It’s a Matter of Principle 1: “Please Involve Me!”


three adult students looking at laptops with hands raised

Summer 2018 Tech Institute, photo by Bob Bailie

There are several principles of adult learning.  Let’s explore the first principle of adult learning and see if we can come up with a couple of strategies that could make things easier and more effective in those training sessions. To review:

Knowles’ First Principle

The first principle of Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory states that adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction. Adult learners “…need to have a hand in the design and development of their own learning experience” (Pappas, 2014) and learn best when “They have some input into what, why, and how they learn.” (Ronkowitz, n.d.) 

What does this mean for an instructor or designer of instruction?

two women laughing while looking at laptop

Instructor and student looking at laptop, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016

We involve them by allowing and assisting them to “…set and achieve goals and guide them in choosing the subjects and courses needed to fulfill these goals.” (Miroballi, 2010). As instructors, we can engage our students by shifting our role away from the traditional pedagogical approach of lecturer to a captive audience to one of facilitator or learning colleague. As such, we should actively solicit frequent feedback from our adult learners in order to design learning experiences that are based on their needs and wants and help you to improve your course or program. This mutual planning process supports the idea that adults are self-directed, and as Knowles suggested, “‘One of the basic findings of applied behavioral science research is that people tend to feel committed to a decision or activity in direct proportion to their participation in or influence on its planning and decision-making.’” (Lubin, 2013)


There are ways to acquire learners’ input aside from the traditional course evaluation, which we don’t see until after the course has ended and our students have moved on (and the point thus becomes moot). In courses that I teach, I ask students to complete brief “Check-in” quizzes every three weeks or so. It’s a graded exercise, but the only way to fail is to not complete them. Thus it’s an easy, low-stakes way to gather information throughout the semester. Each Check-in consists of three essay-style questions in which I ask students to briefly reflect on their perceptions of the class, how they’re feeling and why, what they’ve learned so far, what’s resonated most deeply with them and why. I have at times revised elements of my course “on the fly” based on this simple, formative, and often INformative feedback.

two women smiling while looking at a book

Two students, photo by Bob Bailie, 2016

I’ve also been able to encourage student feedback by providing multiple means of giving it. My students have both my college and personal email addresses, cell phone, access to messaging within Moodle (our LMS), and access to private, in-course One-on-One Support Forums. I’ll even Skype, or meet in person. Students have used ALL of these methods. This flexibility and accessibility lets students know you’re interested in hearing from them, while also appealing to whatever technological (or not!) “comfort zone” they might be in. Again, I’ve made changes to my courses mid-stream if the feedback warranted it.

Not all teaching situations with adults occur over a prolonged time period, so what about

a one-shot deal, like a professional development or workshop situation? I still think the feedback and input mechanism is valid here, though the execution will be different in that it must be more immediate. In this case, I might begin with an icebreaker pre-test: What do your learners already know? What do they want or need to know, or what do they hope to get out of the session? This type of information can help you (with your learners’ assistance!) to tailor your training so you’re not covering unnecessary material. Continually probing throughout your session is another effective method of ensuring your learners are getting what they need and want.

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

To summarize, adults learn best if they have some say about, some control over what they’re learning and how. You’re reading this for a reason. What challenges have you faced in your less-than-successful professional development attempts? Are you lecturing prepared material (or, worse yet, reading aloud the text printed on PowerPoint slides) to this group of adults without first determining what they may already know or need to know? Have you perhaps neglected to solicit, consider, and implement learner feedback throughout? You can help yourself simply by asking your audience. Involving adult learners by not only requesting but actually using their input helps fosters their engagement and motivation…and can therefore result in a more effective training session.


Lubin, M. (2013). Coaching the adult learner: A framework for engaging the principles and processes of andragogy for best practices in coaching (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Miroballi, M. (2010). Adult learning theory (andragogy): An overview of the Adult Learning Theory and definition of andragogy. Retrieved from

Pappas, C. (2014). 9 tips to apply adult learning theory to elearning. Retrieved from

Ronkowitz. K. (n.d.) Andragogy and pedagogy. Retrieved from

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