Tips for Designing Impactful eLearning for Adults

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Knowing your audience is critical when developing an online course, program or curriculum. This is especially important when considering adult learners. Over the years, several learning theories have emerged that offer important guidance but no one theory can be applied to all adults.

In this article, we consider aspects from multiple approaches that provide foundational insight for designing solid eLearning for adults.

The Starting Point

Andragogy, the manner in which adults learn, is a term coined by renowned American educator Malcolm Knowles. From its Latin roots, andragogy means “leader of man” whereas the often-used term pedagogy refers to leading children.

According to Knowles it can be assumed that adults are self-motivated, look for immediate benefit, utilize past experience, and are willing to learn when convinced of worthiness.

Various ways in which these basic concepts can be considered in the context of effective eLearning are described below.


Fundamentally, adult learners tend to be independent and do not require much handholding. As opposed to young learners who need guidance, adults work effectively when given autonomous control over their learning experiences. Well-designed eLearning should provide the facilitator capability to offer resources and tools, while leaving the learner fairly autonomous to absorb and learn information in their own unique style. This can be achieved through self-study or group collaboration projects with minimal instructor intervention. Courses can also offer simulations, scenarios, or games without introducing prior information. While adults will participate in activities without guidance, they still require help and support, should obstacles be encountered during the course of study. Also, a good design will promote flexible navigation to enable capability for browsing and bypassing familiar content.

Past Experience

Adults bring a repertoire of life experience that serves as a foundation for further learning. Any group of adult learners will have a diverse knowledge base, experience level and skill set. It’s important to understand the learner, assess their background, educational levels, and peer groups. For example, if learners are young adults active in social media, then incorporating activities involving Facebook and Twitter would be appropriate. As would, including peer mentoring and group activities so experiences could be shared. Tasks should be designed to enable exploration of the subject matter while offering opportunity to use accumulated life knowledge and experience.

Immediate Value-Add and Practical Application

Adults are interested in the immediate benefits gained from learning. They want to be able to apply acquired knowledge and skills to their current work or personal life. By including real-world case studies and integrating scenarios, eLearning should emphasize how the subject matter can be practically applied. Quick tips, hints, and tasks that replicate issues faced in the workplace provide reinforcement.

Motivation and Inclination

Adults are internally motivated to learn…when given the right reasons. They want to know why a certain assessment or task needs to be done and how it helps them. Resistance may occur when learning is forced without explanation. Adults are also inclined to learn socially. Social media and online collaboration tools help introduce a community aspect. Create activities that help build their social network and drive collaboration with those who share interests.

Involvement in Course Creation

Adults desire a certain amount of control over things in their life. This explains an urge to have control over the design and development of the course. Encourage learner feedback for ideas that can be used to improve the course.

Absorption vs. Memorization

It’s important to provide opportunities to practice skills, thus reinforcing the retention of core concepts rather than just rote memorization. Activities like simulations provide repetition and retention.

Real Problems

Action learning is a learner-centered approach that uses people working on real problems. The pioneer of action learning, Reg Revans, has said that there can be no learning without action and no action without learning. It is a reflective process. Revans believed that action learning is apt for problems that do not have a ‘right’ answer because the necessary questioning and self-reflective insight can be facilitated by participants learning with and from each other in groups.

A key to applying action learning is building an online learning community that reinforces the concept of working together individually and in groups. This can be achieved by incorporating activities such as group assignments, problem solving exercises, case studies, and group discussions.

Experiential Learning

Extending the importance of past experience in the learning process psychologist and educational theorist David Kolb describes four stages.

1. Concrete Experience

As noted earlier, adult learners thrive when they can draw from their own experiences and utilize past knowledge. Scenarios that replicate real-life situations, issues, and interactions are an ideal foundation. Scenarios can include phone calls and responding to emails. Use videos to simulate meetings, interviews and interactions with others.

2. Reflective Observation

Adults need to engage with and reflect upon their experiences in order to understand and acquire knowledge and necessary skills. Allow time and space for such reflection. Create opportunities to observe actions through demonstrations and analyze processes and procedures through case studies and scenario-based activities.

3. Abstract Conceptualization

Building upon past experience and reflection, learners need to make sense of acquired abstract concepts and provide perspective. Assessments that exercise “critical thinking” skills are necessary to drive idea development and process formulation.

4. Active Experimentation

Role playing activities reinforce what’s been learned. Games are also an effective and engaging method to “do and learn,” creating realistic interactive situations. Real experience develops and the overall cycle resumes.

Over the years, research has given us insight into the special characteristics that make adult learners unique. Utilizing those characteristics to develop an effective eLearning program takes thoughtful attention.

Monarch Media has nearly twenty years of experience customizing these types of solutions. We look forward to assisting you on a future project.


Knowles, M. S. et al (1984) Andragogy in Action. Applying modern principles of adult education, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

O’Neil, J. & Lamm, S.L. (2000). Working as a learning coach team in action learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, v. 87


March 16, 2017