Adult Learning Principles for Effective DEI Training

Effective DEI training programs are essential for the success of organizations, but designing them for adults requires a different approach than for children. Malcolm Knowles, a researcher in adult learning, identified eight fundamental principles to incorporate when developing training for adults. These principles are based on the unique characteristics of adult learners and can help increase their engagement and retention of the material.

Self-Direction and Motivation

Adults are more motivated to learn if they perceive a direct benefit. Programs should communicate their benefits to promote engagement, and the early stages should be intentionally simple to help students get going. Adults will engage in self-directed learning at higher rates than younger learners if the value is well expressed.
Studies have shown that self-directed learning can increase motivation and engagement in adult learners. For example, a study by O'Sullivan, Hardin, and Yarborough (2019) found that self-directed learning was positively associated with motivation in adult learners. Furthermore, a study by Guglielmino and Guglielmino (2019) found that adult learners who were provided with opportunities for self-direction reported higher levels of motivation and engagement.

Previous Life Experience

Adults use their life experiences to help engage with new ideas. While this can accelerate understanding, there is a risk that an adult learner will bring biases into the process, which can affect their information gathering. Including bias training and basic research methods in programs can ease any impediments to learning.

Studies have shown that adult learners can benefit from incorporating their life experiences into the learning process. For example, a study by Merriam and Caffarella (1999) found that adult learners who were encouraged to reflect on their life experiences during the learning process reported higher levels of engagement and understanding. However, it is also important to address any potential biases that adult learners may bring into the learning process. A study by Halpern and Hakel (2003) found that explicit instruction on how to identify and address biases can help improve critical thinking skills in adult learners.

Results Oriented

Goal setting is essential, and the student’s motivation is key to success. Supportive information and tools stimulate learner engagement with program content. Clarity about how the program connects to adult learners’ work is essential.

Studies have shown that setting specific and challenging goals can increase motivation and performance in adult learners. For example, a meta-analysis by Locke and Latham (2002) found that goal-setting improved performance in a variety of settings, including educational and work-related contexts. Furthermore, a study by Vansteenkiste et al. (2004) found that providing supportive information and tools can increase motivation and engagement in adult learners.

Relevance and Value

Information that is relevant to adult learners promotes sustained engagement, particularly in the case of longer-term training programs. Reminders of the big-picture value of the program to the company or institution and how it will benefit individuals also serve to maintain learner interest.


Studies have shown that relevance and value are important factors in adult learners' motivation and engagement. For example, a study by Hsu and Liou (2018) found that perceived relevance was positively associated with motivation and engagement in adult learners. Furthermore, a study by McArthur and Lewis (2011) found that adult learners who were provided with a clear understanding of how the training program would benefit their career development reported higher levels of engagement and satisfaction.

Application and Practicality

Adult learners are often attracted to practical solutions and problem-solving. They tend to appreciate training materials that they can readily apply to real-world situations, as this encourages experiential learning. It also allows them to draw on their life experiences and integrate new information with their existing body of knowledge. To ensure that training programs meet this requirement, trainers should strive to incorporate a variety of interactive activities that foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

One such activity is case studies. Case studies provide an opportunity for adult learners to analyze real-world scenarios and apply critical thinking to solve problems. Research has shown that incorporating case studies in training programs leads to better retention of information, as it allows learners to see how the information they are learning can be applied in real-life situations (Mwirigi & Nyambegera, 2019).

Another way to foster application and practicality is through simulations. Simulations allow adult learners to engage in experiential learning by recreating real-life situations in a controlled environment. For instance, a customer service training program could incorporate a simulation where learners take on the role of a customer service representative and interact with customers to resolve issues. This allows learners to practice their problem-solving and communication skills in a realistic setting, which can lead to increased confidence and improved job performance (Trevino & Riggio, 2019).

It is important to note that adult learners also tend to learn better when they are given the opportunity to reflect on their learning experiences. Thus, trainers should incorporate opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning throughout the training program. One way to do this is through the use of learning journals or reflective writing exercises. Research has shown that incorporating reflective practices in training programs can lead to improved critical thinking skills, increased self-awareness, and better retention of information (Mezirow, 1991).

Role Models and Mentorship

In the workplace, role models and mentors can be powerful motivators for adult learners. Role models are individuals who lead by example and provide inspiration for others to follow in their footsteps. In the context of workplace training, role models can be managers or supervisors who demonstrate how to apply new skills and knowledge to real-world situations. They can also be fellow employees who have successfully completed training programs and can share their experiences with their peers.

Mentors, on the other hand, are individuals who provide guidance and support to learners as they navigate new challenges and opportunities. Mentors can be assigned by the organization or self-selected by the learner. They can provide a range of support, including coaching, feedback, and advice on how to achieve specific goals.

Studies have shown that mentoring can have a positive impact on the learning and development of adult learners. For example, a study by Allen and Eby (2007) found that mentoring was associated with increased job satisfaction, performance, and retention among employees. Similarly, a study by Eby et al. (2010) found that mentoring was associated with increased career success, including higher salaries and more promotions.

Incorporating role models and mentors into training programs can also facilitate interdepartmental and cross-team connections. For example, a mentor from a different department or team can provide learners with exposure to different perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. This can help to break down silos within organizations and promote collaboration and innovation.

Variety of Learning Modalities

Adult learners come to training programs with different backgrounds, experiences, and preferences. Some may prefer to learn through reading, while others may prefer to learn through hands-on activities. Therefore, effective training programs should provide a variety of learning modalities to accommodate different learning styles.

Research has shown that providing multiple modalities can increase learner engagement and improve learning outcomes. For example, a study by Moreno and Mayer (2007) found that learners who received multimedia instruction (i.e., instruction that included text, pictures, and audio) outperformed learners who received text-only instruction.

In addition to multimedia instruction, other modalities to consider include group discussions, case studies, simulations, and on-the-job training. By providing multiple modalities, trainers can help learners to build a deeper understanding of the material and apply it to real-world situations.


Finally, effective training programs should provide adult learners with a sense of agency – the feeling that they can contribute to the content and have some control over how they engage with the material. This can be achieved through self-directed learning, which allows learners to set their own goals, pace, and level of engagement.

Research has shown that self-directed learning can increase motivation and engagement among adult learners. For example, a study by Rovai and Jordan (2004) found that self-directed learners reported higher levels of motivation and satisfaction with their learning experiences.

To incorporate self-directed learning into training programs, trainers can provide learners with a range of resources and tools, such as online tutorials, reference materials, and self-assessment quizzes. Learners can then use these resources to guide their own learning and track their progress over time.


Incorporating these eight principles of adult learning into DEI training programs can help trainers to design more effective and engaging learning experiences for adult learners. By understanding how adults learn and tailoring DEI training programs to meet their needs, trainers can help to promote the success of their organizations and the ongoing professional development of their employees.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on the importance of DEI training and inclusion in the workplace. We hope that it has provided you with valuable insights and ideas on how to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace. We understand the importance of this topic and are committed to providing effective learning solutions to help you achieve your goals. Let's work together to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace for all.

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