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SME's Guide to Adult Learning Principles

Updated: May 23, 2023

Congratulations, you're a subject matter expert (SME) for a training project and tasked to collaborate on the development of an e-learning course! This means you'll likely be partnering with an instructional designer or an e-learning developer to complete the project.

Did you know there's a sure-fire way to maximize your value as a collaborator and positively impact the outcome of the training project? This simple guide has what you need to know to help support the needs of adult learners.

Your Role as a SME

SMEs are usually called in to help in the training development process to be the experts on the content and the learning audience (usually the employees). As a SME, one of your tasks is to help identify the goals you're all trying to reach through the training, as well as the motivations of the learners.

You may also be able to explain the typical trainee's previous knowledge that may help or hinder learning. And you can even help the instructional designer understand realistic scenarios that the learners face on their job so these can be incorporated into the training.

Finally, you may even assist with learning activities and assessments and help sort out content that's most important to the learners, the WIIFMs (or what's in it for me), so the training team can help learners realize these benefits. All of these contributions are essential to meeting the needs of adult learners.

The role of instructional designers is to ensure the needs of adult learners are reflected in the training materials they design and develop. Your role as a stakeholder in a training project is to work collaboratively with the instructional designer and the rest of the development team to realize the organization's goals for the training project, so you should understand some of the reasoning for the training methods used.

Using Adult Learning Principles

One of the most important concepts for business training is that it should be based on Adult Learning Principles. By incorporating these principles in your training, the course design and content are better aligned to ensure trainees will learn what they need, so let's think about adult learning principles and how these can be applied to the training you help develop.

Adults are autonomous and self-directed.

Adult learners have a self-concept of being in charge of their own lives and of being responsible for their own decisions. They have a need to be seen and treated as being capable of taking responsibility.


  • Empower them to learn and to take responsibility for learning.

  • Enable learners to assess their own learning.

How you can help:

  • Help identify resources and information that learners can easily access on their own.

  • Look for opportunities for learners to take responsibility and solve problems independently during the training.

  • Be prepared to review materials for opportunities for self-assessment, peer group activities and peer-reviews throughout the training.

Adults are goal-oriented.

Adults usually know what goal they want to attain before starting training.


  • Early in the training, determine the learners' goals.

  • Throughout the training, show learners how their goals are being attained.

How you can help:

  • Work with instructional designers to define clear and actionable objectives for the entire training program and at the beginning of each course/module or section.

  • When reviewing outlines and materials, ensure the flow of topics is sequential, so they build on other, reinforce concepts and support processes.

  • Provide thorough feedback for interactions and activities

Adults must see a reason for learning something.

Adults are motivated to put time and energy into learning if they know the benefits of learning and the costs of not learning.


  • Help learners answer the question, "What's in it for me?"

  • Provide learners with opportunities to apply knowledge to their lives with realistic scenarios and hands-on practice.

How you can help:

  • Provide the designer with insight into how the training will benefit the intended audience and include examples where appropriate. For example provide a list of current pain points and how the training will help address those pain points.

  • Help identify real-life stories for the training to make topics more relatable.

  • Review to ensure there are activities around case studies and realistic job tasks to give learners a safe environment to practice.

Adults are practical focusing on what's most useful to them.

They may not be interested in knowledge just for the sake of knowledge.


  • Be sure to tell adult learners explicitly how the training content will be useful to them on the job.

  • Allow learners an opportunity to evaluate how training content will be useful to them.

How you can help:

  • Review to ensure content is direct and to-the-point, and clearly demonstrates value to the learner in their role within the organization.

  • Work with designers and developers to create practice activities and assessments that are meaningful to the learner.

  • Review to ensure there are no unnecessary interactions or gamification techniques that may waste time or detract from the learning process.

Adults need to be respected.

Adult learners should be treated as equals in experience and knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely in class.


  • Always acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to the classroom.

  • Encourage discussion of training content.

How you can help:

  • Take part in brainstorming meetings with the development team on how to encourage learners to share their own knowledge and experiences relating to the topic. This could include: pre-work assignments, pre- and post-training surveys, peer-group activities, self-study work, wrap-up sessions, action plans, etc.

  • Review to ensure there are opportunities for conversation and collaboration regardless of training delivery method (i.e. videos, classroom, virtual-led training, self-study, elearning, or some blended approach).

Adults have barriers against participating in learning.

They have many responsibilities that they must balance against the demands of learning, such as lack of time, money, confidence, scheduling problems, etc.


  • Provide opportunities for learners to overcome these barriers with immersive activities that help them stay focused on the learning.

  • Make activities and assignments convenient to complete.

How you can help:

  • When helping organize and sequence content, suggest topics and subtopics that help make the information and materials easier to digest, absorb and use back on the job.

  • Help identify easy “wins” for the learners that build confidence and increase their motivation.

  • Strategize with the learning development team for ways to support the training audience after the training with mentors, print handouts, follow-up calls, and other resources that aid in their success.

As an adult, you probably have a good idea of what you like and don't like about training. And now you know why! The best training takes into consideration what adults need in their training programs. As a SME, your contributions, along with your understanding of adult learning theory, make the learning development project far richer and more robust for your employee trainees. That usually translates to a little less work for you down the road, and allows you to focus on what you do best, being a topic expert in your company.

Another plus? Understanding the audience you and your learning development team are working to help: acknowledging their needs allows you to become a better SME and collaborate to create training that inspires, drives performance and helps learners achieve their goals. You get to help your colleagues, your company, and yourself.

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