The four principles of adult learning

How Adults Learn

Adults learn differently to children. We need to know why we are learning something and what solution it will provide. We are more motivated when learning contributes to our quality of life and self-esteem and we have the opportunity to challenge and question. As adults, we also have more knowledge and experience to share than younger learners. This section will cover how we learn as adults, explain the four different types of learners and give examples of different training techniques. Click each section heading to jump straight to it:

Learning from experience

Kolb's DiagramAdults usually learn better by doing something rather than just reading or discussing. We learn from experience and how we learn new things is influenced by our previous experiences, our education, background and our culture. We like to have some control over what we learn and to be able to apply it to real-life situations. 

David Kolb's model of experiential learning is often cited as the best model for learning as it identifies four distinct learning styles which are summarised in a four stage cycle of learning.

Kolb's model recognises the different ways of learning, from doing something, to reflecting on how you did it, learning lessons from it and then assessing what you would do differently next time.

There is no start or end to the circle: your training can start at any point but a good training will include all four stages.

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Different learning styles

Honey and Mumford (1992) described four main types of individuals and their preferred ways of learning. The four learning styles are: activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists.

As with Kolb's diagram, a good training should include elements that satisfy all four groups of people in each session you deliver. This way, you will ensure that your training will satisfy everyone in the room at some point. 

What are the differences between the different types? The presentations below summarise what sort of person each type is, when they learn best and when they learn less. We have also given an example scenario involving a new mobile phone. How would you behave if you were given a new mobile phone? Hopefully this example and the presentations will help you understand what kind of learner you are.





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Most of us have elements of more than one learning style. Knowing which are your strongest and weakest styles will help you identify how you best deliver training. As a trainer, having an appreciation and understanding of the different styles will help you design stimulating and effective trainings.

Trainers often develop training programmes that match their own preferred style but remember that the participants' you train are likely to possess a mixture of all four styles. Your training should reflect that.

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Example training techniques

Theory is not an end in itselfNow that you've learnt about the four different types of learners, and the four ways people learn, here are some examples of different techniques you can use in your training.

Remember, you will not satisfy all of the participants, all of the time. But by using a mixture of all four styles - a blended learning approach - you will maximise the opportunity for all of the participants to learn at some point during the training. 

There are infinite possibilities and ways for you to create different techniques and approaches to delivering your training. The list below is in no way exhaustive, but we hope it helps you think about new ideas to vary your training methodology. 

Doing something - best for activists

Observe something - best for reflectors

  • Role-play exercises
  • Competitions
  • Group discussion or brainstorming
  • Gallery walk (putting group work on the wall and time out to read and take notes)
  • Observing role-play exercises
  • Learning logs or paired discussions

Explain something - best for theorists

Apply something - best for pragmatists 

  • PowerPoint presentation with statistics and stories
  • Handouts at the end of a session
  • Video or animation
  • Theory through an example or case study (e.g. a past campaign)
  • Discussing existing, local campaign materials
  • Problem solving exercise

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Now read the Training Cycle


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