Training Adults in the Workplace

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” —American writer William Arthur Ward

In addition to inspiring students, a great teacher understands the difference between teaching children and adults. In fact, Malcolm Knowles, a leader in the field of adult education, was well known for the use of the term andragogy, meaning the art and science of adult learning.

Knowles developed four principles for adult learning that can be applied to the work setting: readiness, experience, autonomy and action.

Understanding these principles is a very important way for instructors to find success in the classroom. After all, if you do not focus on the unique needs and characteristics of adult students, training will be a waste of time for instructors, students and organizations. Let’s take a closer look at each principle:

When it comes to training, adult students have their own agendas and priorities. Consequently, it is vital to focus training on meeting the specific needs of students. Think about answering the question—What’s in it for me?—and show students that training can solve a problem, avoid a problem, provide an opportunity or offer professional or personal growth. Be sure to reinforce these benefits to open students up to what you are teaching.

Adult students possess a great deal of experience when compared to younger students. Some of this knowledge supports learning, while other knowledge actually impedes learning.

Instructors should focus on a student’s level and experience base by using examples and language that are familiar without being condescending, as well as using experiences from the course to enrich the training sessions. It is important not to make the training level too high or too low.

Teaching success is achieved when adult students take charge of their learning. They not only like to actively participate and contribute to their learning, but also make their own decisions.

Instructors should treat adult students as independent and capable individuals. These students must be able to make mistakes without feeling threatened or put down in any way.

Develop opportunities for students to receive hands-on practice via exercises, case studies and simulation. In the context of online training, hands-on practice can be achieved by offering virtual training labs.

Because adults face many competing priorities in the workplace, being action driven is imperative. To ensure buy-in, instructors must help adult students grasp the immediate application of what they are learning. If students can’t see how to put content into action quickly, their interest and learning will decrease. Students must be motivated in order to apply the training content to their jobs.

To foster an action mindset, instructors should highlight how students can apply the course content immediately and provide on-the-job support mechanisms, such as post-class quizzes or an exam at the end of the course. Another example would be giving homework at the end of each course that reinforces that day’s curriculum. In the context of online training, this would be giving students lab homework that emphasizes a feature or process, which students will use regularly at work.

The key to successful training is understanding students—their needs, wants, mindset and motivations. Instructors must focus on a student’s traits and characteristics in order to make training a valuable experience for all adult students.


Scroll to Top