Exploring adult learning theory

What are the major adult learning theories and principles? How can we apply these theories to promote better learning experiences?

Course Enquiry

What are adult learning theories?

Do adults learn differently from children? It is clear that knowledge acquisition plays an important part within the workplace and beyond. The amount of information that we all receive on a daily basis means that we could all do with learning more about how to develop a deep understanding of new knowledge and skills.

Whether you are facilitating a training session for your employees or you have an intrinsic motivation to take on a distance learning course, this article will hopefully outline some of the expertise needed to engage adults in various forms of learning and development.

Adults and children learn by understanding concepts and applying them to new situations. Adults can learn anything just as well as children. In fact, many adults do not even realize that they are using learning theory because they learned it as children.

For the most part, knowledge acquisition remains a hidden mental process inside our minds. The same barriers to student understanding apply to adults, and if we can embrace some all-important cognitive science principles, then we stand a better chance of being able to understand and remember new knowledge. This article explains why adults should learn theory and how to teach themselves. It also shows you how to apply learning theory in everyday life.

Adult learning is a process of adults seeking education in a formal setting, trade school, or apprenticeship. Adult learning may also occur for those adults who wish to pursue education to learn a specific skill. There are many theories, techniques and aspects of adult learning that guide how to educate adults. Adults and children learn in very different ways. Hence, to make the adult learning process more effective people need to use more effective study techniques.

What are the potential barriers to learning for adults?

Learning in adults can be more difficult than for child learners for the following reasons:

  1. Lack of time. Adult learners mostly have full-time employment, and sometimes dependents or even children depend on them. These responsibilities make it difficult for adult learners to find time to continue to learn or take admission into training programs. Due to such difficulties, a successful learner may decide to study online. The flexibility of online learning makes it easy for adult learners to pursue their education according to their time of availability. Also, they can reach the next level of their education as soon as they master the material.
  2. Self-doubt: Many adult learners tend to feel that it's difficult for them to study or attend training programs because they are too old to learn. They are likely to feel that they have missed the opportunity to get an education and they are late. But it is not true. A successful learner never gives up on following their dreams. Everybody deserves to follow their passion and pursue learning what he is passionate about.
  3. Financial barriers: Younger students mostly have parental assistance when it comes to affording their education. But things are different for adult learners. Finances may make it difficult for adult learners to pursue their dream of further education. In this case, adult learners may apply for scholarships or financial aid to make their education more affordable for them.
  4. Neuroplasticity. The human brain has an element of plasticity that helps people grow and learn at a deeper level. A neural pathway gets reinforced through the repetition of thought. A new pathway is created whenever a student learns something new. The human brain connections continue to get weaker or stronger, boosting older pathways or building new ones. Brains of child learners are more plastic; therefore, it is easier for them to accept a change. Due to ageing, the adults brains tend to lose plasticity and become more rigid about what they know and believe. Due to this, they may experience more difficulty in Post-16 Learning. Although this is a trouble, it isn’t something impossible to overcome with regards to adult learning.
  5. Lack of support. It can be stressful for adult learners to try and earn a degree without sufficient support. Post-16 Learning may have a shortage of support system. They might need support of a family member who can perform their duties when they are busy taking a class. Or they may need a mentor to work with them, address concerns, offer support, and keep on checking if they need any help, intrinsic motivation or encouragement.
  6. Contradiction. When adult learners continue their Post-16 Learning after a few years gap they may find some of the things different from their past learning. Adults prior knowledge base may need to change to allow their mind to integrate new ideas..

What are some major adult learning theories?

Some adult learners often think they learn through trial and error. This means that they try things out until they get the desired result. However, most professions don't allow for these sorts of expensive mistakes and we have to take a closer look at how we provide learning experiences that enable adult learners to develop deep conceptual understanding.

For example, if someone wants experiences to learn how to play the guitar, he/she might start practising chords and strumming patterns until he/she gets the hang of it. If the learner was afforded the opportunity to understand some basic musical theory, this might provide them with a platform for more purposeful practice. Some learners prefer to watch others perform tasks before attempting them themselves. These types of learners tend to mimic other people's actions.

