Key concepts of adult learning

Because most of your potential participants will likely be young adults, it is important to understand some basic principles about how adults prefer to learn. This information should be incorporated into your program design and content delivery, as well as your instructor-training program.

According to Malcolm Knowles, the father of adult learning theory, adults generally:

  • Are internally motivated to learn—they choose the topics they are interested in;
  • Need to know the reason why a particular piece of information is important for them to learn;  
  • Want to apply new skills and knowledge immediately in real world situations; they generally learn best by doing;
  • Want to draw upon their past experience to put the new information they are learning into their own real world context; and
  • Want to be involved in the planning and evaluation of the instruction they receive.

From a practical point of view, adult learning sessions are best if they:

  • Explain why certain skills are being taught. The information provided needs to be relevant and applicable to a person’s set of experiences. In addition, if possible, put the information into a context where the learners can see themselves actually using the information. Framing the information as a key to “solving a problem” may be helpful.
  • Involve the learners in the activity, or have the learning be task oriented, instead of lecture or memorization. Tasks and activities should directly relate to tasks and activities they will be using in the field. Small group exercises lend themselves to learning new activities or tasks. Small group activities also provide opportunities for individuals to interact with other participants who share an interest in fishing, increasing individual comfort level in talking about and participating in angling
  • Acknowledge and plan for different levels of skills, knowledge and experience within the group. If possible, involve more advanced participants in training or coaching participants with less experience. Forming teams to enhance group learning may be helpful in enhancing the learning experience as well as establishing a “social support” system within the group. 
  • Continually ask (both formally and informally) participants what they learned during the instructional session, and what else they need to know in order to feel confident in performing that activity on their own.
  • Allow participants to learn at their own rate, as well as learn from their mistakes. Again, small group exercises lend themselves to making – and self-correcting – mistakes while learning new activities or tasks. In addition, providing outside resources and “homework” is a good strategy to reinforce self-directed learning in a context where participants set their own pace.
  • Build in time for participants to critically reflect on what they have learned. For adults, fostering an environment that is conducive to learning also includes time for reflection and analysis. ALL learners benefit from having time to contemplate the implications and ramifications of what they are learning and integrate it with their past experience. Learning to fish has the potential to be a transformational activity for many participants. Creating an instructional framework that takes personal development and transformation into consideration is especially helpful.
  • Provide outside resources and “homework” to further their learning.
  • Build in time to review earlier learning (materials, skills, etc.) at the beginning of each session/activity. This will provide an opportunity for participants to share any inter-session reflections with the group and provide a structured timeframe for for participants to learn from each other in a informal learning situation.
  • Build in time for participants to reflect on any hunts or outings outside the classroom.

Remember, adults – even young adults – bring life experience to the program. The sum of those experiences provides many reference points for participants to explore and apply the new information/skills/experiences that you provide. Building programs that embrace and incorporate that life experience will create a learning partnership between the instructors and the participants that will enhance the learning process.

For additional information on adult learning theory check out the resources below.

Selecting and training the “right” instructors is a critical element of applying the principles of adult learning to your program. Some instructors are well suited to instruct adults, while others are not. In any case, most instructors would benefit from training in adult learning theory. For more information see: Instructor recruitment and training.