Adult Learning Theories

Adult learning is the process of training, schooling and enlightening adults. This usually takes place at the workplace, by means of ‘extension’ or ‘continuing education’ initiatives at high schools, at an academy or university. Other learning places include schooling establishments, community colleges, and social learning institutions. Usually the process is also known as ‘Training and Development’. Adult learning is assigned a specific term known as andragogy in order to differentiate it from pedagogy which relates to strategies of delivering instructions, or an approach towards education in general.

Adult learning is also different from vocational education, which is typically carried out at workplaces and normally refers to upgrading the skills of the employee, and informal adult education together with training on skill development or erudition for personal growth.

Edification of adults is different from teaching children in numerous ways. One of the most significant differentiations is that adults throughout the course of their lifetime have already developed a certain level of understanding and gathered some degree of experience that can facilitate or on the contrary impede the learning process. Further, for the most part adult learning is a voluntary process. Consequently, the participants are commonly better motivated. (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007)

Adults often put their knowledge into application in a much more realistic manner to be trained more effectively. They tend to have a rational anticipation that the awareness gained from learning initiatives will assist them in advancing and accomplishing their objectives. One illustration widespread throughout the 1990s was the increase in computer training programs in which adults, primarily office workers and experienced professionals participated. Another more general example is that of the high-school dropouts in the United States, who go back to learning establishments in order to complete general learning necessities. (Ross-Gordon, 2005)

An adult engaged in earning activities is not likely to possess the liberty of simply giving up his or her means of daily bread and returning to full time education. Public school programs and community colleges frequently recommend evening or perhaps weekend curriculums for people with such constraints. In Europe, this is frequently known as “second-chance”, and numerous schools offer specifically suited programs and learning courses for these returning students.

The adults who return to the most basic levels of learning receive aids from volunteer literacy initiatives. These initiatives offer conversational teaching and small group discussions for adults at a very basic level. Community libraries, voluntary organizations and school coordination teams oversee these initiatives across the various countries at different levels. (Merriam, 2008)

By now it is clear that adult learning is a special case in the field of education. It is, in a number of ways, different from ordinary educative programs. To understand the various aspects of adult learning and education some inherent features of adult learners must be discussed. The following distinctiveness of adult learners has been identified by Malcom Knowles, a pioneer in the field of research relating to adult education:

Adults are generally autonomous and self-directed. Thus, they need to have the liberty to direct their means themselves. Thus their involvement in the learning process should be taken into account. Assigning responsibility and leadership can play a significant role in their development. Educators should assume the role of facilitators, chanelizing development pathways for participants using their own understanding instead of merely delivering facts.

Adults accumulate a base of life experiences and knowledge may be gathered from work-related actions, family duties and prior education. Therefore they need to associate the learning process to this foundation of knowledge and experience. It is important that their knowledge and experience is brought out during the process and it must be ensured that by using this base they relate to specific topics.

Adults are goal-oriented. While joining in a particular course, they usually have their objectives and priorities sorted out. Hence, they value an educational initiative which is structured and organized. Educators should help participants realize the way the program helps them to achieve their objectives.

Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other responsibilities to be of value to them. Therefore, instructors must identify objectives for adult participants before the course begins. This means, also, that theories and concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. This need can be fulfilled by letting participants choose projects that reflect their own interests. (Caffarella, 2007)

Adults need to be treated with respect. Trainers must recognize the assets in thee form of experiences that adult partakers bring in and should be cared for as equals.

Possibly because the idea is so fundamental when related to adult learning, the self-directed learning approach has emerged as one of the field’s highly researched subject for approximately a decade. Self-directed learning is frequently illustrated as a method in which participants take most of the initiatives, with or without the assistance of others, to analyze their learning requirements, devise learning objectives, describe resources for learning, choose and apply learning approaches, and assess learning results.

One of the most popular models describing self-directed learning is a two-by-two matrix of the participant and the program offering establishment. The self-directed learning circumstances come into existence when the participants and not the offering establishment determine both the learning goals and the mode of learning. The following circumstances take up the other cells of the matrix:

  1. formal learning, wherein establishments, not participants, determine goals and the mode of learning;
  2. informal learning, wherein participants determine the objectives and establishments oversee the means; and
  3. informal learning, wherein establishments determine the purposes but participants manage the mode of learning. (Merriam, 2008)

Self-directedness hinges on the entity in charge—the one determining what is to be learned, what approaches should be adopted, which resources are to be used, and the what standards should the outcomes of the initiative meet. The circumstance under which the participant takes those decisions, the learning is usually regarded to be self-directed.

The Transformative Learning concept relates to a learning process of generating a vital awareness of one’s self-tacit conjectures and opportunity and in addition that of others and evaluating their significance for developing an understanding. Transformative Learning can be classified into three segments comprising of critical reflection, reflective discourse, and action. It is also suggested that associating with this process can give rise to frames of reference which are more flexible to supplementary adjustments, reflective, comprehensive, discriminating, and on the whole more sensitively receptive to change. It habitually involves profound, authoritative feelings or viewpoints which are substantiated in action. (Ross-Gordon, 2005)

The process of “Perspective Transformation” is fundamental to the concept of Transformative Learning Theory. It categorizes three aspects to a perspective transformation: psychological- alteration in perceiving the self, convictional- reconsideration of the value systems, and behavioral- transformation of lifestyle. Transformative learning is the development of awareness by means of the makeover of basic perception of the surroundings and definite competence of the self. It is made possible in the course of willfully controlled processes such as approvingly obtaining and receiving the representative contents of the unaware and decisively examining the fundamental principles. (Merriam, 2008)

“Experiential learning” is perhaps one of the most momentous areas for contemporary research and practice in the field of adult learning, and emerging gradually more as one of the most challenging. The expression “experiential learning” is frequently used both to differentiate this continuing meaning-making from conjectural knowledge, and non-controlled “informal” experience from “formal” learning.

When brought into the horizon of the educationalist the concept of “experiential learning” has been allowed to select the lot from kinesthetic controlled educative activities to unique workplace undertakings combined with ‘critical dialogue’ guided by a facilitator, to knowledge generated by means of public action engagements, and even to team-building initiatives. In existing premise as well as application, experiential learning appears primarily viewed as thoughtful building of significance with scrupulous importance being laid on ‘critical reflection’ and conversational activities. This formulation was made popular by various researchers and a noteworthy body of speculation and evaluation has emerged to discuss just how reflection-on-experience opens out in diverse contexts to generate knowledge.

Nevertheless, alternate standpoints about the temperament of cognition, and the associations among experience, circumstance, psyche and education give rise to key issues about the suppositions and principles of the reflective perception. (Caffarella, 2007)

In conclusion it should be stated that Adult education theories of self-directed, transformative and experiential learning are in particularly significant to bring about thriving renovation in adults for the reason that they concentrate on generating a more participatory education process. These theories suggest that the process should construct opportunities for participants to understand disorienting problems, significantly mull over on their postulations and make possible the cognition of how to learn instead of merely focusing on what to learn.


Caffarella, R.S. (2007). Self-directed learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2007(57), 25-35.

Merriam, S.B. (2008). Andragogy and Self-Directed Learning: Pillars of Adult Learning Theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2008(89), 3-14.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., Baumgartner, L.M. (2007). Learning in adulthood a comprehensive guide. SanFrancisco, Ca: John Wiley & Sons.

Ross-Gordon, J. (2005). Adult Learners in the Classroom. New Directions for Student Services, 2005(38), 43-57.