Below are some of the most popular adult learning theories:

Andragogy Learning Theory

The concept of andragogy was popularized by Malcolm Knowles in 1980. Andragogy demonstrates the art and science of learning to help adults learn and this concept was contrasted by Knowles M with pedagogy (art and science of learning to help children learn). The andragogy theory or Andragogy Model Of Adult Learning proposed that adult learners and young learners are different from one another in many ways. For example,

  • Adult learners want to know why they have to learn a specific topic;
  • Adult learners try to find out how learning will help them precisely;
  • Adult learners need intrinsic motivation and encouragement;
  • They hold the experience and prior knowledge base that constructs a foundation for adult learning;
  • Adult learners want to take responsibility for their learning journey and engage in self-directed learning process;
  • They discover the most relevancy from task-oriented knowledge that corresponds with their realities.

The main focus of Andragogy Model Of Adult Learning remains on providing students with the knowledge base of why they are learning a specific topic, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation major hands-on experiences, and very little instruction so they can control things themselves. Although, adults with Post-16 Learning find andragogy extremely helpful and accurate for deep understanding and continuing their learning some opponents of the andragogy adult learning theory claim that the andragogy adult learning theory does not consider other multicultural education well enough.

Andragogy Adult Learning Theory
Andragogy Adult Learning Theory

Mezirow's Transformative learning

Transformative learning theory or transformational Model Of Adult Learning was proposed by Jack Mezirow in the 1970s. The transformative learning theory (also called transformational learning theory) is concentrated on modifying how learners think about themselves and how they think about the world in their surroundings. For instance, those studying religious studies may gain new viewpoints about multicultural education and religions as they get more information about various religions.

Transformative learning theory focuses on helping students develop self-awareness and self-knowledge. This means that students must learn to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and then use this knowledge to improve their performance. Students who are able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses are more likely to succeed in school and life.

Mezirow's Transformative learning
Mezirow's Transformative learning

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning Model Of Adult Learning (also referred to as self-regulated learning) is a kind of learning in which a Self-Regulated Learner takes initiative in learning. In self-regulated learning Model Of Adult Learning a Self-Regulated Learner plans, performs and analyzes his learning experiences without others' help. For deep understanding a self-regulated learner sets objectives, assesses his academic or training programs , applies a plan, and pays more attention to improve his Post-16 Learning and knowledge acquisition.

The main criticism of the self-regulated learning approach came from those opponents who feel that sometimes adult learners may need instructional designers for deep understanding because they may not have the understanding and confidence to carry out self-directed learning well. Some critics mentioned that for many adult learners, self-regulated learning Model Of Adult Learning takes place naturally with no one clarifying or recommending it.

Experiential learning theory

Experiential learning theory or Experiential model of adult learning has been championed by David Kolb based on the works of other theorists and psychologists in the 1970s. Experiential learning theory is based on the concept of learning theory with practice that a successful learner is made due to their experiences, and that the most promising learning processes occur when people can make sense of their deep understanding without seeking help from instructional designers or mentors.

Rather than memorizing things, experiential learning is a more critical reflection and hands-on learning style. Post-16 Learning can use this Model Of Adult Learning or Theoy with practice for critical reflection of learning by doing, rather than just reading or hearing about something. Some of the most significant examples of experiential learning strategies are role plays and Hands-on experiences etc.

Social learning theory also made several assumptions about adult learners that adult learners can gain information by incorporating their experiences with observations of the punishments and rewards that others receive for their efforts. However, Social learning theory may not serve the purpose well in absence of uniformity. Opponents of experiential learning mention that there are many advantages to non-experiential learning that can be ignored due to experiential learning theory.

Project-based learning

John Dewey was a big supporter of this model of adult learning by doing strategy. Project-based learning (also referred to as problem-based learning) is very much similar to experiential or action learning, where the basic idea is to practically do something to help students learn, rather than hearing or reading about it.

Problem-based learning helps develop a deeper understanding through reality-based scenarios. One major criticism of problem-based learning is that the findings aren’t verified. Still, many adult learners find this kind of learning helpful because they implement the learning material that they have learned in class.

Project based learning for adults
Project based learning for adults

What are some of the most useful Adult learning techniques?

The following are some of the most useful techniques that may help a successful learner to demonstrate deeper level of learning processes. These include:

  1. Goal Setting. It is believed that when a learner has a particular career goal in mind he is more likely to become a successful learner. A successful learner has a better experience in pursuing their degree program.
  2. Determine their why. When adult learners know why they must pursue learning, they will feel more confident and motivated about deeper level of learning processes.
  3. Regularly Reviewing the Information.

Adult brains face difficulty in creating new pathways due to less plasticity. Therefore, to help create new pathways adult learners must make a habit of gaining deeper understanding and reviewing their learning material more often.

