14 Adult Learning Principles To Combat The Conference Learning Crisis

Leaving no conference attendee brain behind.

It’s the new motto of the 21st century conference organizer…that is, if you want to get them back next year.

It’s time for associations and corporations to address the root cause of the conference learning crisis: a limited understanding of successful adult learning.

Andragogy – How Adults Learn

Malcolm Knowles championed the word “Andragogy” to describe how adults learn in contrast to how children learn or “pedagogy.” Andragogy focuses on adult learning strategies. It centers attention on the process of engaging adult learners within the structure of the learning experience.

In 1999, the now disbanded Institute For Research On Learning (IRL) created seven principles of everyday adult learning to rethink learning. IRL’s employees were pioneers in adult and informal learning.

14 Andragogy Principles

Here are 14 andragogy principles based on a combination of Knowles and IRL’s research that your conference education sessions should use to ensure successful attendee learning.

1. Learning is fundamentally social.

Learning is about more than the process of acquiring knowledge. Successful learning is often socially constructed and can require unlearning old ways. It may require changes to one’s identity and core beliefs, which can take time and is challenging, yet powerful.

2. Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities and the connections we maintain.

Developing shared values, perspectives, and ways of doing things creates communities of practice and purpose. Learning is about optimizing our connections to people within our communities of purpose that matter to us.

3. Learning is an act of participation.

The motivation to learn is the desire to become an accepted member of a community of practice. It’s about building and maintaining person-to-person connections that bring value.

4. The depth of our learning depends on the depth of our engagement.

We glean knowledge and retain more information from active participation in many different situations and activities. The more we are actively involved, the more our brains’ hardwiring is fired-up and the more we learn. Thus, passive listening is the lowest form of engagement, next to reading information. (You’re reading this now. That’s why leaving comments on a blog, requires the brain to become engaged in more depth and to process this information differently. You have to think about how to respond and how it applies to you before you type.)

5. Engagement is joined at the hip with empowerment.

We perceive our identities in terms of our ability to contribute. We want to have a positive impact on the life and growth of communities and be seen as resources to the connections we have. Engage us and we feel empowered.

6. Exclusion from active participation equals failure to learn.

Learning requires access and the ability to contribute. Fill a conference with one-way lectures and you increase learning failure.

7. WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is critical.

We want to learn subjects that have immediate relevancy to our work. If we don’t get WIIFM quickly through the marketing material or at the beginning of the presentation, we disconnect and lose attention.

8. Big picture first, then the details.

We often don’t return from the presenter’s rabbit trails. Don’t take us into the weeds as our minds are fickle. If it doesn’t fit within our context and we don’t understand why we need to know the information, you won’t earn our attention. The details should support the big picture ideas.

9. Where does this new learning fit in relation to the other stuff I know?

We rely increasingly on our prior knowledge, experiences, failures and successes. That’s why listening to other adults’ experiences help us build fresh frameworks for newly acquired knowledge. We like to ask others questions, especially those that have different experiences from us. It increases our attention.

10. Sell me on why I need to know this.

We must know the why before we know the how.

11. We are problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Adults are oriented toward solving problems and making instant application. It must meet my relevancy factor. If your content doesn’t resolve my issues, I don’t care.

12. Remove the obstacles and barriers to my learning please.

Don’t turn the lights down or off during the presentation. You’ll lose my attention and I want to see to take notes or type. (Like it or not, our vision and hearing decline as we age). Pay attention to the surrounding environment. Are there physical objects that limit my view? Are there any other environmental factors that will create a barrier to learning through the five senses? Can I see the faces of other participants or just the back of their heads?

13. Repetition increases my retention of critical information.

Use common experiences to relate new and difficult information. It provides a bridge to familiar encounters. Short term memory decreases with age. The more critical learning points need to be repeated in a variety of ways so, it will move from short to long term memory.

14. Let me decide how I’ll learn it.

Informal learning is critical. I’ll get bored quickly if you expect me to sit through another panel dialogue or another hour of a talking head. Provide me with options on learning it. If I want to passively sit and check-out, that’s because I’ve been up too late the night before, or I’ve reached my saturation level. On the other hand, I prefer to be actively involved. And as far as I’m concerned, you as the presenter are guilty until proven innocent. If you use activity to promote involvement, it stimulates interest, retention and I’ll trust you more.

What concerns do you have about applying these adult learning principles to your conference strategy? Which ones resonate best for you? Anything you would add to the list?

