Adult learning theory primarily focuses on how adults learn. It is founded on the assumptions that adult learners concentrate more on the processes rather than contents. This is because adults bring in real life experiences to the learning environment. Malcolm Shepherd Knowles (1913-1997) had a significant influence on the field of adult education. He was determined to discuss the fact that adults learn differently than children and thus bringing in the concept of andragogy (Knowles, 1984).
Andragogy, as defined by Malcolm S. Knowles (1984), is a theory based on the psychological definition of adult, which states that people become adults psychologically when they arrive at a self-concept of being responsible for their own lives, of being self-directing.
Basing andragogy on six assumptions about the adult learner, Knowles distinguished andragogy, or the art and science of helping adults learn, from other areas of education, especially pedagogy, the art and science of helping children learn.
The six assumptions underlying andragogy, as theorized by Knowles, are 1) self-concept, 2) experience, 3) readiness to learn depends on need, 4) problem centered focus, 5) internal motivation, and 6) adults need to know why they need to know something (as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007):
1) Self concept. Self concept refers to an adult becoming more self-directed and independent as he/she matures. Adults typically want to choose what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, and how they want to learn. This assumption means that educators can provide more choices for learners, such as allowing them to design their own tests, and/or providing a collaborative learning environment that foster mutual respect.
2) Experience. Adult learners have a wealth of life experiences that they bring with them into new learning experiences. Because of this, they are able to contribute richness to class discussions and are considered valuable resources for learning from and with each other. Some of the experiences, though, may cause misinformation or biases related to the new learning and must be clarified so as not to cause a barrier to the new learning.
3) Readiness to learn depends on need. Whether or not an adult is ready to learn depends on what they need to know in order to deal with life situations. Life situations that compel adults to learn include such things as learning to care for a child who has been diagnosed with a disease, or learning to cook healthy meals to prevent health risks.
4) Problem centered focus. Adults need to see the immediate application of learning. Therefore, they seek learning opportunities that will enable them to solve problems.
5) Internal motivation. Adults will seek learning opportunities due to some external motivators, but the more potent motivators (self-esteem, better quality of life, self-actualization, etc.) are internal.
6) Adults need to know why they need to learn something. Adults need to know what’s in it for them – how this new knowledge will solve a problem or be immediately applied.
An effective training program takes into consideration the principles of adult learning. When designing a training program, instructional designers understand that it is important for adults to know why they are in the training and to be able to apply the training to real life situations.
It is also important for adult learners to exercise their own personal decisions in the course of the activity. Participants should be asked to volunteer to share their ideas or their reactions. Another thing to consider is that adults have already experienced so much of life and that these experiences should be respected and recognized as an important resource to be used in the activity. In a training program, the previous experiences of the participants can be used to enrich their ideas. New skills or knowledge taught in the training can be related to their previous experiences.
Adults also come into training because they want to learn, which means that the training should be designed to include an activity that would encourage the participants to actively participate in the training program, such as role-playing and hands-on activities.
Adult learners find meaning in what they learn if they know that it can help them become a better person, thus a training program that tries to teach participants technical skills should do so in such a way that participants feel that it is an important life skill, and when training for skills like communication, conflict management or teamwork, the orientation of the activity should always be geared towards enriching the quality of interpersonal relationships.
Finally, adults are internally motivated to learn. Because of this, the training facilitator should explain to the participants the importance of the training and what it will do for them in the long term. Recognizing their ideas, affirming their opinions and letting them share and be listened to are great motivators.
Adult learning styles should also be taken into consideration when designing training. Adult learning styles are a composite of the cognitive, affective, and physiological factors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how a learner perceives, interacts with, and responds to the learning environment. Included in this definition are perceptual modalities, information processing styles, and personality patterns.
Kolb & Fry’s Learning Style Inventory theorizes that adult learners develop preferences for different learning styles in the same way that they develop any other sort of style, i.e. – management, leadership, negotiating etc. The four predominant styles are:
- Active experimentation (simulations, case study, homework). If this if the preferred style of the learner then she is an Activist – what’s new? I’m game for anything.
- Reflective observation (logs, journals, brainstorming). If this if the preferred style of the learner then he is a Reflector – I’d like time to think about this.
- Abstract conceptualization (lecture, papers, analogies). If this if the preferred style of the learner then she is a Theorist – How does this relate to that?
- Concrete experience (laboratories, field work, observations). If this if the preferred style of the learner then he is a Pragmatist – How can I apply this in practice?
Adult learning style preferences are the preferred method of learning for the individual adult. These preferences include visual learners who gain knowledge best by seeing or reading what you’re trying to teach; auditory learners who gain knowledge best by listening; and kinesthetic learners who gain knowledge best by touching, moving, and doing.
Through awareness of adult learning theory, andragogy, adult learning principles, and adult learning styles, instructional designers can develop a myriad of learning (and teaching) methods that will enable employees to work to their fullest potential. Adult learning principles can help us understand our own learning styles or tendencies. We can use this information to develop alternate learning styles so that we can take control of any learning situation.
Knowles, M. S. & Associates. (1984). Andragogy in Action. 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.