  1. Use Experiences to enhance Learning Adult learners may take advantage of theory with practice or hands-on learning processes. Finding job shadow opportunities, internships, projects, and other experiential opportunities may help them get a stronger grasp of their learning activity and be more enthusiastic about how it will be utilized in real-life.

For deeper understanding and successful learning experience, an adult learner must get information about the theories, techniques and principles of Adult Learning and Understanding. Knowing different aspects of adult learning alongside their strengths, weaknesses and understanding their learning styles will help them become a successful adult learner.

Adult learning FAQ's

What is knowledge acquisition?

Knowledge acquisition is the act of acquiring new knowledge. When we acquire new knowledge, we store it in our brains. We use this stored knowledge to solve problems and make decisions. 

What is a schema?

A schema is a psychological theory about how we store information in a connected way. The idea explains how humans make connections between different ideas and this helps us understand and retrieve information.

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the mental capacity that stores information temporarily and manipulates it according to instructions. It's responsible for holding information in mind until it's needed. People with high working memories tend to perform better academically and professionally. They're able to hold multiple pieces of information in mind simultaneously, and they're able to manipulate that information quickly and efficiently.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that students with high working memory scores performed better on tests measuring critical thinking skills than students with low working memory scores. Students with high working memory scores were also more likely to take advantage of technology to improve their performance.

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition refers to thinking about our own thoughts. We all do it constantly, but we rarely stop to consider why we're thinking the way we are. Metacognitive awareness involves understanding how our minds work, and how we can improve ourselves.

Metacognition is a skill that everyone should practice, particularly adult learners. Students tend to focus too much on memorizing facts without considering how they learned those facts. By practising metacognition, adult learners can understand how they learn best, and they can apply that knowledge to their studies. Metacognition skills include self-monitoring, goal setting, planning, evaluating, and reflecting.

What is a Self-Regulated Learner?

A self-regulated learner is someone who learns best when he or she sets his or her own pace and direction. They may also enjoy taking tests and quizzes to see how much they understand. However, these learners aren't always comfortable with traditional classroom settings.

Instead, they might like to learn in small groups, where they can ask questions and receive feedback from peers. Self-regulated learners tend to be independent thinkers, and they're motivated by challenges and rewards. They also tend to be good problem-solvers and critical thinkers.  

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Big Ideas

What are adult learning theories?

Do adults learn differently from children? It is clear that knowledge acquisition plays an important part within the workplace and beyond. The amount of information that we all receive on a daily basis means that we could all do with learning more about how to develop a deep understanding of new knowledge and skills.

Whether you are facilitating a training session for your employees or you have an intrinsic motivation to take on a distance learning course, this article will hopefully outline some of the expertise needed to engage adults in various forms of learning and development.

Adults and children learn by understanding concepts and applying them to new situations. Adults can learn anything just as well as children. In fact, many adults do not even realize that they are using learning theory because they learned it as children.

For the most part, knowledge acquisition remains a hidden mental process inside our minds. The same barriers to student understanding apply to adults, and if we can embrace some all-important cognitive science principles, then we stand a better chance of being able to understand and remember new knowledge. This article explains why adults should learn theory and how to teach themselves. It also shows you how to apply learning theory in everyday life.

Adult learning is a process of adults seeking education in a formal setting, trade school, or apprenticeship. Adult learning may also occur for those adults who wish to pursue education to learn a specific skill. There are many theories, techniques and aspects of adult learning that guide how to educate adults. Adults and children learn in very different ways. Hence, to make the adult learning process more effective people need to use more effective study techniques.

What are the potential barriers to learning for adults?

Learning in adults can be more difficult than for child learners for the following reasons:

