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Adult Learning Theory: Outcomes and Examples

Learning is embedded, either formally or informally, in almost every aspect of our lives. Much of what we learn each day is acquired with little or no conscious effort.  For example, we learn about current events by watching the news, or learn about other people by listening to their stories.  Now shift into action learning mode and consider these questions:

  • What knowledge, information, or skills have I learned this week?
  • How did I learn what I learned?
  • Was it important – will I use it again?

You might notice that these questions focus on how learning happens and how learning can be applied to work and life. These are both important considerations when working with adult learners.

What Adult Learning Theory Tells as About Learning

Adult learning theory is an increasingly important topic for businesses, educational institutions, and researchers alike.  It has important implications for how leaders develop and employees grow.  So, what does adult learning theory tell us about employee and leadership training?

  • Adult learners are practical – they need to see how training material can be applied to the work they do (or want to do)
  • Adult learners learn by doing – new skills need to be practiced in relevant environments
  • Adult learners get bored easily – they need a mix of lecture, discussion, exercise, practice, and reflection
  • Adult learners are full of knowledge – it would be a mistake to overlook this; adults should be engaged to speak up, share thoughts, and discuss with peers

Common Outcomes of Applying Adult Learning Theory

Organizations and training specialists that take the time to understand and apply adult learning theories have a great advantage.  When we use adult learning principles to guide the development and execution of workplace training, we see strong positive results that include:

  • Improved outcomes (better job performance, greater application of skills, increased self-efficacy)
  • Increased engagement in learning
  • Enhanced motivation (for personal development and applying learning)
  • Increased application of learning on-the-job
  • Increased retention of material
  • Development of learning orientation by trainees

If you are involved with leadership and employee development, keep adult learning in mind. Applying these principles will ensure that your training maximize skill transference and engage employees (for a blog describing employee involvement, which leads to employee engagement, click here).  We have used these principles to revive training programs that were a “necessary evil, only to be given during new-hire orientation,” and turn them into a key driver of strategy, organizational change, and process improvement.


We leave you with a few examples of training programs that we have designed and implemented, along with the goals of each.  These examples show that adult learning theory is practical for a very wide range of applications.

  1. Building specific skills (determined through training needs analysis) among employees and leadership to help achieve strategic goals
  2. Developing a’ la carte training programs where employees map out their own development, which increased the viability of internal applicants for lateral or upward movement
  3. Using organization-wide training programs to drive organizational change and support Lean / Continuous Process Improvement initiatives (which are aimed at engaging employees at all levels to make changes to improve systems, productivity, efficiency, and to eliminate waste)

Happy learning!



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4 Responses to “Adult Learning Theory: Outcomes and Examples”

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