Learning is personal.

Written by Erin Huizenga, originally posted on Medium.com on September 15, 2018.

Reflections on learning design from the Virtual Harvard Yard.

Recently I enrolled in a course at Harvard as part of a Certificate in Learning Design and Technology. As part of this first course on empowering the adult online learner, we have been asked to watch and write about the 1994 film Renaissance Man. The film demonstrates that knowing your audience as individuals with unique experiences helps the conveyer of learning to meet his audience’s personal needs.

The main character Bill Rago, played by Danny Devito, displays many andragogical principles, which are adult learning principles reintroduced by American adult educator Malcolm Knowles in 1980 after American psychologist Edward Thorndike and others began crafting and exploring the term in the twenties. The word “andragogy” comes from the Greek meaning “man” and “leader of” or leader of man where “pedagogy” means leader of children.

The students in Rago’s class show time and time again that they want to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their learning. Knowing adults are driven by an internal motivation to learn, Rago teases the class a bit by initially bringing in his old copy of Hamlet. He says, “You guys don’t want to hear about Hamlet!” But they do. Their instructor, their guide if you will, finds a way to link the learning to each student’s personal experience. The students then become ambassadors of their own learning and find their own version of motivation to keep going.

From my own life experience and recent readings, I’m finding there are six andragogy principles that offer a terrific framing for how to design learning programs:

Align with independence.

As we get older and have more life experience, we become more independent and directed in spirit. We want to be viewed as completely able to take control of what we need to learn to succeed and take care of ourselves. When we are not treating learners as fully responsible and capable, I’ve seen in my own professional roles as an educator and facilitator that people tend to withdraw from learning experiences where they feel talked at and not talked with. I’ve learned by trial and error over the years to design programs, trainings, and courses that allow for independent exploration and independent conviction. Our role as learning designers is to design the framework and then get out of the way to give the learner the pleasure of filling in the rest. For example, I’ve done this by assigning projects that most interest each learner in my classrooms and by designing additional choices into online service platforms so that each person who interacts with it can enjoy options that allow them to choose their own adventure.

Identify with life experience.

Personal life experience is the most ideal resource for learning and creating memorable strategies. Or another way to think about this principle is to create “teachable moments” when we are ready and primed for learning. The most ideal time to share something is when it is essential to a timely experience such as having a baby, getting married, or going back to school. This is why it’s essential to know your audience on such a personal, qualitative level. What are they struggling with each day? What are they looking forward to most? If designers can find what I call those critical learning intervention opportunities, we’ve found a way to enhance each learner’s experience for the better. Learning has to be personally relevant to be memorable.

Find readiness moments.

Roles change as we grow older. Moments where we feel tense or unequipped are moments to get someone “hooked” on learning something new that will help them meet a need or get better. Programs can ideally be designed around meeting these needs in a timely way yet often we’re asked to learn something when we just aren’t ready to take the information in. Have you been on a customer service call when they try to tell you all about a new offering that you didn’t ask for? You don’t want it and it’s not timely. Have you been told you need a treatment at a health clinic and the nurse tries to educate you about it right there in the moment? You aren’t ready to hear it. We’re eager to learn if we are prepared to gain new knowledge that’s relevant to our desired ideal experience.

Make learning immediately applicable.

We want information we can immediately apply. We want our learning to map directly to solving a very specific and relevant problem… now! This is why tutorials at retail environments, healthcare centers, and hair salons are so helpful and usually quite fun to watch and take in. I ran into Bed, Bath, and Beyond (reluctantly) to get some cleaning supplies yesterday and there was an informational video about how to clean dog hair from floors. Yesterday morning I had been thinking about how we might best clean our new home of all the dog hair that collects over time. This video was immediately applicable and helpful to my experience. (And yes, I did buy the product they were selling: Pet Wedge!) I appreciated that I felt smarter and more capable of caring for my family after watching their hilarious in-store video. Learnings are very relevant and helpful in the moment while we are wanting to learn how to use, fix, or try something.

Find where each person’s internal motivation comes from.

We learn more when we know why we are learning. Rather than an organization telling us what and when we need to learn, we ought to find ways to design for intrinsic motivation by linking the new content to what matters most to learners. Carl Rogers, on of the founders of the humanistic approach or person-centered to psychology, wrote in 1969 that our goal in shared learning is to develop “fully-functioning people.” This aligns well with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be fully self-actualized as the most ideal state of humanity. In my courses at Northwestern and Institute of Design at IIT, I have always asked my students why they are there on the first day of class. This helps ground each person in their own “why” and also gives me as the instructor and guide some insight about what’s motivating them to learn.

Find the need to know.

The last principle of andragogy is the need to know. As lifelong learners we consistently need to know how new learning will help us to meet our goals. If we don’t feel we need to take in information, then the chances that we will be able to recall new learning will diminish. Audiences must understand and link to their need to know BEFORE participating or interacting with new learning begins.

These are psychological principles on why adult learning is historically different from our learning needs and experiences as a child. For people with busy lives and rich experiences, we as learning designers need to be accountable to ensuring we invite our learners to reflect on and link to their own experiences to engage in new learning opportunities.

Now the question is, as children are more and more exposed to bigger and broader life experiences, do andragogy principles apply to them just as much as they do to adults?

I believe they might. How can we encourage kids as well as adults to take more responsibility for their learning or wellness by making learning immediately applicable? How can we design for readiness moments?

To me, it is exciting to think about how these principles become a framework for learning designers to partner in mentoring, coaching, and guiding learners at every age to find their best and most timely, personalized path.

Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has a story to build.


Merriam, S. (2014). Adult Learning, Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Soumache, A. (Producer), Lener, R. (Producer), Vonarb, A. (Produce), Marshall, P (Director). (1994). Renaissance Man [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures

Erin Huizenga