“Will this Help Me Solve this Problem Now?” Adults’ Orientation to Learning is Problem-Centered vs. Subject-Centered

Remember back in blog post #4 when we discussed the idea that adults prefer to engage in learning that will help them to solve problems? Knowles’ fourth assumption about adult learners revisits this concept. Let’s review.

Knowles’ Fourth Assumption (and, coincidentally, his Fourth Principle, too)

older man and woman working with a multimeter

Arduino 101 class, photo by Fabrice Florian, 2016

Adults don’t want to learn more content that they need to file away for future use; they want to learn things that can help them solve real-time problems: “As a person matures his/her time perspective changes from one of postponed application of knowledge to immediacy of application. As a result his/her orientation toward learning shifts from one of subject-centeredness to one of problem centeredness.” (Knowles, 1984)

Instead of listening to a two-hour lecture, for example, about psychological conditioning theories and processes, adults would prefer to learn how they can use psychological conditioning immediately in their lives – the obvious example being dog training. To adults, the application of the theory is more interesting and useful than the theory behind it. “Adults are motivated to learn to the extent that…it will help them perform tasks they confront in their life situations.” (Litster, 2016)

We have learned from studying the brain that it “…continues to change and grow

women pretending to make soup

Nature Based Education, photo by Bob Bailie, 2018

through adulthood, and that learning centered on problem solving helps make necessary connections for such growth. The key is to structure problems on what the learner encounters in work/life situations, and then help them practice strategies to solve them.” (Digital Promise, n.d.)

And speaking of brain science, we’ve also discovered the importance of including “…problems that involve both sides of the brain’s learning centers. Specifically, learning activities that draw on the creative strengths of the right side of the brain and the verbal and analytical strengths of   the left side are most effective. So, incorporating multiple approaches and pathways to solutions in games and activities is a good strategy to help students use both sides of their brains when solving problems.” (Digital Promise, n.d.)


Designing instruction with Knowles’ fourth assumption in mind means learning should be organized around real-life tasks, whether professional or personal, instead of subject matter. For example, “…a child in a school composition class learns grammar, and then sentence and paragraph construction. An adult in a composition training program learns how to write a business letter, a marketing plan, etc.” (NHI, n.d.)

Many resources on instructional design for adult learners suggest the use of case studies and scenarios. Other types of activities that encourage problem-solving include 

a group of female nursing students

Simulation-Betty-014, photo by Drew Morris, 2015

  • Asking open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes or no answer
  • Role-playing
  • Debates
  • Simulations

Even in the workplace, learning can (and should!) be problem-centered: Think on-the-job training.

Making Connections and Closing the Loop

Problem-centeredness was obviously important to Knowles: He based both a principle of his adult learning theory and an assumption about adult learners on it. Therefore, “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.” (Pappas, 2013) Adult learners want to solve problems and perform tasks that can improve their personal, professional, and/or academic lives. It’s not enough to lecture about, say, operant conditioning: We need to let adult learners train and reward their OWN dogs to truly understand it.


Digital Promise. (n.d.). Designing technology for adult learners: Applying adult learning theory. Retrieved from http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/designing-for-adult-learners.pdf

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

Litster, J. (2016). Breaking barriers: Research report. The principles of adult learning. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/epale/sites/epale/files/the_principles_of_adult_learning_.pdf?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2Fways-adapt-training-adult-learners-characteristics-needs&utm_medium=link

National Highway Institute. (n.d.). Principles of adult learning and instructional systems design. Retrieved from https://www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov/downloads/freebies/172/PR%20Pre-course%20Reading%20Assignment.pdf

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