Adult Learning Strategies

Jackie Dobrovolny presents a model for adult learning in Learning Strategies, an October 2003 article in Learning Circuits.  Dobrovolny highlights how adult learners use 5 key learning strategies (outlined below) and how instructional design can support these key adult learning strategies. 

Learning Strategies:

  1. Metacognition (defined as self-assessment and self-correction):  Though self-assessment and reflection, learners evaluate their progress and modify their learning strategies in order to find their own "preferred" learning strategy.
  2. Reflection: Learners use reflection to visualize, see the "big picture", compare and recall information and experiences.
  3. Prior experiences:  Learners frequently "compare and contrast" course content with their own experiences.  While this can cause confusion if the information conflicts or difficulty in learning if they lack prior experiences, prior experiences can help to validate new information.
  4. Conversations: Leaning through discussions or conversation helps learners review and extend their understanding of the content, gain confidence in their mastery of the content and learn by explaining to others.
  5. Authentic experiences:  Authentic experiences allow learners to apply what they have learned, modify their skills based on their environment (that may not mirror the learning environment) and improve job performance.

Instructional Design Implications: Dobrovolny provides instructional design techniques to match these key adult learning strategies, including:

To Self-assess / Self-correct:

  • Frequent "self-checks, practice exercises, and / or hands-on simulations" along with feedback,
  • Clearly defined goals so that learners can continuously self-assess their progress to the goals, and
  • Content that can be re-read, easily searched and printed for future off-line use (or as a job aid).

To use Reflection:

  • Provide examples (case studies, simulations, hands-on experiences) that show ways to apply the content (make it relevant),
  • Require learners to create their own examples,
  • Pose Rhetorical questions,
  • Use "building block analogy" to show how pieces of content relates (to each other and to the whole), and
  • Allow access to course material after the course is over.

To use Prior Experiences:

  • Identify range and type of prior experiences during course analysis, and
  • Continuously create, compare and contrast links between course content and learner's prior experiences.

To use Conversations:

  • Encourage discussion of the course content - with everyone (inside and outside of the class).
  • Discussions with novices helps the learner break down the material while discussions with co-workers or experts provides an understanding of skill or knowledge gaps.

To use Authentic Experiences:

  • Provide examples of situations where learners can apply their knowledge,
  • Conclude training with reflection questions, and
  • Describe or demonstrate multiple approaches or procedures.


Jennifer, I think I detect

 Jennifer, I think I detect a theme in your choice of articles: a) online learning b) adult learning c) adults learning online. Smile


I definitely think that adults can be more diligent students, and they have accumulated cogntive and life skills to draw on.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I was 29 when I graduated undergrad - definitely an adult and no spring chicken. I'm 34 now, and am a much better student than I was when I was 29, and I was a very good student at 29, graduating with a 3.69GPA while working full-time (I missed Honors by .01 - curses!)

Why am I a better student now? Well, undergrad was something I "had" to do (with my middle class upbringing, there was no other option), while  I'm a student now because I want to be one. I have very clear goals (Master's = become a uni instructor in Korea) and I'm willing to make the necessary sacrfices. I have much higher academic standards for myself now, too. 

I have a lot of life experiences to draw upon. I studied Philosophy in undergrad and didn't have too much experience in that area - unless you count "navel gazing." Now I'm studying education and have been teaching five years, so when I read an article I can say "Yeah, that's true, I've seen that" or "That's a lot of bunk!" I have stronger metacognitive skills, too; I've got more experiencing managing my life ("managing" being a relative term here) now than I did five years ago, and I think this experience gives me stronger skills in managing my learning.  

I think the above model provides an ideal one for adult instruction. I would be curious to see how Dobrovolny's model for younger learners would be different; although undergraduate students are technically "adults," an 18 year-old has a lot less experience to draw on than a 34 year-old.