Guide of Adult Education

Subject: Education
Pages: 10
Words: 2923
Reading time:
11 min
Study level: PhD


Adult learning has been an emerging concept that elicits different views and increased research to make learning more effective. Adult learners are usually motivated by different personal, social and economic factors among other factors. The history of adult learning dates back to when adult learning was not perceived as a necessity. Adults in the learning process have their own unique characteristics based on their perceptions that form the basis of the instructions, goals and objectives of learning. Educators have to understand the characteristics of the adult learners to enable them not only benefit from the learning process but also enjoy the learning process.

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The principles of adult learning therefore guide the adult educators in the process of evaluating their instructional goals. Adult education centers are also formed and guided by the principles of adult education as well as the standards set by the adult regulatory bodies. The adult education theory serves an important role in evaluating the learning processes of adults and the motivation and influences of their education. This theory however requires application to the practice of adult education to ensure that the process attains its objectives while the learners are able to apply their learning to their responsibilities in the workplace or communities. The theory forms its practice application to the workplace, goals of the adult learners as well as the process of training and development of learning programs.

Adult Learning

Adult learning is a broad field that encompasses the education and training of adult learners. Adult learning is founded on the field of andragogy which is based on the assumptions that adult learners are self directing, have vast experience, are intrinsically motivated in the learning process, integrate learning to everyday life and focus on approaches of problem solving rather than subjective ones (Jarvis, 2004). Adults make decisions on their own with their desire to base their knowledge on their beliefs and experiences. They also have expectations that the learning they engage in will benefit them and are resourceful in the learning process. Adult learning is governed by the adult education theory that determines the motivations and influences on the adult learner. It is also governed by principles which are founded on the characteristics of adult learners with the adult learning centers designed to make the learning process a success for adult learners (Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

History of Adult Learning

The aspect of adult learning historically differs from one geographical location to another. This is due to the role of factors such as experiences, political, economic or social factors. The American Association of Adult Education was founded in 1926 in the United States. During that time, there was increased questioning of the assumptions that people do not learn after the childhood period (Dew, 1997). In the 1960s, research conducted on the learning process included the concepts of perceptional information and decision making. Research on the field of adult education increased especially in psychology and evaluation of the uniqueness of adult learners. In the late 1990s, the principles of adult learning were applied in the concept of adult learning (Jarvis, 2004).

Characteristics of Adult Learners

Adult learners are unique in terms of the experiences they come with to the learning process, their motivations for learning, the factors that influence the knowledge they acquire and their participation and outcomes from the learning process (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). The characteristics of adult learners are founded on their attitudes, individual aspects, social and environmental attributes and their experiences. Adult learners tend to be self directing (Knowles, 1975). This implies that they are aware of their needs in the learning process, form their own individual learning goals, and take control of their learning process by taking the initiative for their learning. The self directed attribute reveals the independence of adult learners and their need to be involved in the learning process. Merriam, Caffarella and Baumgartner (2007) assert that adult learners have a sense of autonomy with the commitment to learning, flexible to accommodate changes and are aware of the challenges involved in the learning process.

Adult learners are perceived to have a vast experience which they carry with them to the learning process (Knowles, 1975). The information and knowledge they have is based on their past experiences, significant duration of attaining new knowledge in every day life and the responsibilities they have in life. They normally thus base their learning on their past knowledge and information. Additionally, they derive their knowledge and experience from the many interactions they have in their lives. Adult learners have responsibilities in life and the opportunities to question their beliefs and values thus they have their own individual sets of established values, beliefs and opinions (Merriam et al, 2007). They are rigid in changing these and desire to have them respected. Further, the adult learners unlike the other young children in school have an intrinsic motivation for their learning (Knowles, 1975). While children have to be encouraged to learn by their parents and teachers, adults tend to be self motivated to learn. They have a readiness to learn and expect that they will gain knowledge that will help them handle their daily tasks and improve their lives (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). As a result, they desire a problem-based and centered approach to learning. This is portrayed by the fact that they desire to be able to deal with their daily job responsibilities and other roles they play in everyday life.

