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Using adult learning principles in webinars

Do you think, like some others, that adult learning principles sound like an old, outdated approach – something that was dreamed up in the 1970s and 80s, and surely cannot still be relevant? In this episode we will explore how we can apply adult learning principles to super-charge our webinars. 

As we discussed in an earlier episode, Malcolm Knowles identified six key adult learning principles back in 1970. For this episode, we are going to use the seven conditions that need to exist if we want adults to learn effectively, as outlined in the book How to teach adults in a fun and exciting way, by Doug Malouf. These are as follows:

  1. Learners must feel a need to learn.
  2. The learning environment must be mentally and socially safe.
  3. Learners must set their own learning goals.
  4. Learners must participate actively in the learning process.
  5. Learning must build on, and use, the learner’s experience.
  6. Learners must see that their learning has been successful. And finally, 
  7. Learning must involve effective two-way communication.


Now we’ll apply apply these to our webinar situation. It’s important that the adults attending our webinars feel a need to learn about the topic being discussed. Maybe ten years ago we could run a webinar and hope people might attend due to the novelty of the online platform. But fast forward to today, and thanks to COVID-19, many of us are overwhelmed by the number of online events we can attend. 

An easy way to find out what interests our audience is to just ask them. At the end of one event, whether it be a physical event or an online one, we can ask our audience what they would like to hear about in the future. That way they are driving the agenda and we will know they will be interested. Another way is to ask a similar question as part of our post-event evaluation. Since we are already getting their feedback, just slip in an extra question about what other topics would interest them in future. Or perhaps better still, send out a separate survey with just the one question: What is your single biggest professional challenge right now? We can tweak it so it makes sense to whichever audience we are targeting. John has done this before and is often delighted with the topic suggestions that he would never have thought of covering. Often the direct approach of just asking people is better than trying to second guess them ourselves. By doing this we can be confident that the topic of our webinar will be relevant to our audience. 

We know that not everyone is comfortable in an online environment, yet we know that it’s important that the learning environment be mentally and socially safe. That is where we can run a few deliberate activities at the beginning of our webinars to create the environment we are after. John often starts a webinar five or ten minutes before the official start time, and shares photos of some recent bushwalks he has done or local flowers he has photographed. That small act of self disclosure can help make others feel more relaxed. We also introduce them to some of the technology we will use during the webinar at the beginning phase. So if we know that we need them to type messages into the chat box or use an online polling platform later, then we get them to practice doing that in the early stages of the webinar with some less important information, such as their location or the current weather. That way they feel more confident using that technology later on when it really counts. If appropriate, we will also often say that there are no right or wrong answers when we are asking them to share their experiences. 

It is helpful for the learners to set their own learning goals for a particular activity. While many would be aware of why they are attending an event such as a webinar, we can help make it explicit by inviting them to share that during an early breakout room session. We can run a session like this early on, as it helps the participants not only meet a few new people, but for them to realise that they are all there to learn something new. We will usually invite them to introduce themselves with their name, location and what they most want to get out of the session. We can also invite them to share that in the chat box, so we can ensure we cover the topics of most importance to the attendees. 

In Doug Malouf’s book, he emphasises the need to actively engage learners in the learning process. In webinars we can do this by inviting the participants to contribute their ideas, so they help build the overall picture. It should not be us lecturing at them for the duration of the webinar, but be a balance of material contributed by us and them. That will also give them greater ownership of the material covered. 

We can do that by building on, and using, the learner’s experience. It is useful to know what the participants already know about a particular topic, and then build on that. This respects their existing knowledge and experience. Otherwise it is a waste of our time and theirs. One way to find this out is to get people to register for our webinar, and include that as one of the registration questions. We could also use a poll early in the webinar to gauge their existing knowledge on the topic, which then lets us know at which level to pitch our presentation. Another option is to use breakout rooms and allow participants to share their knowledge and ideas with their small group. It does not always need to be just us delivering the information! 

Adult learning works best when learners can see that their learning has been successful.We can help emphasise this by running a poll at the end of the webinar, asking participants to list the most useful things they learnt during the event. We could also invite them to share those things in a breakout room towards the end of the webinar, which can help raise the overall energy levels of the event. We have also set aside time at the end of a webinar and invited participants to mute themselves and turn off their camera and spend two minutes in silence jotting down their takeaways and maybe an action step. This can feel daunting to do, but in our experience people appreciate a minute or so of silence to reflect before finishing and dashing off to the next thing!

When we design our webinar, we need to make sure that we involve effective two-way communication as much as possible. This takes extra time, but ensures the learning is effective. As a webinar presenter, welike to include some of the things we learnt during the webinar from the other participants. This shows that we too have been listening and emphasises the two-way flow of information and ideas. 

In conclusion, by incorporating these adult learning approaches in our webinars, we are going to make them not only more effective for the learners, but more fun and enjoyable for all involved! That just goes to show that adult learning principles are as important today as back in 1970 when Malcolm Knowles first discussed them! 

Finally, in keeping with the principle of two-way communication, we would love to hear your thoughts and ideas about using adult learning principles! Add a comment below this post and while you’re there, please rate this particular episode on a five-point scale so we can tell whether it’s been useful or not. 


Malouf, D. (2003). How to teach adults in a fun and exciting way (2nd edition). Allen & Unwin.

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Adrian Englefield
Adrian Englefield
2 years ago

Hello John and Denise
5 stars from me – I find these videos are a great resource and reminder to revisit and review my past extension experiences and resources.

I have previously used Kolb’s Learning Style Questionnaire to evaluate my own learning styles – and be aware of other learning styles.

Apparently I’m a theorist and reflector!!!

Denise Bewsell
Denise Bewsell
2 years ago

Great to hear from you Adrian! Kolb’s approach highlighting learning by experience is helpful and his model is a useful guide. It’s been a while since I did the questionnaire so I can’t remember what I was!

Graham Harris
Graham Harris
2 years ago

A great job by you both – and a very good reminder for us all inundated with on-line events. 5 stars from me also.

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