Great Expectations: Meeting the Needs of Today’s Adult Learners

Graphics depicting learning

Written By:

Lindsay Overall Cropped Photo

Lindsay Overall


As association professionals, we provide education to our members to help bridge the gap between academic study and professional life.   With tight competition for our members’ time, money, and attention, educational design becomes increasingly important to help our events and offerings stand out.

What exactly are the measures of success when it comes to adult education?  How does the way that adults learn affect how we should be designing our conferences? Molly Marsh, AMR Management Services Director of Education and Engagement Design advocates for a comprehensive meeting design approach. “Using demonstrated member, audience and industry needs to drive your educational approach ensures maximum relevancy and impact for your association events.”

Recently, AMR staff had the opportunity to participate in the ASAE online conference “SPARK: The Art and Science of Adult Learning.”  This professional development activity allowed AMR staff — from project coordinators to conference managers to policy analysts — to hear the latest theories and applications of adult learning.

The opening keynote session focused on “Emerging Perspectives on Association Education.”  Here are the key takeaways that are worth integrating into your education strategy:

Trends in Adult Learning

  • Modern education content creation is very decentralized.  This means that as associations, we need to leverage the input we get from our members.  They’re in the trenches and know what key issues, challenges, and knowledge gaps exist in their field, and they’re expecting us to equip them accordingly through our educational offerings.
  • Micro-learning, just like micro-volunteering is a “thing.”  Today’s adult learners prefer bite-sized nuggets of information on specific things that they can do NOW to improve their professional work.  While in-person multi-day conferences are still essential to the member experience, we need a balanced portfolio of educational offerings — including digital micro-learning opportunities — to provide the highest value to members.  This need not be extra work, as you can easily extract from your existing “deep dive” content key points that can be repurposed as micro-learning opportunities, such as short video tutorials, a brief online module for CE credit, etc.
  • Increased competition in the education space.  As associations, two of our biggest competitors in education delivery are internal corporate trainings and free or paid online resources.  Internal trainings have an edge in terms of having a captive audience where they can mandate employees take their training.  Additionally, these internal trainings are no longer lecture-style mass seminars but are much more sophisticated with hands-on activities and expert presenters.  Our other key competitor is the free or paid online resources that are growing in popularity, such as, Coursera, etc.  In light of these developments, it’s exceedingly important for us as association professionals to distinguish ourselves as THE source of education for our members, addressing what they want to know, and doing it in an engaging, practical, and convenient way.
  • Outcomes vs. satisfaction.  Rather than relying on attendees’ ratings of a conference or educational offering, we should focus on demonstrating what participants can now do that they couldn’t beforehand.  So, instead of touting that your conference attendees rated your event 4.5 stars out of 5, consider giving more concrete measures of success, such as “95% of attendees report that after the conference they are now able to X.”

The second noteworthy session that we attended was on the topic of “Andragogy.”  (like pedagogy- only adults instead of children…)

An·dra·go·gy (/ˈandrəˌɡäjē,-ɡäɡē/): the method and practice of teaching adult learners; adult education.

Since we already learned in session that micro is the way to go.  So, here are our takeaways in convenient list form 😊:

Tips for educational design:

  1. Create learning experiences that offer minimum instruction and maximum autonomy.
    (ex. Flipped classroom model). 
  2. Include a wide range of instructional design models and theories to appeal to varied experience levels and backgrounds.
  3. Utilize social media and online collaboration tools to tie learning to social development.
    (ex. Higher Logic community).
  4. Emphasize how the subject matter is going to solve problems that an adult learner encounters regularly. (Should be part of how you market your education).
  5. There must be a valid reason behind every eLearning course, module, or educational activity.
    (i.e. state learning objectives).
  6. Adults must have a hand in the design and development of their learning experience
    (ex. Choose track or subjects).
  7. Experience should be at the root of all eLearning tasks and activities (Adults learn from their mistakes and from the process- ex. Role play + feedback).
  8. Real life applications and benefits must be tied to the eLearning activity. 
    (Keep it real.  Minimize theory).
  9. Adult learners need the opportunity to absorb information, rather than to memorize it.  (participate rather than lecture) Learn, practice, and reflect.

Common traits of adult learners:

  1. They are self-directed.
  2. They are practice and results-oriented.
  3. They are less open-minded, and more resistant to change (they need to know WHY).
  4. They learn slower yet more interactively. 
  5. They use personal experience as a resource.
  6. They engage in voluntary learning.
  7. They have multi-level responsibilities (family, work, home, etc.).
  8. They have high expectations.

With these tips, your association is well equipped to meet —and exceed – the high expectations of your adult learners, your members!

Lindsay Overall Cropped Photo
Lindsay Overall
Program Manager
All Posts By Lindsay Overall