Adult learners have experienced different challenges in life and thus tend to be afraid of failure and have an anxiety towards the learning process and the competitive nature of learning (Knowles, 1975). The age factors differ among adult learners. However, they group and categorize themselves on their experiences rather than on gender or age. The age issues however bring along the aspects of the speed of learning which lowers with age and other issues of visual impairment and hearing difficulties which call for clarity on the part of the educator. The aspect of age also influences the ability to retain knowledge by the adult learners. As Merriam and Brockett (2007) assert, adult learners tend to desire knowledge that they can apply in their everyday life and which they can relate to. If the knowledge they acquire does not help them or they perceive it unnecessary, they do not retain it in their memory. Adult learners are affected by the environmental and social factors. This means that they require an environment suited for their learning in terms of comfort, ventilation and general ease. They also require comfortable sitting arrangements due to the physical problems they face. While they desire a conducive environment, they also prefer limited learning periods with breaks (Merriam et al., 2007). This is displayed by the fact that most adult learning takes place in settings that are social or informal.

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Principles of Adult Learning

The principles of adult learning are based on the characteristics of the adult learners and act as guides for the educators and policy makers in adult education and enhance effective decision making in the planning, conduct and evaluation of the process of learning (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). The principles are applicable in various fields of learning for the adult learner. The first principle is that learning involves change. This is in terms of the change in knowledge, acquisition of new information and is individualized. This principle is founded on the fact that adult learners are faced with new information in their every day lives. The adult learner must be willing to learn, implying that the motivation for the learning of the adult learners has to come from within them and their self direction means they have to be aware of what they want to gain from the learning process (Merriam et al., 2007). This also implies that learners choose their level of participation in the process of learning. Learning is based on deeds. This principle in adult education means that the adults learn from their doing or engagement in the process of learning. The learner thus participates in the process to ensure knowledge retention.

The experience of the learner affects learning. This principle is based on the actual fact that the adult learner is usually endorsed with vast knowledge and experience which they carry to the learning process by linking the new information learnt to their past knowledge and experiences (Dew, 1997). Learning needs to focus on realistic problems with examples of case studies, demonstrations or role play situations. This principle is motivated by the fact that adult learners prefer a problem-centered approach to learning but they are usually afraid of failure. Since adults do not like knowledge imposed on them, the learning needs to be on issues they can relate to.

An informal environmental setting for adult learning is preferred to a formal one. This enables the learner to be comfortable and at ease with the learning process. Further, this environment has to consider the individual aspects of the learner in terms of age, impairments or the knowledge type being transmitted (Jarvis, 2004). Various teaching methods have to be used in the teaching of adults based on the mode of learning through the use of the senses hence the need for sensory stimulation for more retention of knowledge. The purpose and objectives of the programs of training have to be clear while the aspects of needs assessment and the incorporation of effectiveness and efficiency in the process should be considered. The evaluation of adult learners has to be individualistic with the need for self evaluation and ensuring that evaluation is based on the instructional plan.

Adult Learning Centers

The learning of adults is based on the above principles and requires that the centers offering such education satisfy the quality assurance requirements (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). This is because much of the learning processes and experiences of adult learners takes place in the informal settings. Further, the emergence of adult education and training and its influence globally and economically requires standardization. This is to enable adult learners have quality learning experiences with the ability to apply the knowledge to their contexts. The quality issues of adult education are also based on the strategies for making such learning a lifelong and continuous process (Jarvis, 2004). Quality assessment of adult learning centers is a continuous process which differs between centers, region of operation, program as well as the standard stipulated by the bodies to which the centers ascribe. The assessment of quality thus is done by various bodies on member centers through evaluation and benchmarking (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). The Quality Assurance Network for Adult Learning Centers is one such body which is effective in the European region. However, the quality assurance of the adult learning centers focuses on the principles of transparency and openness, the support accorded to learners, the need for continuous improvement and innovation especially with the use of technology to ease evaluation, diversity in the selection of students, depth and content in curriculum development as well as the assessment and evaluation done.

Quality issues also entail the outcomes of the centers in terms of the increased effectiveness of the adults in their operations (Dew, 1997). Adult learning centers are not just required to offer learning but they should also place emphasis on the needs of the economy as stipulated by the requirements of the learners. Quality matters also entail the legal, environmental and social factors where the centers fulfill those requirements and also matters to do with capacity required to ensure the learners have a quality learning experience. The instruction model chosen for the adult training centers also determines the quality assessment. For example, the adult education model by Dean (1994) would be assessed for quality based on the aspects of the needs assessment carried out, the process of instruction design and the evaluation carried out.

