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How to Use 7 Principles of Adult Learning Theory to Support Learners Outside of the Classroom

You’ve probably considered how andragogical principles impact course design or classroom instruction, but how do they impact learner support beyond the classroom?

When it comes to course design and instruction, considering adult learning theory is expected. Expanding research on andragogy has given us many helpful frameworks for building curriculum— but this is not the only area we should be applying these frameworks when it comes to adult online educational programs!

Adult learning principles can also provide a helpful framework for “wraparound” services in learner success, from coaching to mentorship, helping students achieve their goals or finish their courses. By thinking more holistically about how we can apply adult learning theory frameworks, we can strengthen learner support and help students be more successful.

Here’s seven adult learning principles you can use to improve learner success.

1. Prioritize self-directed learning

Adult learners tend to be more self-directed than younger students: more willing and able to develop and execute their learning experience with little direction. In short, they can “teach themselves” to a great degree and have the resources to direct and enhance their learning on their own.

However, any learner success coach or student-facing staff working with adult learners knows that this doesn’t mean learners are successful without any support. So how can staff support self-directed adult learners’?

Co-create success alongside the learner.

Many students will know certain things they need to succeed, others will need more guidance. Either way, learner success teams can co-create success plans and materials alongside learners to support them in their goals and provide accountability.

Show learners the value of coaching and advising.

As adult learners are more self-directed, they may view coaching and advising as tangential to the core course materials. As such, it’s up to student-facing staff to show learners the payoff of these components of their learning experiences so they can “opt-in.”

For example, offer demonstrable results when possible: “Historically, learners who meet with a success coach once a month will finish the program in a shorter amount of time, or receive 2 or more job offers.”

2. Make learning (and success strategies) practical

While younger students may be used to reading textbooks or listening to lectures, adult learners are much more likely to prioritize and value projects that take into account real-world situations in their learning experiences.

After all, consider the role of learning and education for adult learners: for many, there are specific outcomes or results they’re hoping to achieve with their education. As such, providing projects and learning that will have a direct correlation to their current or future careers is essential. This means that learner success should have practical results as well.

Connect learners to real projects, mentors or practitioners.

When adult learners can connect with and learn from peers or mentors in their industries, students are more successful—and the practicality and satisfaction of their learning experience grows. For example, our Learner Success Guild members from places like Springboard and Thinkful pair learners with industry mentors who meet with learners regularly. It’s not only a great way to get real-world exposure but can often lead to tangible job opportunities.

3. Create relevant and tangible outcomes for learner success

Again, consider the motivation for adult learners—typically, adults want their education to be directly relevant to their goals, whether that’s a new job, a career switch, a promotion or something else. While it’s obvious that course content needs to address their needs and be relevant to the skills and career paths students are seeking, what about learner support?

Get students invested in tangible and relevant rewards.

For students to become more invested engaging with learner support, staff need to keep the tangible outcomes learners are seeking at the forefront of their engagement.

For example, Learner Success Guild members from Bloomtech introduce their career coaches at the very beginning of their programs. Career coaches are paired with students throughout the duration of their program to keep career readiness and job search support at the forefront for learners.

4. Engage multiple senses

Adult learners tend to be sensory processors. Due to reduced brain plasticity among adults (not to mention more distractions and tasks competing for their attention!), lecture-style environments are typically not as useful for adult learners. It’s easy to consider how you might add more sensory experiences to classroom learning—but how might you incorporate this principle into advising?

Consider what medium or format is best to connect with learners.

Your default may be to hold 1:1 meetings over Zoom, but is this the most convenient and helpful option for learners? Adults may already be on Zoom calls all day for work and would rather have a phone call instead, or they may want to check-in asynchronously over Slack.

Take learner preferences into account.

Similarly, are 1:1s the best format or do your learners prefer group check-ins with peer support? Some groups may find group check-ins helpful, others may find them intimidating. Consider—and continue to evaluate—how your support strategies match learners’ preferences and lifestyles.

For example, we know some schools who use email for learner support since learners are already in their inboxes all day for work. Other schools find they get far better engagement through text messaging or other messaging-based platforms like Slack or Discord. Finding ways to meet learners not just where they are, but where they want to be goes a long way toward developing success strategies that aid learners.

5. Incorporate learners’ unique experiences

Compared to younger learners, adult learners have more experiences to draw on. When learners are able to integrate those experiences into their current learning, it deepens their experience and cements their new knowledge.

How can this be applied for student success? The key is in allowing—and celebrating—the ways that learners bring their whole selves to your program.

Allow students to bring their whole selves to the program.

The diversity of learner backgrounds in your program is a strength for student success. By helping students integrate their current knowledge and previous experiences to what they’re learning—and to their connections with peers and mentors—they can build a richer experience that enables them to be successful, both during and after the program. For example, success and support staff can:

  • celebrate and help students integrate their former careers and experiences into current learning

  • connect peers and alums who have similar backgrounds for networking and support

  • bring working parents into a Slack group for support and camaraderie

6. Provide ongoing repetition

While all learners need scaffolding and repetition to ensure long-term learning and retention, repetition is especially important for adult learners. With a supportive environment and repeated exposure to materials, adult learners will have the self-efficacy to develop the skills they need outside of the classroom.

What does this mean for learner success?

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself!

Learners have a lot going on, and need ongoing repetition to be successful—so don’t be afraid to present the same messages in multiple ways. Just be sure to be authentic and vary how the message is presented so learners don’t tune you out.

For example, learner success coaches might:

  • record your coaching sessions and send out key sound bites or notes later in the program

  • provide a transcript of a recorded coaching session for students to read through

  • offer multiple coaching sessions that tackle a similar topic or concern in a variety of ways

The key is to offer learners multiple ways to get exposed to your key messages. Scheduling this kind of communication in advance can help you save time (and can help you avoid forgetting to do it altogether). Ribbon makes this easy—with Ribbon, you can schedule key messages like these in advance so you can put this support on autopilot.

7. Support learner goals

Generally, adult learners have (and need) clear goals, either career-related or personal, to thrive in online learning environments. Most adult learners have goals that are both motivating their desire for education and helping them self-direct their learning. This principle is key for learner success!

Support learner goals with accountability and visibility.

Some of our clients have seen that setting clear expectations early on and providing regular visibility to learners about their progress towards their goals helps keep learners more engaged and improves program retention. This can be done visually in the learning platform or through regular communication with learners about when they’re on-track or off-track towards their goals.

Accountability is another key way to support learner goals. By communicating proactively with learners about their goals and their progress, you can provide the accountability adult learners need to succeed.

Ribbon can help with both of these! Not only does the Ribbon platform help you identify which learners are on-track or off-track (providing visibility for you that you can pass on to your learners), it also streamlines communication to learners, making it easier for learner success teams to provide accountability and support at scale.

One of the big desires behind building Ribbon was to create a student CRM platform that could help organizations support students and improve learner retention at scale. We’ve designed Ribbon with many of these adult learning principles in mind, so you can put andragogical frameworks into practice for student success to make your entire program more useful for learners and improve student success across the board.


Interested in discussing andragogy, learner success and adult online education further with other leaders and experts in the field? Join the Learner Success Guild and connect with a community of practitioners sharing ideas and building the playbook for adult learner support.


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