Understanding the Employee as an Adult Learner

When introducing learning strategies into the workplace, it is important to base these strategies on a good understanding of adult learning. Adult learning is a complex topic with many theories and approaches. This section will focus on some of the most widely recognized approaches and principles that are used in adult education.

In this Section:

Learning process – how new information is taken in and processed

Kolb and Fry (see Links and Resources below) developed a way of looking at the adult learning process called the Experiential Learning Cycle. Learning is the acquisition of new knowledge, skills and attitudes. Learning is seen as happening in a cycle made up of four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.

To put it simply, first the learner must experience something directly – concrete experience. Next the learner reflects on the experience, comparing it to what she or he already knows – reflective observation. The learner then thinks about her or his observations and develops some new ideas about how things work – abstract conceptualization. Finally, the learner acts on what has been observed and thought about – active experimentation. The active experimentation stage then becomes the basis of future learning. Complete learning happens when the learner moves through all four stages and the new knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes become the basis for new behaviour.

For your employee training and development program to be effective, each activity should take the learner through all stages of the learning process.

How to apply the learning cycle to a training and development activity

Example 1:

You decide that as part of your employee training program you are going to offer coaching on handling an angry parent. How would the experiential learning cycle apply?


You could present some content on the steps in handling angry people, followed by a demonstration.


The learners could be asked to discuss the information provided – what did they observe in the demonstration, how do the steps in handling an angry parent compare to their current way of coping with such situations.


The learners then might be asked to think about how they can use the information provided to improve the way they would deal with angry parents.


Finally the learners would do a simulation to practice handling an angry parent.

Example 2:

You want to teach an employee how to research and write a report – something she has never done before. What can the manager do to help the employee learn by going through the learning cycle?


Show the employee a copy of a report that is well written and organized. Have the employee read through the report.


Discuss the merits of the report with the employee. Go over what makes it a good report and where it could be improved.


Show the employee some other examples of report writing styles and guidelines to use in deciding upon the organization of her report.


Have the employee write a first draft of her report. Review the report and provide detailed feedback for the next draft.

Learning style – the way adults prefer to learn

How do you go about learning something new? If you were given a new computer program to learn, would you read the manual first? Would you prefer to jump right in and explore the program on your computer? Or, would you prefer to watch a demonstration by an expert? The approach that you prefer when learning is called your learning style.

Based on the experiential learning cycle, David Kolb (see Links and Resources below) developed a Learning Style Inventory that is frequently used to identify an individual’s preferred way of learning. Kolb’s inventory looks at how adults perceive and process information. Kolb identifies two ways in which learners take in new information. Some individuals prefer real life experiences and examples – concrete experiences. Others like new information to be given in the form of models or ideas – abstract conceptualization. Once the information is taken in, some individuals will prefer to process that information by doing something with it – active experimentation. Others will prefer to observe what is going on and reflect on information – reflective observation. In the Learning Style Inventory, Kolb combined these different ways of perceiving and processing information to help individuals understand the relative importance they place on the stages of the learning process. By becoming aware of individual preferences in learning, employee training and development programs can be designed to capitalize on these preferences and help the learner to become competent in all stages of the learning process.

Another simple and often used way of looking at learning styles is based on the learner's preference for visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning. The visual learner prefers colourful material filled with charts, diagrams and pictures to support the rest of the presentation. Auditory learners prefer to listen to presentations and explanations, and then talk through the concepts with others. A kinesthetic learner (sometimes referred to as tactile learner) prefers to learn new material by hands-on activity. They will learn best when in motion – doing, writing, drawing and walking around.

Learning strategies that allow all your employees to learn using their preferred sensory mode will improve their learning.

Adult learning principles – the best practices in adult education

Malcolm Knowles, a pioneer in the field of adult learning, was the first researcher to identify the characteristics of adults that impact on the way they learn. Knowles’ work and that of many other researchers has led to a lengthy list of adult learning principles. Designing learning activity using adult learning principles will help your employees make the most of the learning opportunity provided.