Adult Learning Theory



  • “Adults are autonomous and self-directed.
  • Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and previous education. They need to connect learning to this knowledge/experience base.
  • Adults are goal-oriented.
  • Adults are relevancy-oriented.
  • Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a lesson most useful to them in their work.
  • Adults need to be shown respect” (Lieb, 1991).


A more current summary of distinguishing characteristics (adult learners v. younger learners) is provided in “Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector”:

  • Adult learners need to know why they are learning particular things.
  • Adult self-concept – they need to perceive themselves as self-directed and responsible for their own decisions.
  • Adult learners have a wide variety of experience which represents a rich resource for learners and teachers. They do, however, need to recognise bias and subjectivity in their opinions and experiences.
  • Adults have readiness to learn those things which will help them to deal with real-life situations.
  • Adults are motivated to learn things which are of interest or important to them.  This, and their readiness to learn, implies that adults have intrinsic motivations to learn. (Scales, 2008, p. 81).



  • “Social relationships: to make new friends, to meet a need for associations and friendships.
  • External expectations: to comply with instructions from someone else; to fulfill the expectations or recommendations of someone with formal authority.
  • Social welfare: to improve ability to serve mankind, prepare for service to the community, and improve ability to participate in community work.
  • Personal advancement: to achieve higher status in a job, secure professional advancement, and stay abreast of competitors.
  • Escape/Stimulation: to relieve boredom, provide a break in the routine of home or work, and provide a contrast to other exacting details of life.
  • Cognitive interest: to learn for the sake of learning, seek knowledge for its own sake, and to satisfy an inquiring mind” (Lieb, 1991).




Based on the characteristics of adult learners, Knowles’ developed his theory of Andragogy emphasizing the necessity of curriculum and material to be “very learner centered” and the “learner being very self-directed” (Conlan, Grabowski, & Smith, 2003, p. 1).

Criticized as not really a “learning theory.”



“Action learning is defined as an approach to working with, and developing people, which uses work on a real project or problem as the way to learn. Participants work in small groups or teams to take action to solve their project or problem, and learn how to learn from that action. A learning coach works with the group in order to help them learn how to balance their work, with the learning from that work” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



Experiential learning is a learning theory that is learner-centered and operates on the premise that individuals learn best by experience. A good way to describe this theory is “learning by doing”. Experiential learning thus has the learner directly involved with the material being studied instead of just thinking and talking about that material” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



“In Project Based Learning, students work in groups to solve challenging problems that are authentic and often interdisciplinary. Learners decide how to approach a problem and what activities to pursue” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



“Defined as the process in which individuals take on the responsibility for their own learning process by diagnosing their personal learning needs, setting goals, identifying resources, implementing strategies and evaluating the outcomes” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



“Mezirow defined his theory of transformative learning as stages in cognitive restructuring and integration of experience, action, and reflection. Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning focuses on the individual as a reflective learner. In addition, the principles of constructivist learning are important, because knowledge and meaning are built as a result of experience and are dependent upon sociocultural contexts” (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007, p. 489).


How does learning occur?


Based on the characteristics of adult learners, Knowles’ developed his theory of Andragogy emphasizing the necessity of curriculum and material to be “very learner centered” and the “learner being very self-directed” (Conlan, Grabowski, & Smith, 2003, p. 1).



“Learning occurs through ongoing reflection and action” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



“Learning by doing” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



Learning occurs collaborative problem solving in authentic contexts.



Process in which “people take the primary initiative for planning, carrying out, and evaluating their own learning experiences” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).



“Transformative, or transformational, learning occurs when the individual is forced to encounter an event or situation that is inconsistent with his or her existing perspective. This shift in perspective can be gradual or sudden, and the individual moves through a series of stages in the cognitive restructuring and reconciliation of experience and action” (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007, p. 489).


Which factors influence learning?

“There are four critical elements of learning that must be addressed to ensure that participants learn. These elements are: motivation, reinforcement, retention, and transference” (Lieb, 1991).


PRINCIPLES OF ANDRAGOGY (Theory by Malcolm Knowles)

  • “Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction
  • Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities
  • Adults are most interested in learning about subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life
  • Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented” (Conlan, Grabowski, & Smith, 2003, p. 1).



