Designing Technology for Adult Learners: Applying Adult Learning Theory

This brief describes how adult learning theory can be applied in the design of age appropriate digital learning experiences.

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Digital Promise
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Informational Material
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As developers create digital learning opportunities for adult learners, it is important to consider ways to design products that best fit how adults learn. The adult learning theories of andragogy, experiential learning, self-directed learning, transformational learning, and neuroscience point to five principles for designing instructional activities for adult learners. This brief outlines and describes these design principles. 

  • Base curriculum and interactions on real world, authentic situations that learners are familiar with, and/or will encounter in the job market. Andragogy theory acknowledges that adults bring a wealth of experience to their learning and use it as a base when they learn. Learning is more successful when adults make connections between their past experience and new information they are learning, or when they see how learning is relevant to them and their lives. It is important to incorporate a variety of perspectives in design because adult learners have different educational backgrounds, and life experiences.
  • Help learners “do” something with new information, whether it is in the context of a simulation, or a real-world problem to solve. From neuroscience, we know that the brain continues to change and grow through adulthood. Adult learning is rooted in experience, as a result adults are naturally oriented to solving problems in their lives. The key is to help learners “do” something with new information, whether it is in the context of a simulation, or a real-world problem to solve.
  • Create opportunities for regular and periodic reflection throughout the learning experience — including self-reflection, group reflection, and peer reflection. According to experiential learning theory, time and space for reflection helps learners absorb and make sense of an experience. A quick discussion about an activity with a peer or a coach helps adult learners crystalize ideas and thoughts. Giving students an opportunity to process new information in smaller chunks, raises the likelihood that the information will stick. Tying reflection to learners’ everyday lives and experiences helps them make sense of the experience.
  • Design ways for students to control the pace of their learning, such as the ability to pause, repeat or control the order of material, or access learning material anytime, anywhere. Self-directed learning theory posits that adults can and should be active participants in their own learning. For some students, particularly low-skilled students, this means having the option to control the pace of their learning by replaying a video, doing more practice before moving on, or choosing the order in which they do things. Students who are able to set goals, create plans to meet their goals, and monitor their own progress are more likely to persist in learning and ultimately achieve positive outcomes. While low-skilled learners often struggle with these tasks because they lack confidence in their learning, research indicates that with help and guidance, they can develop the skills for goal setting, planning, and persisting in their efforts.
  • Incorporate ways for students to interact with alternative points of view, either via projects and activities, or through collaborations with others who have diverse views and experiences. Educators from the transformative learning theory perspective recommend creating an environment in which students open their minds to new possibilities about their lives and futures. This kind of learning often involves a shift in consciousness in response to an “ah-ha” moment or “triggering” event. Such transformative moments can improve learners’ motivation and confidence as they try out new ideas and perspectives.

These learning theories converge around tapping into the experiences of adults as they learn, so providing authentic, adult level application of information is vital. Adults also need challenges to solve and transformative learning experiences to help stimulate growth. Many low-skilled adult learners have had negative experiences with learning in the past, and haven’t developed some of the skills needed to direct their own learning. Moreover, many may lack confidence in their ability to take charge of their own learning. Providing support, feedback, guidance, and coaching along the way is key to their success.

What the experts say

The research base for Designing Technology for Adult Learners: Applying Adult Learning Theory is squarely in the field of adult education, focusing primarily on theories that differentiate adult learners from children and youth. It should be useful for software developers looking to design products for the adult basic skills market. It could also be of interest to adult education instructors, curriculum developers and professional developers who integrate online learning (e.g. apps, instructional software, and learning resources such as video and audio files) with face-to-face learning, and for those who create distance learning curricula and lessons.

Since some adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) teachers create their own lesson plans or curricula, the five design principles may be useful for them to consider. It is particularly useful because it identifies applicable adult education theories and concepts that can be readily integrated into classrooms and program proposals. For example, adult education instructors often apply the fifth design principle (help learners engage with each other) in their classrooms by using small group instruction, project-based learning, or study circles. Many adult learners find this an engaging way to learn.

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