  1. Lack of time. Adult learners mostly have full-time employment, and sometimes dependents or even children depend on them. These responsibilities make it difficult for adult learners to find time to continue to learn or take admission into training programs. Due to such difficulties, a successful learner may decide to study online. The flexibility of online learning makes it easy for adult learners to pursue their education according to their time of availability. Also, they can reach the next level of their education as soon as they master the material.
  2. Self-doubt: Many adult learners tend to feel that it's difficult for them to study or attend training programs because they are too old to learn. They are likely to feel that they have missed the opportunity to get an education and they are late. But it is not true. A successful learner never gives up on following their dreams. Everybody deserves to follow their passion and pursue learning what he is passionate about.
  3. Financial barriers: Younger students mostly have parental assistance when it comes to affording their education. But things are different for adult learners. Finances may make it difficult for adult learners to pursue their dream of further education. In this case, adult learners may apply for scholarships or financial aid to make their education more affordable for them.
  4. Neuroplasticity. The human brain has an element of plasticity that helps people grow and learn at a deeper level. A neural pathway gets reinforced through the repetition of thought. A new pathway is created whenever a student learns something new. The human brain connections continue to get weaker or stronger, boosting older pathways or building new ones. Brains of child learners are more plastic; therefore, it is easier for them to accept a change. Due to ageing, the adults brains tend to lose plasticity and become more rigid about what they know and believe. Due to this, they may experience more difficulty in Post-16 Learning. Although this is a trouble, it isn’t something impossible to overcome with regards to adult learning.
  5. Lack of support. It can be stressful for adult learners to try and earn a degree without sufficient support. Post-16 Learning may have a shortage of support system. They might need support of a family member who can perform their duties when they are busy taking a class. Or they may need a mentor to work with them, address concerns, offer support, and keep on checking if they need any help, intrinsic motivation or encouragement.
  6. Contradiction. When adult learners continue their Post-16 Learning after a few years gap they may find some of the things different from their past learning. Adults prior knowledge base may need to change to allow their mind to integrate new ideas..

What are some major adult learning theories?

Some adult learners often think they learn through trial and error. This means that they try things out until they get the desired result. However, most professions don't allow for these sorts of expensive mistakes and we have to take a closer look at how we provide learning experiences that enable adult learners to develop deep conceptual understanding.

For example, if someone wants experiences to learn how to play the guitar, he/she might start practising chords and strumming patterns until he/she gets the hang of it. If the learner was afforded the opportunity to understand some basic musical theory, this might provide them with a platform for more purposeful practice. Some learners prefer to watch others perform tasks before attempting them themselves. These types of learners tend to mimic other people's actions.

Below are some of the most popular adult learning theories:

Andragogy Learning Theory

The concept of andragogy was popularized by Malcolm Knowles in 1980. Andragogy demonstrates the art and science of learning to help adults learn and this concept was contrasted by Knowles M with pedagogy (art and science of learning to help children learn). The andragogy theory or Andragogy Model Of Adult Learning proposed that adult learners and young learners are different from one another in many ways. For example,

  • Adult learners want to know why they have to learn a specific topic;
  • Adult learners try to find out how learning will help them precisely;
  • Adult learners need intrinsic motivation and encouragement;
  • They hold the experience and prior knowledge base that constructs a foundation for adult learning;
  • Adult learners want to take responsibility for their learning journey and engage in self-directed learning process;
  • They discover the most relevancy from task-oriented knowledge that corresponds with their realities.

The main focus of Andragogy Model Of Adult Learning remains on providing students with the knowledge base of why they are learning a specific topic, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation major hands-on experiences, and very little instruction so they can control things themselves. Although, adults with Post-16 Learning find andragogy extremely helpful and accurate for deep understanding and continuing their learning some opponents of the andragogy adult learning theory claim that the andragogy adult learning theory does not consider other multicultural education well enough.

Andragogy Adult Learning Theory
Andragogy Adult Learning Theory

Mezirow's Transformative learning

Transformative learning theory or transformational Model Of Adult Learning was proposed by Jack Mezirow in the 1970s. The transformative learning theory (also called transformational learning theory) is concentrated on modifying how learners think about themselves and how they think about the world in their surroundings. For instance, those studying religious studies may gain new viewpoints about multicultural education and religions as they get more information about various religions.

Transformative learning theory focuses on helping students develop self-awareness and self-knowledge. This means that students must learn to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and then use this knowledge to improve their performance. Students who are able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses are more likely to succeed in school and life.

Mezirow's Transformative learning
Mezirow's Transformative learning

Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning Model Of Adult Learning (also referred to as self-regulated learning) is a kind of learning in which a Self-Regulated Learner takes initiative in learning. In self-regulated learning Model Of Adult Learning a Self-Regulated Learner plans, performs and analyzes his learning experiences without others' help. For deep understanding a self-regulated learner sets objectives, assesses his academic or training programs , applies a plan, and pays more attention to improve his Post-16 Learning and knowledge acquisition.

The main criticism of the self-regulated learning approach came from those opponents who feel that sometimes adult learners may need instructional designers for deep understanding because they may not have the understanding and confidence to carry out self-directed learning well. Some critics mentioned that for many adult learners, self-regulated learning Model Of Adult Learning takes place naturally with no one clarifying or recommending it.

