It’s a Matter of Principle 2: Mistakes ARE Good!


Let’s continue our investigation of the principles of adult learning to see if we can formulate some more strategies that you can use to improve your instruction with adults.  In this post, we’ll examine the second principle of adult learning theory. To review:

Knowles’ Second Principle

two women and a man looking at computer

Dr. G. and two students, photo by Johanna Prince, 2010

The second principle of andragogy proposes “Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.” (Knowles, 1984) Essentially…because adults have lived longer, they have a greater body of knowledge, wisdom, or practice to draw from when faced with the prospect of learning something new.

Adults’ prior experience will be as varied as the learners themselves: “…in any group of adults there is a wide range of individual differences regarding background, learning styles, motivation, needs, interests and goals. Also, adults tend to develop mental habits, biases and assumptions that usually make them resistant to new ideas and alternative methods of learning.” (Palis & Quiros, 2014) This combination of previous knowledge, mistakes, and cognitive and emotional processes becomes an ever-expanding resource for learning, and the wide variety is therefore a critical consideration in designing instruction for adult learners: one learner may be very well-versed in the use of a computer and the Internet, whereas another may know only how to turn it on to navigate to an e-mail application.  

So for adult learners – all learners, really – experience and mistakes made must be recognized and respected as the groundwork in which all learning is and continues to be rooted. Everything we’ve done, and at times done incorrectly thus far has taught us something: from getting dressed by mis-buttoning a shirt, to proper food handling and cooking after becoming ill, to providing incorrect answers on an exam.


Give adult learners the opportunity to not only apply their experience, but more importantly, to learn from mistakes they might make during that application. When designing instruction, consider the wide range of varied backgrounds among your learners; materials and activities should be general enough to appeal to many different levels or types of experience with the subject matter, while still specific enough to achieve the desired outcome. 

women and men sitting on couches having a debate

Sydney Ken Wilber Reading Group, photo by Tim Mansfield, 2006

“What matters most in regards to adult education isn’t the end result, but the…experience that is gathered through instruction and activities…projects and exercises that encourage adult learners to go out and explore the subject matter [allow them to] learn from their errors and master their skills sets through first-hand experience…” (Pappas, 2014) Examples of these types of projects and exercises include 

  • Group discussions
  • Debates
  • Role plays
  • Case studies
  • Scenario-based activities

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

To summarize, adults learn best if instruction recognizes the prior experience, and especially mistakes they bring to the table. What challenges do you face in your less-than-successful professional development attempts? Do you assume that like children, the adults with whom you’re working all have the same limited amount of experience with or prior knowledge of the content? This can  leave them feeling like you are condescending, disrespectful, or perhaps just ignorant of their backgrounds. Understanding the importance of experience and mistakes and designing learning activities that leverage them can help you to establish credibility with your audience and more effectively accomplish the goals of the session.


Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Palis, A. and Quiros, P. (2014). Adult learning principles and presentation pearls. Middle East African Journal of Ophthalmology, 21(2): 114–122. doi:10.4103/0974-9233.129748.

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

One thought on “It’s a Matter of Principle 2: Mistakes ARE Good!

  1. Pingback: It’s a Matter of Principle 2: Mistakes ARE Good! — EdTech207 – Think Media NG.

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