Adult Education Theory

Adult education is unique from other pedagogical learning of children and utilizes theories that help to explain how adult learners acquire knowledge as well as the motivations and influences of their learning process (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). The psychological theories are applied in the evaluation of adult learning although the adult education theory focuses on the principles and characteristics of adult learners and their processes of learning. Merriam and Brockett (2007) present the adult learning theory as would help adult educators and policy makers but argue that the other psychological theories also help to explain the process of adult learning. According to Jarvis (2004), the adult learning theory asserts that adults are committed to learning provided that the goals and objectives of learning are clearly stipulated, realistic and of importance to them. Adult learners are self directed and in control of their learning and they expect the learning to help them in their day-to-day lives and task handling with the application of past experiences to learning. Adult learners also require facilitation for them to learn (Dew, 1997).

Application to Practice

The application of the education theory mainly helps the educators in their planning for teaching, approach of teaching and evaluation to enable the learning become effective to the adult learner (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). The application to practice also touches to some extent on the level of outcome and benefits the adult learners gain from the process and their implementation of such knowledge. The self direction aspect of adult learners causes them to desire to be in control of their learning. The educator thus needs to give the learners control by engaging them in discussions of mutual inquiry. For example, the educator in the field of business would ask the adult learners in small groups or as individuals to develop their own ratio analysis from a case study. Adult learners, as Jarvis (2004) suggests from the adult educational theory, are endorsed with vast experiences which they bring to the learning process. It is important for the educator to focus on the strengths they bring to the classroom and encourage dialogue. Adult learners in this sense can thus act as resources for the educator and make learning more realistic. For example, in a business course that entails insurance and the operations of such insurance companies, an adult learner who has prior knowledge of working with or in such companies would be quite resourceful in the learning process.

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The adult learning theories show that adult learners have their own established systems of beliefs, opinions and values based on their own experiences (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). This aspect requires application to practice with the development of instructional objectives. This means that the educator has to ensure that these are respected while still ensuring that the learners are mandated to respect those values of their counterparts. It is thus crucial for the educator to have clarity and objectivity on subjective matters. The theories also suggest that adult learners have pride and ego and are therefore afraid of judgments (Jarvis, 2004). This requires practical application with emphasis on providing and setting instructions to be inclusive through peer based learning. This can be achieved in the form of small group discussions where they are able to analyze, synthesize and challenge one another. For example, the training in the banking industry based on effective customer service management would entail the grouping of the employees from different departments to increase the coverage of the discussion such as a group of one from sales and marketing, another from accounting and another from information systems. This would enable them to learn from each other since each is an expert in a different field. As the theory asserts, the adult learner desires a problem-centered approach to learning (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). This means that the learning has to be based on application to practical and real-life situations. This is applicable through the use of case studies, group work and other participatory measures in the learning context. For example, in the business related training programs, case studies such as the Enron scandal and the influences of media on business and other innovations. This also requires the emphasis on current issues such as the financial crisis and its influence on business globally, the rising prices of homes, terrorism fights and other related issues as would influence the adult learners with the applications on what such scenarios imply for them as individuals.

The process of transfer of learning for adults is not direct or automatic but requires support and evaluation (Jarvis, 2004). This means that self evaluation is necessary. For example, in business courses regarding financial accounting, it is not automatic for the learner to be able to prepare the financial statements, but would require more coaching and constant evaluation to ensure the learner is able to do it. However, assessment is not mainly for grading purposes but for personal evaluation. Application of the adult learning theory is applicable in all fields of adult learning and training.

Training Methods

The methods used in the training of adult learners are varied but mostly learner-focused (Merriam & Brockett, 2007). They also vary with the program type, duration of course and the number of learners among other factors (Pratt, 2002). The methods applicable include lecturing for large numbers of learners, demonstrations for fields such as medicine, nursing or engineering, structured exercises, case studies, role plays and group discussions for business fields.


Adult learners are quite different and require special attention. The adult learning process is based on the characteristics of the adult learners, the principles of adult learning and focus on the adult education theory. This paper has evaluated the concept of adult learning and its practical application.

Reference List

Dean, G.J. (1994). Designing instruction for adult learners. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.

Dew, J. (1997). Empowerment and Democracy in the Workplace: Applying Adult Education Theory and Practice for Cultivating Empowerment. Westport, CT: Quorum Books.

Jarvis, P. (2004). Adult Education and lifelong learning: theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

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Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. New York: Association Press.

Merriam, S., & Brockett, R. (2007). The Profession and Practice of Adult Education: An Introduction. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R. S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pratt, D. D. (2002). Five perspectives on teaching in adult and higher education. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company.