Online Adult Learning

Effective Principles

Knowles, Holton & Swanson (2005) discuss many principles of adult online education. Some of these principles are the Learners Need to Know, Self-Concept of the Learner, Prior Experience of the Learner, Readiness to Learn, Orientation to Learning and Motication to Learn (p. 4). Experience is discussed in detail on the Key Concepts page.


  • Need to Know
  • Self-Concept
  • Readiness
  • Orientation
  • Motivation

Moreso than younger learners, adults need to have several questions answered in order to help them learn better. Knowles states that learners need to know: why, what & how (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 4). The main question from these is why the student needs to learn the material (p. 64).

Younger students sometimes ask this question, but adults need the answer before they will invest their energy in learning the material, when they have so many other tasks that require that energy. Prior to asking students to learn new material, it can be helpful, for both the educator and the learner, to examine why the material is to be learned (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p.p. 64 - 65)

Is the learner self-directing and autonomous (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 4)?

Most adults have the "self-concept of being responsible ..., for their own lives" (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 65). However, when an adult comes to an online learning experience, she sometimes expects the same experience she had as a child. If the adult learner does not bring her sense of being responsible for her learning to the learning situation, the educator may need to help the learner become aware that the best way to learn is to be self-directed ((Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 65).

If the learner sees a need to learn new materials, the learner will most likely be ready to participate fully in a course.

Does a promotion or job require the student to learn the material? If so the student will most likely have the readiness needed. Another way to help an adult aquire the readiness is to show him the need through various techniques, such as career counseling or simulations (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 67).

Adults are often problem-centered. When materials are presented with the context of real-life situations, their attitude toward learning and understanding the material improves (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 67). For example, teaching adults about sets in a mathematics course, they are often resistent until examples of everyday situtations are brought into the lesson.

What is the student's motivation? While external motivations such as a promotion or better pay will increase an adult learners desire to learn material, internal motivations are better. Some of these internal motivations are self-esteem and job satisfaction. Sometimes the student creates his own barriers to motivation, such as negative self-concept. While other times the barriers can be external, such as time constraints. It is important to help the learner overcome the barriers to internal motivation (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005, p. 68).