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  1. Jen says:

    Great post Jeff! Very informational. The only things that I would add is to inject a little humor (without making it look like a stand-up show) and to bypass the platitudes – keep the message fresh or find a new angle to maintain their interest.

  2. Great list. I only quibble with fact that you say it is ADULT learning. Wouldn’t youth benefit from these principles too? Sure, the topics would vary. For kids, maybe it’s dinosaurs. For adults, cars or a work problem or retirement planning. WIFM.

    This Adobe white paper on engagement might interest you…. http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobatconnectpro/pdfs/engage_elearning.pdf

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by nancyrubin: 14 Adult Learning Principles To Combat The Conference Learning Crisis http://shar.es/mr96a

  4. Thanks so much Jeff, for defining these building blocks of a satisfying and productive attendee experience. We all have to remember that we are in the business of educating people. To do that we MUST take into account ALL of the research about how humans learn best. Applying these principles may be a bit scary at first, but the rewards will most certainly be worth it.

  5. Niesa Silzer says:

    Thanks Jeff. I think one of the biggest obstacles we face as planners is that we know and understand the principles of adult learning – but the speakers don’t. And often the speakers aren’t really speakers but doing an industry specific topic and have never spoken before. How we educate our speakers and get them to incorporate these into their sessions is critical.

  6. eventjp (on twitter) says:

    This is how meeting and events professionals can be strategic with their clients in designing content. Ask: What do you want people going to learn during – and APPLY after – the event? Create learning ROI.

  7. Justin Locke says:

    if i may be so bold, a great example of these principles at work is the pimsleur language method. this guy figured out that people don’t learn language by conjugating the verb “to be.” each beginning lesson (in any of 30+ languages) teaches “do you speak english?”, “I want a beer,” and “where is the bathroom?” i learned more useful stuff from those cd’s in a month than i did from 2 years of high school spanish and french.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks Jenise for adding your insight and challenge to the profession. Yes, the rewards are worth it.

      You addressed a very important point–helping industry speakers get better at what they do. One way I’ve done it is by requesting what adult learning principles the presenter will use in the call for proposals. I also think investing in industry speakers presentation trainings and putting performance standards in industry speaker contracts. These help some and the improvements take time. They are worth it though.

      @Eventjp (JP)
      Love that question to create learning ROI! Amen. Thanks for sharing it.

      Great example of how to make learning relevant, pragmatic and useful! And it works too.

    2. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great additions – humor and use a fresh, interesting angle.

      @Allison (or should I say, Dr. Rossett)
      Thanks for adding your insight and comments. Always great to have an established practitioner, like yourself extending the conversation. I’m with you that youth would benefit from these principles as well! Thanks for the sharing the link about engagement too.

  8. established practitioner???!!! Are you suggesting that I am long in the tooth? Oh right. I am.


  9. Scott Gould says:

    So Good!

    Right away, “Learning is fundamentally social”, ties into what we’ve been discussing for months now.

    I’ve been considering how Broadcast and Social can be mapped to Pine and Gilmore’s Fake and Real, and this post helps me do so!

    Thanks Jeff

  10. As a student of Malcolm Knowles during my graduate work while earning my Master’s in adult education and training, I have always loved and used these principles in my college classroom and with my live audiences.

    Beyond live presentations in corporate trainings and in seminars, I also keep these points in mind when I am creating information products to help other small business owners. When you can tell them WIIFM and selling them on why they need to know what you’re teaching, you increase the changes of them purchasing exponentially.

    Finally as a speaker, if we want to get ourselves booked, we can make sure we meet each of the criteria above in our marketing efforts and during the sales process.

    Thanks for the reminder of Knowles’ brilliant andragogy principles!


  11. Jeff, I loved this post. It was so informative and helpful in leading many of us to the right path of creating learning experiences for our customers, peers and supplier partners.

    As you know I am really passionate about absorbing as much information as I can on this subject, as optimal education design hinges on understanding how adults learn effectively.

    The only thing I would add to the conversation is to make sure that somehow, some way, a presenter make the learning experience fun. Even if that is just having people stand up and go through some sort of fun interactive experience. That really gets the juices flowing.

    Thanks for posting this article… much appreciated.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for giving us some practical applications for the use of andragogy. Great examples and reminders.

      Great addition! Yes, learning should be fun. Thanks for adding that.

  12. Great info, loved the part about presenters being innocent until proven guilty. I soo get it!

  13. […] Ask presenters to use interactive learning experiences. You can read more about that here, here and […]

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