It’s A Matter of Principles 3 and 4: Learning Needs to be Relevant and Problem-Centered


Summer 2018 Ed Tech Institute, photo by Bob Bailie

Engaging adult learners may require re-thinking your perspective of the learning itself.  Is the content you want to explore relevant and purposeful for the adult learner? The third and fourth principles of adult learning may illuminate how to more easily and effectively engage these learners. Let’s review.

Knowles’ Third Principle

Adult learners are practical; that is, they want to learn that which is immediately relevant and applicable to their personal or professional life. “Since adults are looking for practical learning, content should focus on issues related to their work or personal life.” (Knowles, 1984) What this means in a nutshell is if adult learners aren’t able to connect the material being taught to a real-life situation, or how the material might benefit them in the real world, they may not be open to learning it.

men and women using microscopes

Primo Star by ZEISS – Your compact microscope for education and routine, photo by ZEISS Microscopy, 2013

Think about this for a moment. Do you remember ever sitting through a class on X, wondering how on earth you might use this information in the future, or how it could possibly be helpful to you at any point? I remember feeling that way about Calculus (no offense to the math folks among readers) when I took it 30 or so years ago, and to this day, fail to see any relevance between the subject and my life or work. This might explain why I barely passed with a C-minus: I couldn’t see the relevance. If your audience can’t make a meaningful connection between the subject and their work, they will be largely uninterested in the presentation.

Knowles’ Fourth Principle

Similarly, adults learn best when they are focused on problem-solving instead of memorizing content. “Instruction should be task-oriented instead of promoting memorization — learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed by the others.” (Knowles, 1984)

Again using my Calculus example: If the professor had applied this principle, would I remember any of it? If we had been given real-life non-math problems to solve, perhaps I’d still recall something today. Admittedly, since “Calculus is now the basic entry point for anyone wishing to study physics, chemistry, biology, economics, finance, or actuarial science,” (Berggren, n.d.) and I ended up studying social sciences, there would be few logical applications of it to my work discipline…but the point is, I don’t remember it because I didn’t use it to solve any real-world problems. That is the essence of Knowles’ fourth principle.


Relevance is subjective: What is meaningful to you may not be to me, and vice-versa. Yet establishing relevance is one of the most important means of motivating adult learning. In a study at three universities in Hong Kong, Kember et al (2008) noted the following four methods for creating relevance, as cited by students:

  1. Discussing how theory can be applied in practice

    two women looking through cardboard tubes

    Nature Based Education 2018, photo by Bob Bailie

  2. Making a link to local cases
  3. Relating subject matter to everyday applications
  4. Discussing and finding applications in current newsworthy issues and events (Kember, Ho, & Hong, 2008)

In a course that I teach, students complete formative assignments in which they are provided a scenario and asked to answer four questions about the scenario based on what they’re learned during the current and previous modules. This goes beyond simply discussing and relating how theory can be applied in practice to actually applying the theory/subject matter to a real-world situation. The final project also involves applying the entire semester’s worth of learning to a personal circumstance they’ve identified. In the same course, I’ve found TED Talks and podcasts to be excellent sources of the “current issues and events” Kember refers to.

Connecting relevance and problem-solving isn’t a big stretch. If adults have a personal or professional “problem” to which they can apply their learning, that learning becomes immediately relevant – as in the case of my students’ final project. When designing instruction for adults, consider creating “…activities that allow adult learners to delve into specific tasks, such as simulations, that enable them to store the information in their long term memory through repetition and experience.” (Pappas, 2014)

Another example of instruction as problem-solving comes from Pine Technical College in  Minnesota. There, medical students play a reality-based game in which they encounter a variety of simulated but authentic situations that emphasize skill development (such as dealing with death and sickness, how to talk to patients, and how to engage family members). Students are more likely to develop new skills if they can immediately apply what they’ve learned in practice situations. (Digital Promise, n.d.)

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

In summary, adults learn best if the material is relevant to them, and helps them to solve a problem of some sort. As you prepare to work with adults:

  • Is the material you are presenting relevant to the personal or professional lives of their learners?
  • Is the instruction designed with a problem centered approach?

If not, consider slight shifts to reframe your delivery to enhance engagement and motivate those you are working with.


Digital Promise. (n.d.). Designing technology for adult learners: Applying adult learning theory. Retrieved from

Kember, D., Ho, A., and Hong, C. (2008). The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning. Retrieved from

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

Pappas, C. (15 August 2014). 9 tips to apply adult learning theory to eLearning. Retrieved from

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