  • “The diversity of knowledge and skills.
  • The learning coach acts as an expert and the group leader acts as a motivator and organizer.
  • Learning occurs through ongoing reflection and action.
  • The group remains constant and has duration” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1)



  • “Is a cyclic process involving setting goals, thinking, planning, experimenting and making decisions, and finally action, followed by observing, reflecting and reviewing.
  • Uses participants’ own experience and their own reflection about that experience, rather than lecture as the primary approach to learning. Experiential learning theory allows for the generation of understanding and allows for the transfer of skills and knowledge.
  • Involves doing something and discovering what it is like, how it made the learner feel, what it meant to the learner, i.e. experiential learning is their experience and no one else’s.
  • Is, therefore, particularly effective in adult education as it addresses the cognitive, emotional and the physical aspect of the learner” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



  • “The learners gather information from a variety of sources and synthesize, analyze, and derive knowledge from it.
  • The learning is inherently valuable because it is connected to something real and involves adult skills such as collaboration and reflection.
  • At the end, the learners demonstrate their newly-acquired knowledge and are judged by how much they have learned and how well they communicate it.
  • Throughout this process, the teacher’s role is to guide and advise, rather than to direct and manage student work” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



  • “There are three categories involved with self-directed learning: the goals, the process, and the learner.
  • In an adult learning context, the goals are generally self-determined, as is the process.
  • Self-directed learning can be enhanced with facilitation, particularly through providing resources
  • Motivation is key to a successful self-directed learning experience” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).



  • “Adult exhibit two kinds of learning: instrumental (e.g., cause/effect)) and communicative (e.g., feelings)
  • Learning involves change to meaning structures (perspectives and schemes).
  • Change to meaning structures occurs through reflection about content, process or premises.
  • Learning can involve: refining/elaborating meaning schemes, learning new schemes, transforming schemes, or transforming perspectives” (Conlan, et al., 2003, p. 1).


What is the role of memory?

Memory is a function of cognition, encoding and retrieval.  Adults face additional concerns as they age resulting in memory decay and retrieval issues.


How does transfer occur?

“Transference is most likely to occur in the following situations:

  • “Association — participants can associate the new information with something that they already know.
  • Similarity — the information is similar to material that participants already know; that is, it revisits a logical framework or pattern.
  • Degree of original learning — participant’s degree of original learning was high.
  • Critical attribute element — the information learned contains elements that are extremely beneficial (critical) on the job” (Lieb, 1991).


What types of learning are best explained by this position?

All varieties of learning for adults.


How is technology used for learning in your industry?

“Electronic Portfolios can foster transformation in teacher beliefs through critical reflection, ownership, and personal agency” (Stansberry & Kymes, 2007, p. 488).


Online Learning aka eLearning (formal and/or informal) utilizing Course Management Systems (CMS) and/or virtual worlds such as the AET Zone (“Emerging,” 2002).


“Virtual worlds allow opportunities for students and instructors to interact synchronously, providing a richer social interaction for learning” (“Emerging, 2002, p. 1).


“Constructivist-focused, online teaching: interactive learning, collaborative learning, facilitating learning, authentic learning, learner-centered learning, and high quality learning” (“Emerging,” 2002, p. 1).  For example, “students may enter into either synchronous or asynchronous discussions throughout the course via chats, blogs, wikis, threaded discussions, or email. This collaboration leads to shared knowledge and higher critical thinking skills. The instructor’s role is to facilitate learning, support learners, monitor their learning, and to provide directions and guidelines for learners” (“Emerging,” 2002, p. 1).


“Technology tools provide “the means through which individuals engage and manipulate both resources and their own ideas. Some kinds of technology tools can extend memory and make thinking visible. Good examples include brainstorming and concept mapping software such as Inspiration(r). Others help to represent knowledge and facilitate communication. For instance, the Collaborative Visualization or CoVis Project provides visualization software designed to help students collect and analyze climatological data and visualize effects due to greenhouse gases and other phenomena. Finally, some tools, like simulations mentioned above, enable learners to experiment with modeling complex ideas. NetLogo, for example, provides a programmable modeling environment for simulating natural and social phenomena, such as how segregated neighborhoods can arise, not from any specific bias, but from the simple desire of people to live near others who are like themselves” (Driscoll, 2002, p. 1).


“CSILE (or Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environment aka Knowledge Forum) is one example of software that supports a networked, multimedia environment in which students collaborate on learning activities. They do this by creating ‘notes’ to express their ideas or integrate outside information about a topic. Then they read and respond to the notes of others, all of which builds a communal database producing shared knowledge about the topic or problem.  CSILE also facilitates connections between schools and the scientific community, allowing practicing scientists to serve as mentors to students. Other projects, such as Kids as Global Scientists, also bring students and various experts together in virtual communities through Internet links. Such a dialogue-based approach to learning creates a rich intellectual context, with ample opportunities for participants to improve their understanding and become more personally involved in explaining scientific phenomena” (Driscoll, 2002, p. 1).



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