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Six Characteristics of Adult Learners

Published: August 27, 2013 | By: Matt McConnell

Malcolm Knowles adapted the theory of Andragogy, teaching strategies for adult learners, to adult learning in the 1970s. Knowles’ Andragogy outlines theoretical and practical methods based on six characteristics of adult learners. Understanding these adult learning characteristics will help you inspire your agents to improve their skills, improve the quality of your training and improve the quality of your contact center.


The Need to Know

According to Knowles, “adults want to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn. Facilitators must help adults become aware of their ‘need to know and make a case for the value of learning.”

Agents will be more receptive and committed to training if they understand why it is important to the organization, their management, the customer, and most importantly themselves. Providing the why as early as possible, such as when initially scheduling the training and then again at the beginning of the training, will help ensure your agents get the most out of the training.


The Learners’ Self-Concept

Knowles explained the learner’s self-concept. “Adults believe they are responsible for their lives. They need to be seen and treated as capable and self-directed.”

Providing an environment of self-directed learning will increase your agents’ level of absorption of the training. Providing agents the freedom to choose which skills to improve will ensure the highest level of attention.


The Role of the Learners’ Experience

The role of the learners’ experience was described by Knowles. “Adults come into an educational activity with different experiences than do youth. There are individual differences in background, learning style, motivation, needs, interests, and goals, creating a greater need for individualization of teaching and learning strategies.”

Agents more easily understand the experiences of their colleagues and their own experiences. Incorporating discussions, simulations, problem-solving activities, or case methods helps agents to more quickly grasp the information in the training and how to apply that information to their jobs.


Readiness to Learn

“Adults become ready to learn things they need to know and do in order to cope effectively with real-life situations. Adults want to learn what they can apply in the present, making training focused on the future or that does not relate to their current situations less effective,” explained Knowles.

Agents will be far more interested in developing knowledge and skills that they can apply to their current day-to-day activities. The less that the training applies to their current role and the longer they would have to wait to utilize the knowledge, the less attention they will be willing to provide to the training.


Orientation to Learning

“Adults are life-centered (task-centered, problem-centered) in their orientation to learning. They want to learn what will help them perform tasks or deal with problems they confront in everyday situations and those presented in the context of application to real-life,” said Knowles.

Much like the readiness to learn, agents will be far more interested in developing knowledge and skills that they can apply to their current day-to-day activities. Teaching practical techniques in the context of the agents’ daily activities will be far more welcomed than ambiguous and theoretical concepts.



According to Knowles, “adults are responsive to some external motivators (e.g., a better job, higher salaries), but the most potent motivators are internal (e.g., desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem). Their motivation can be blocked by training and education that ignores adult learning principles.”

Helping agents understand how the training will help them do their jobs better, perform better and receive more rewards and recognition will earn more of their focus and commitment.


Summary of Adult Learning Characteristics

Malcolm Knowles’ six characteristics of adult learners emphasize the need to focus training on the learner’s experiences and interests. Agents have different personalities, backgrounds, learning styles, and motivators. Understanding these will help you to improve your agents’ skills, improve the quality of your training and improve the quality of your contact center.


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