If you have been in HR or a leader in the corporate space, the Adult Learning Theory is probably not a new concept to you. You’re putting so much time and energy into developing your teams so you want to make sure it works!

As a Talent Development Professional, I’ve focused a big part of my career on understanding how to build impactful and creative learning solutions. In fact, the realization I had to have is that adults learn differently.

When development efforts align with the assumptions behind the Adult Learning Theory, it can create sustainable changes within teams and organizations.

So what is the Adult Learning Theory? Additionally, what are some strategies that you can implement as a leader to ensure higher team engagement?

What is the Adult Learning Theory?

The roots of the Adult Learning Theory can be traced back to an American educator named Malcolm Knowles. He adopted the term andragogy, or “the art and science of teaching adults,” a term coined initially by the German teacher, Alexander Kapp.

Amongst the many resources on the Adult Learning Theory, The University of Phoenix summarized it pretty well. In their article, they outlined the assumptions and principles, while drawing a connection to how adults’ and children’s brains differ.

When thinking about how to apply the Adult Learning Theory, the five assumptions of this theory are a great place to start.

It states that adults:

Are more self-directed (compared to children)

Bring their experiences to the learning process

Want to learn things that are relevant to their goals

Orient towards problem-based rather than subject-based learning

Rely on internal rather than external motivation

Below we’ve outlined a few learning strategies in alignment with these adult learning assumptions.

Using Adult Learning Theory to Create Sustainable Development Solutions

If we think about our own learning experiences as an adult, the assumptions of the Adult Learning Theory make a ton of sense. So how can we apply them to the way we develop our teams?

Here are some learning strategies to think about when engaging your teams around development:

Learning Strategy:

  • A proper needs assessment and pre-launch communications.


  • Adults are self-directed.

As we move through life, we become more independent and self-directed. Adult learners want ownership and control of their learning journey!

Thus, giving adult learners the freedom to choose what skills they want to develop or how they develop them is crucial.

For leaders and organizations who have a desire to implement training programs to upskill their teams, a proper needs assessment will have a big impact on the success of your programs. This means to fully uncover what the team feels they need to learn and how they learn best.

Additionally, taking the proper steps to communicate and pre-launch a learning initiative will be key to getting buy-in. Furthermore, this can often take time so be sure to not rush through this process.

Learning Strategy:

  • Connect to the “why” and apply coaching techniques.


  • Adults want to learn things relevant to their goals.
  • Adults rely on intrinsic motivation to learn.

Helping our teams connect with the “why” is important to many aspects of organizational success.

Many of us are familiar with the importance of the “why” (thanks to Simon Sinek :)). In fact, this is equally important when it comes to impactful learning.

Connecting our teams to the “why” is fairly simple if we are taking the right steps to assess the development needs and communicating them to the team. However, the intrinsic motivation piece is perhaps less straight forward and they are what can create lasting change.

This means there needs to be a level of personal enjoyment and satisfaction connected to the development goal. It’s not just about making development fun but helping learners connect with what’s meaningful to them.

Undoubtedly, this will take time but once you help others connect their values to the things that they do, it will inevitably help build and sustain team engagement. If you’d like to explore this topic further, here are some coaching techniques to cultivate more passion within your team that will impact the learning culture.

Additionally, having a stronger coaching culture will help facilitate growth and learning as well! Here are my two posts on cultivating a coaching culture: “Mindset and Characteristics”, and “Skills and Competencies of a Coach.

Learning Strategy:

  • Include discussions with open-ended questions that will allow learners to draw from past experiences.


  • Adults orient towards problem-based rather than subject-based learning.

Adults learn through problem-solving! Experiential learning can help with learner retention.

An easy strategy is to incorporate case studies or scenarios that teams can work on together during a training. This will be especially impactful if using a real-life experience that teams can learn from together.

Additionally, focusing on asking learners open-ended questions will help them come to insights from their past eperiences.

Futhermore, on-the-job training is also effective depending on the development needs.

Creating Impactful and Sustainable Development Solutions

The Adult Learning Theory has been very influential in the Talent Development world. In fact, applying the assumptions and principles of this theory to how we implement learning solutions will help increase team engagement, whether you are a leader of a team or an HR professional.

A combination of a proper needs assessment, effective communications, different learning strategies, as well as coaching techniques will help create long-term development results.

What are some strategies that you focus on when developing your teams?

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Adult Learning Theory: Creating Impactful and Sustainable Development Solutions