Maximize Training Efforts with Fundamental Adult Learning Theories

We all know people learn differently, but did you know our learning styles change over time? How you learned as a child has evolved into your own adult learning style. As a business owner or CEO, you’re most likely teaching more adults than children—even if they don’t always act like it. Teaching and training employees is challenging, especially when you’re not equipped with the proper adult learning methodologies. Whether you’re onboarding new employees, running role specific training, or providing continued education (which is quickly becoming the standard expectation), utilizing some basic adult learning theories will go a long way.

Adult Learning Theories

Like we mentioned earlier, adults learn differently than children, and research will back that up. Yet employers often try to teach their teams the same way they would teach children. Maximize your team’s strength with any of the following theories. Then we’ll share some ideas on how to apply those theories to your training.


Andragogy is the theory that adults learn best by tapping into prior experience. Where children are usually learning basic skills and building new ones, adults already have a bank of skills they’re building from. Train your team by expanding on those skills, using pre-existing knowledge, and acknowledging and calling on their relevant experiences.


This theory states that adults learn better when the learning inspires “aha” moments. I’m sure you can think of an “aha” moment or two of your own. These moments often come when learners realize that something they’ve thought for a long time is wrong or when they gain additional insight into something they already knew.


This theory focuses on learning that ties reality in with learning to create meaning. Many adults learn best by doing, and when your team participates more actively in the learning, they take ownership of their learning and gain the experience rather than just the knowledge.

Applying Theories to Training

We’ll always recommend using various styles of learning for your team (e.g. andragogy, transformational, experiential, etc.), but the best way to ensure your adult learners are comprehending and mastering each topic is to apply as many theories as will fit naturally in a given training. Here are some ideas on how you can apply some theories in your company training.

Use a reverse classroom

A reverse classroom allows students who already have relevant experience to train one another, where they’re able to bring that experience to the table. Learners will not only trust the resource more, but they will also trust the content of the topic significantly more. That trust helps your team be open to change and to implement different strategies themselves.

Use the five-step approach

  1. Explain the why—tell participants why they should learn the material
  2. State the objectives—explain what they’ll be able to do upon completion of the training
  3. Apply the skills—include activities and identify relevant tasks to apply their new skills
  4. Evaluate the individual—check whether participants have learned from the training
  5. Receive feedback—request input from the learners to adjust the training for maximum benefit
This clear-cut formula is a great way to address multiple learning styles (in discussion, application, and evaluation) all while providing you, the trainer, multiple touch points for improvement.

Show the why before the how

Children often enjoy learning how things work before they learn why it matters to them, but your adult employees have busy schedules and a job to get done (hello, that’s why you’re paying them). They want to know the why before they’ll give you time for the how. Because of this, it’s typically best to make it clear from the start why your team should learn what you’re teaching and how it will apply to their daily lives. Training employees can take some getting used to, but once you start training them like adults, you’ll quickly see an increase in their retention and in their abilities to get the job done. Now go ahead and train!