Applying Principles of Adult Learning: The Key to More Effective Training Programs

Article excerpt

The field of adult education has been emerging steadily as a discrete field of social practice in the United States since the founding of the American Association for Adult Education in 1926. (1) Since that time, research has produced many new concepts about the learning processes of adults and the motives that direct and influence an adult's ability to acquire new knowledge and skills. Recognition and application of these concepts are the key to more effective law enforcement training programs.

Although adult and youth learning are governed by many of the same basic concepts, research now shows that adults differ from youths in many ways that influence their learning. Adults differ distinctly in terms of such factors as motivation, interest, values, attitudes, physical and mental abilities, and learning histories. The conditions imposed by these differences make adult learners a unique audience and form the basis for the principles of adult learning and for the instructional methodologies tailored to the characteristics of adult learners. With this in mind, law enforcement instructors, supervisors, and administrators who not only design training courses but also select those provided by other sources should inquire as to whether, as well as, how these courses use adult learning methodologies. Such knowledge can help law enforcement managers find the most suitable training for their employees.


The principles of adult learning involve several differences compared with those of younger learners. Adult learners possess a different self-image, more life experiences, the fear of failure, a greater expectation to immediately use learning, a diminished speed and retention of learning, and some basic physical differences that can impact their abilities to learn.

Different Self-Image

Adults have a different self-image than youths. Unlike young people, adults enter learning activities with an image of themselves as self-directing, responsible, mature, and independent learners. Adults generally resist situations where they are treated like anything other than responsible adults.

A hallmark of the adult education philosophy is to include learners in the planning and implementation of their learning activities. When possible, law enforcement managers should solicit suggestions from officers through need assessment surveys and course critiques, as well as appoint officers to serve on training advisory boards. They should avoid placing officers in the position of simply being passive recipients of facts. Adult learning activities should include action and involvement.

Instructors should clearly inform officers concerning what they expect of them, the material they will be learning, and the standards by which their performance will be evaluated. This information not only will direct officers in the learning process but will give them clearly defined goals for direction in the training program.

Educators should create a classroom atmosphere that is informal and friendly and where a sense of mutual respect exists between the teacher and the student. Although teachers have the overall responsibility for leading a learning activity, the adult education philosophy espouses that everyone has something to teach and to learn from each other.

More Life Experiences

Adults enter learning activities with a greater amount of life experiences to which they can relate new learning. Therefore, teachers should not ignore what their students already know. The life experiences and perspectives that adults bring to the classroom can provide a rich reservoir for learning. Where possible, educators should base new learning on the previous experience of the learner. This will facilitate faster and more effective learning. Instructors should use teaching techniques, such as group discussions, symposiums, debates, demonstrations, role-plays, and group projects, where learners have an opportunity to draw upon their previous experiences and to share them in cooperative interaction with others. …