or the removal of something positive.

Many practitioners and scholars have abandoned behaviorism in favor of cognitive theories. Cognitive learning theory stems from experiments with children and adults and is based primarily on Gestalt psychology developed in the early 1900s (“the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”), as well as the information-processing theory that emerged in the 1970s (how information is analyzed and stored by the brain). Cognitive learning theorists are less concerned with manipulating behavior externally and more concerned with the internal role of the brain during learning activities. Cognitive theorists believe that learning is a change in cognition that may or may not lead to an observable change in the learner. Cognitive theory assumes that memory and the organization of information, as well as the recall of prior knowledge, promote learning. Although many cognitive learning theories were developed from working with children and are often applied to pedagogical teaching methods, it’s evident that they are also relevant to adult learning. Some examples of cognitive learning theory applied to adult learning include using mnemonics, sequencing, metaphors, analogies, conceptual models, repetition, and diagrams to increase understanding and retention (Slavin, 2007).

Social cognitive theory seems to bridge the gap between behavioral and cognitive learning theories, and is a theory that is very applicable to adult learning. Albert Bandura developed this theory on the heels of Skinner’s behavioral theory; he believed, like Skinner, that people learn through direct experience, but he also proposed that people can learn through observing others and introduced the ideas of self-efficacy and self-regulation, both which have cognitive components. Observational learning requires 1) an appropriate model 2) attention, retention, and/or rehearsal of the modeled behavior 3) trying out the new behavior and self-monitoring/self-assessment of performance, and 4) motivation to perform the modeled behavior (Feist and Feist, 2009). Behavioral modeling is a technique used often in organizational training. Mentoring programs are one of the best examples of this, and a technique called “mastery modeling” has been shown to increase self-efficacy in employees who lack the skills and confidence to perform certain tasks (Reeve, 2008). Behavioral modeling is also used in online training through videos of people demonstrating certain skills; for example, communication techniques.

Constructivism is a theory based almost entirely on cognitive factors. The basic premise of constructivist theory is that learners need to discover, interpret, and construct/reconstruct information on their own for learning to take place. The modern term “facilitator” instead of “trainer” may have come from constructivist ideas–instructors guide and promote active learning rather than stand at the front of the room and lecture and control all activities. Constructivist theory has its roots in education, and draws from the work of Piaget and Vygotsky, who emphasized that cognitive change occurs when previous conceptions go through a process of disequilibrium after the introduction of new information (Slavin, 2007). Piaget theorized that people need to assimilate new information into existing mental categories and create new categories for information when it cannot be assimilated, which he called accommodation. He believed that these “cognitive maps” were essential for learning. Adult learners, especially, need to be able to relate new information to what they already know or given rationale for why, how, and when they will use the information in the future (Beitler, 2010). Discovery learning is another adult learning idea that comes from constructivist theory; learners are encouraged to discover concepts and principles on their own, through active involvement with a subject or task (Slavin, 2007).

It’s clear that pedagogical methods do have a place in adult education; however, those of us working in organizational learning need to continually resist the urge to lecture and control all learner activity, which is often the quickest and easiest way to design a learning program in my experience. Adult training that incorporates the cognitive and constructivist methods mentioned in this post greatly increase retention and transfer of learning.

I’m purposely separating a discussion of learning theory from theories of instruction. So, in future posts, I will be writing more about theorists and educators such as Bloom and Gagne, among others. I’ll also be writing in upcoming posts about motivation and self-efficacy, two essential “prerequisites” of learning.


Beitler, M. (2010). Strategic Organizational Learning: A Practioner’s Guide for Managers and Consultants. Greensboro, NC: Practitioner Press International.

Dabbagh, N. (Retrieved 1/28/13). The Instructional Design Knowledge Base. Retrieved from Nada Dabbagh’s Homepage, George Mason University, Instructional Technology Program. Website: http://classweb.gmu.edu/ndabbagh/Resources/IDKB/instruct_design.htm

Knowles, M., Swanson, R., and Holton, E. (2011). The Adult Learner, Seventh Edition: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Reeve, J. ( 2008). 5th edition. Understanding Motivation and Emotion. New York: Wiley Press.

Slavin, R. (2007). Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice, Eighth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


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