Designing eLearning For Adult Learners: 5 Psychology Principles To Apply

Designing eLearning For Adult Learners: 5 Psychology Principles To Apply
Summary: Learner behavior, perspectives, and mental states all play a pivotal role in eLearning. This is especially true for adult learners, who have habits, experiences, and backgrounds that greatly differ from other generations. In this article, I’ll highlight 5 psychological principles that you should keep in mind when creating an eLearning experience for adult learners.

5 Psychology Principles To Apply When Designing eLearning For Adult Learners

Researching the psychology of learning gives you the power to understand why your adult learners choose to participate and what they need to get out of the eLearning experience, so that you are able to develop personalized eLearning courses that make a lasting impression. All generations have their own unique traits to consider, and adult learners are no exception. In fact, their vast experience, established habits, and empowered mindsets can work for and against your eLearning strategy. This is yet another reason why you should know as much as possible about the psychology principles that apply to all adult eLearning courses.

  1. The need to learn the WHY behind the WHAT. 
    Adult learners must know why they have to learn the subject matter and how it can benefit them. Simply learning something for the sake of learning is generally not enough reason to participate. Though they may still be intrinsically motivated, this motivation comes from fulfilling their potential and improving some aspect of their lives. For example, if they are aware of the fact that their eLearning will help them do their job more effectively and increase the productivity of the company, this may give them the motivation they need to engage in the eLearning process. It's also important to note that you should emphasize the WHY from day one, and then emphasize it throughout the eLearning course. You may even want to include the benefits and expected outcome, such as building a specific skill set, in the eLearning course description. This will get them on board and excited about online training even before they click on the first page.
  2. Fear of change and the unknown. 
    All human beings are resistant to change on some level. However, adult learners typically have a greater fear of change and the unknown due to the fact that they've had more time to develop habits and become familiar with the current state of things. For some, change is associated with failure. They might believe that they need to modify a behavior or belief because it has not worked for them in the past. For example, an employee may think they need to change their current work practices because the way they are doing things now is ineffective. Admitting that they were wrong or that they have been performing a task incorrectly is easier said than done. This is why it's crucial not to make it seem like you are "changing" them, but allowing them to expand their knowledge and simply become more productive. Also, take the "unknown" out of the equation by telling them exactly what they are going to achieve by completing the eLearning course and how they are going to do it.
  3. Empowerment leads to enlightenment. 
    Adult learners need to feel like they are in control of the eLearning experience. They must be aware of the fact that they are responsible for their own decisions, and that they have the power to choose their own learning path. This is why self-guided eLearning courses are usually the best option for mature learning audiences, particularly those that contain a social component, such as collaborative group activities. That way they won't feel isolated and still be involved in an online community environment, which is key for adult learners. If your eLearning course isn't completely self-guided or asynchronous, then you may want to include a few autonomous online activities and allow them to choose which module they will complete next in order to empower your adult learning audience.
  4. Intrinsic motivation is the catalyst. 
    I mentioned intrinsic motivation briefly, but it warrants its own psychological principle. Mature learners are fueled by internal factors, rather than extrinsic motivators, such as rewards or badges. Ultimately, adult learners are driven to achieve their true potential and reach their goals. They want to increase their self-confidence or enhance their job performance. These things are the catalyst they need to transition from passive observers to active participants. While some adult learners may respond to extrinsic motivators, such as games where they can earn points or leaderboards, most are focusing on less tangible rewards that will improve their lives. If you want to get to the root of why your adult learners are participating, then you may want to conduct surveys and interviews to figure out their true motivations. You can then use this to your advantage when you are designing your eLearning course.
  5. Practicality determines value. 
    It's all about real world application and benefits when it comes to adult learners. They need to know how they can practically apply what they have learned and why the eLearning course is relevant. Every piece of eLearning content, assessment, and activity should give them the opportunity to put their knowledge to use and test it out in a risk-free environment. This is why eLearning scenarios and simulations are an ideal match for adult eLearning experiences. It allows them to explore every choice, every decision, so that they can see the consequences firsthand. Above all else, your eLearning course must offer them value and respect their time. Focus on their goals and identify their performance gaps so that you can create an eLearning course that makes their lives better.

All learners have their own preferences, perspectives, and backgrounds that you should consider. However, these psychology principles can help you customize your eLearning courses to meet the needs of every adult learner, especially if you take the time to research their mindset, expectations, and goals beforehand.

If you want to learn more about how the brain works, start collecting psychology books to help you understand learning behaviors and cognitive processes. Read the article Top 10 Psychology Books That eLearning Professional Should Read  to discover that understanding the human mind is an essential part of developing successful eLearning experiences.