Adult Learning Principles: You have NO IDEA do you?

Pharmaceutical sales training

It’s ok…you’re in a safe place here.  The pharmaceutical sales training confession box.

Just me and you.

Picture this scenario and give me an honest response using the voting button below.

The Question:  How would you do?

You’re in a meeting with the brand team discussing ideas for how to roll out training for an upcoming product launch. In your lengthy PowerPoint deck, you have a boilerplate slide with several bullets in Arial-28 font that cover the key beliefs of the training department.  Somewhere in the middle of that slide is the phrase, “design training according to adult learning principles.”

It looks good in there and fits nicely between “learner-centricity” and alignment to business objectives.  And no one ever asks about it anyway.

Until today.

Someone from the marketing department looks up from her iPad and says, “Hey, can you remind me what adult learning principles actually are?”


(Votes below are totally anonymous and you’ll be able to see how everyone else is answering!)

How successfully could you answer this question today?

Full transparency, until about 3 days ago my vote was Option 3…I would have been in BIG trouble.

With 15 years in the pharmaceutical sales industry and over 4 years specifically at a sales training/learning agency, my reply would have trailed off a bit and included a couple of “niners” like everyone’s favorite sales person, Tommy Boy in this clip.

So, if you’re with me and need solid review of what adult learning principles really are, along with some simple application for the pharmaceutical sales training landscape, let’s jump in.

My Man Malcolm

Malcolm Knowles was an American educator largely credited with bringing the concept of adult learning theory into popular practice back in the 1970’s and 80’s.  In doing some research, you’ll find that he specifically adopted the term andragogy (Greek for “man-led” vs. pedagogy, “child-led”) as a way to differentiate between how adults learn and how children learn.

So if you really want to impress that marketing team member, start your reply with, “why yes…let’s discuss Knowles’ Theory of Andragogy a bit..”

There are many ways we could slice and dice Knowles’ theory, but it really boils down to an understanding of 4 key principles (my translation, not academic speak) that should drive our approach to pharmaceutical sales training design.

1) Be Transparent and Get Them Involved 

Adult learners have a strong self-concept.  Therefore, they want to know why things are being done a certain way and what’s in it for them.  Satisfy this need by getting them involved in the planning and evaluation of the training.  Be clear about the learning journey and goals. When was the last time you brought in a group of sales reps or managers to help you design POA training?

2) Let Them Drive and Screw Up

Adults learn best through experiences and want an opportunity to self-direct the learning experience itself. They’ve tried, succeeded and failed at many things. Especially important are the mistakes. That’s how they learn. Within the guardrails of pharmaceutical compliance, find ways to let your learners drive, try things and make mistakes.

3) Keep Pharmaceutical Sales Training Real

Adult learners bring real-life experience to the training table.  In pharmaceutical sales these days, it’s often a ton of experience. As a result, our audience constantly wants to understand how something is relevant to the job they’ll be asked to do and how their prior experience might fit in. Every pharmaceutical sales rep and manager evaluates how “good” training is by how relevant and useful it is for their job.  Keep it real.

4) Have Them Solve Problemspharmaceutical sales training question

Adult learners are not interested in content consumption.  They don’t want to learn stuff, they want to solve problems and DO stuff.  Most importantly, they want to solve business relevant problems.  Instead of slide-whipping people, let your pharmaceutical sales training content come to life through problem solving.


So there you have it.  You’re totally prepared for that next meeting to discuss adult learning principles (…andragogy) with your internal stakeholders.

The real questions is, how does your current pharmaceutical sales training line up to these principles?

What can we do differently to ensure the message reaches, and sticks, with our audience?

More to come on that in future posts.

Finally, let me know what you think with a comment about your experience with adult learning in pharmaceutical sales training.  And if this was even modestly helpful or entertaining, I’d really value a share!

Until next time,