Experiential learning theory

Experiential learning theory or Experiential model of adult learning has been championed by David Kolb based on the works of other theorists and psychologists in the 1970s. Experiential learning theory is based on the concept of learning theory with practice that a successful learner is made due to their experiences, and that the most promising learning processes occur when people can make sense of their deep understanding without seeking help from instructional designers or mentors.

Rather than memorizing things, experiential learning is a more critical reflection and hands-on learning style. Post-16 Learning can use this Model Of Adult Learning or Theoy with practice for critical reflection of learning by doing, rather than just reading or hearing about something. Some of the most significant examples of experiential learning strategies are role plays and Hands-on experiences etc.

Social learning theory also made several assumptions about adult learners that adult learners can gain information by incorporating their experiences with observations of the punishments and rewards that others receive for their efforts. However, Social learning theory may not serve the purpose well in absence of uniformity. Opponents of experiential learning mention that there are many advantages to non-experiential learning that can be ignored due to experiential learning theory.

Project-based learning

John Dewey was a big supporter of this model of adult learning by doing strategy. Project-based learning (also referred to as problem-based learning) is very much similar to experiential or action learning, where the basic idea is to practically do something to help students learn, rather than hearing or reading about it.

Problem-based learning helps develop a deeper understanding through reality-based scenarios. One major criticism of problem-based learning is that the findings aren’t verified. Still, many adult learners find this kind of learning helpful because they implement the learning material that they have learned in class.

Project based learning for adults
Project based learning for adults

What are some of the most useful Adult learning techniques?

The following are some of the most useful techniques that may help a successful learner to demonstrate deeper level of learning processes. These include:

  1. Goal Setting. It is believed that when a learner has a particular career goal in mind he is more likely to become a successful learner. A successful learner has a better experience in pursuing their degree program.
  2. Determine their why. When adult learners know why they must pursue learning, they will feel more confident and motivated about deeper level of learning processes.
  3. Regularly Reviewing the Information.

Adult brains face difficulty in creating new pathways due to less plasticity. Therefore, to help create new pathways adult learners must make a habit of gaining deeper understanding and reviewing their learning material more often.

  1. Use Experiences to enhance Learning Adult learners may take advantage of theory with practice or hands-on learning processes. Finding job shadow opportunities, internships, projects, and other experiential opportunities may help them get a stronger grasp of their learning activity and be more enthusiastic about how it will be utilized in real-life.

For deeper understanding and successful learning experience, an adult learner must get information about the theories, techniques and principles of Adult Learning and Understanding. Knowing different aspects of adult learning alongside their strengths, weaknesses and understanding their learning styles will help them become a successful adult learner.

Adult learning FAQ's

What is knowledge acquisition?

Knowledge acquisition is the act of acquiring new knowledge. When we acquire new knowledge, we store it in our brains. We use this stored knowledge to solve problems and make decisions. 

What is a schema?

A schema is a psychological theory about how we store information in a connected way. The idea explains how humans make connections between different ideas and this helps us understand and retrieve information.

What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the mental capacity that stores information temporarily and manipulates it according to instructions. It's responsible for holding information in mind until it's needed. People with high working memories tend to perform better academically and professionally. They're able to hold multiple pieces of information in mind simultaneously, and they're able to manipulate that information quickly and efficiently.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that students with high working memory scores performed better on tests measuring critical thinking skills than students with low working memory scores. Students with high working memory scores were also more likely to take advantage of technology to improve their performance.

What is Metacognition?

Metacognition refers to thinking about our own thoughts. We all do it constantly, but we rarely stop to consider why we're thinking the way we are. Metacognitive awareness involves understanding how our minds work, and how we can improve ourselves.

Metacognition is a skill that everyone should practice, particularly adult learners. Students tend to focus too much on memorizing facts without considering how they learned those facts. By practising metacognition, adult learners can understand how they learn best, and they can apply that knowledge to their studies. Metacognition skills include self-monitoring, goal setting, planning, evaluating, and reflecting.

What is a Self-Regulated Learner?

A self-regulated learner is someone who learns best when he or she sets his or her own pace and direction. They may also enjoy taking tests and quizzes to see how much they understand. However, these learners aren't always comfortable with traditional classroom settings.

Instead, they might like to learn in small groups, where they can ask questions and receive feedback from peers. Self-regulated learners tend to be independent thinkers, and they're motivated by challenges and rewards. They also tend to be good problem-solvers and critical thinkers.