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You know the saying; you learn something new every day? Well, it’s true! You never stop learning new things, and you’re never too old to start using that brainpower of yours. 

Learning takes place at all ages and in all kinds of shapes and forms. Some people automatically assume that you need to be young to learn new things or skill sets, or that it’s too late to go back to school once you reach late adulthood.  

This is totally false! While adults may learn and process information differently than children do, it doesn’t mean that adults are set in their ways and shouldn’t use the working part of their brain.  

Let us introduce you to adult learning theory: a set of guidelines and principles that support the practice of adult learning.  

Also known as andragogy, this principle facilitates learning for adults, who are self-directed learners. This is the opposite of pedagogy, which translates to “leading children.” Pedagogy is the teaching of children, or dependent personalities. Andragogy is the facilitation of learning for adults, who are much more autonomous. 

This concept was coined by Malcolm Knowles, an American educator, in the 1960’s. Knowles used the term andragogy as synonymous to adult education.  

The goal of adult learning theory is to inspire adults to educate themselves in ways that suit their needs and learning styles.  

In this blog, we will go into depth on the key principles of the adult learning theory and how this can translate to your life or for teaching adults:

Related: How to Use Cognitive Learning Theory

The importance of adult learning theory 

Why, might you wonder, is adult learning theory so important? 

We often forget that adults are constantly learning new things, and that you don’t have to be a kid and in school to learn. However, there are some key differences between learning as a kid versus learning as an adult to take into consideration… 

Kids in school have constant structure and guidance to their learning – they are there to dedicate most of their day solely to learning what is taught by their teacher. When learning new things, most adults don’t have the same kind of structure to their learning, which can make for more of a challenge.  

This is why adults want to know exactly what is expected of their learning and how it will be beneficial to them. Adults’ time is more precious than children’s time, as they have more responsibilities and perhaps even their own children to take care of. For knowledge to be retained, adults must be aware of both the significance and relevance of their learning.  

Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory  

Knowles spent his life theorizing what makes older people’s learning styles different compared to children’s learning styles. From this approach, he developed five assumptions about adult learners.

The five assumptions of adult learners

Here are the five key assumptions that make up Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory that describe the characteristics of adult learners: 

  1. Self-concept

The first assumption of Knowles’ theory is that as people mature into adulthood, they automatically become more independent and self-directed than when they were children.  

Adults want to have more autonomy and say in how and when they learn. Adults have often realized what works best for them when it comes to their preferred learning style.  

This is why many different types of learning environments and practices have been introduced, such as eLearning through mobile devices. Learning tools like this have allowed learners the freedom to learn when they want and how they want. As adults have busier lives than children, and often don’t have a set time each day to learn, tools such as eLearning give adults the freedom to learn when it is most convenient and productive for them.  

Learning as an adult automatically takes on a more self-directed approach, as adults need less guidance and supervision than children do. This is because when learning as an adult, it is very likely that you want to learn either because you are very interested in the subject, or learning a particular thing will be useful in your job or career. 

  1. Adult learner experience

The second assumption Knowles made is about the learner experience. As an adult, you have experienced much more that the world has to offer than a child has, which means you will have different perspectives and inherent knowledge to draw from when learning.  

Children don’t have any previous experiences to draw from as they are so young and learning things for the very first time. Adults have a plethora of information they can access, as each adult has had their own unique experiences that have led them to where they are today. This could mean experiences in past education, jobs, and life events that create a one-of-a-kind perspective.  

As humans, we are always soaking up information and knowledge in whatever environment we find ourselves in. This makes learning as an adult special as no one is truly starting out the same. Children have very limited experiences to rely on as they are so young, whereas adults are coming from very different walks of life. Depending on your life experiences, you could find learning something new to be much easier or a greater challenge than the person next to you. 

  1. Readiness to learn

One of the biggest differences between teaching adults versus children is Knowles’ third assumption, which is the readiness to learn of adults.  

In most places, it is required that children attend school every day and learn until they graduate. This can make school seem like… more of a chore than something viewed as enjoyable. Adults don’t have the same structure for learning as children do, which makes their readiness to learn a lot different.  

Adult learners are much more selective about the information they consume, and so if they are learning something new, it’s most likely to benefit them in some way. 

There is a reason that adults want to learn when they are older (although some may like to learn new things just for pleasure and fun), and it often is directed towards the growth and improvement in their professional or personal lives. Often, companies will train their employees and adults will have to learn through programs that are applicable to their everyday job. When adults can see the light at the end of the tunnel (such as a promotion, raise, or career advancement), it makes them keener to absorb the information they need to properly learn what is expected of them. 

  1. Orientation to learning

Knowles’ fourth assumption is adult learner orientation, which focuses on learning practical skill sets to apply to the real world.  

When children learn things in school at a young age, it is often subject-based learning, which is the idea of simply knowing about a concept. This fourth assumption found that adults tend to veer towards problem-based learning, which focuses on knowledge that directly relates to solving a problem.  

As adults, we show enthusiasm towards learning things that are applicable to our everyday lives, rather than memorizing common facts about a topic. It is more beneficial to our long-term goals as functioning adults in society to learn and develop skill sets that efficiently aid us in solving problems.   

Practical real-life examples and scenario-based learning is more challenging for children to grasp at a young age. Adults differ in this way as this type of learning is more useful to them, as learning applicable problem-solving skills can engage adult learners and assist them in performing better in their roles.

  1. Motivation to learn

The last assumption Knowles made is regarding adult motivation to learn. 

There is a huge difference between the motivation to learn for children versus adults. Children have many various influences in their lives persuading them to learn and focus. They have multiple motivators, such as parents, teachers, school deadlines, and the societal push for higher education. Adults may not have any of these same factors to motivate them to learn.  

Children have so many external motivators, that they may not even need to think too hard about their internal motivation pushing them to learn. On the other hand, internal motivation is the biggest factor that pushes and drives adult learners. These internal motivation factors could be anything – from your job or career, personal goals, life circumstances, etc. – and they are personal to each adult.  

It’s beneficial for adults to understand what their internal motivation factors are when pursuing more education, as this is the reason behind learning as an adult. This is what shapes your learning experience as an adult.  

Other theories of adult learning 

There are several other theories of adult learning, in addition to the five key assumptions that make up Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory. 

  1. Transformative learning theory

Transformative learning theory is based on the idea that after personal experiences, changes to your viewpoints, expectations, and assumptions will affect how you process new information.  

This theory targets a growth mindset and seeks to assist learners in transforming their existing frames of reference through a process of problem-solving, procedural tasks, and self-reflection. 

Transformative learning theory challenges existing beliefs and works with complex analytical processes. It involves a lot of self-examination and can teach adult learners to become more critical, autonomous, and responsible in decision-making.  

People may overcome problems such as adapting to a new environment, changes in the workplace, career shifting, and adapting to transition points in the life process with transformative learning.

  1. Experiential learning theory

As Knowles’ theory on orientation to learning suggests, adults prefer learning that directly relates to solving a problem. Experiential learning theory relates to orientation to learning theory as this principle focuses on developing a “hands-on” learning approach.  

Experiential learning theory examines how getting real-life experience affects your learning. Most adults tend to want to apply their knowledge to their physical environment and reflect on what works and doesn’t work afterwards.  

This theory supports the idea that adults retain information the best when directly applying what they have learned to an applicable area of their lives. 

  1. Self-directed learning theory 

Self-directed learning theory also goes together with Knowles’ theory on self-concept, and how most adults are fully independent.  

This theory narrows in on the idea of self-concept and independence and applies learning principles in a completely self-taught manner – learning at one’s own pace in one’s own way.  

Self-directed learning theory is not for everyone as some adults may need more guidance or social interaction when it comes to learning. This theory is for those responsible adults to practice who can efficiently self-evaluate their learning needs and goals. These types of learners are very self-disciplined and usually have no issues focusing or concentrating on what needs to be done. 

  1. Project-based learning theory

Project-based learning theory is similar to experiential learning theory as it is more of a “hands-on” technique. Using this theory, adults learn through overseeing and managing a project-based problem. They are to investigate a real-life situation for an extended period, like a case study.  

Through this learning theory, adults learn important communication and collaboration skills with other people, also working on their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  

This theory uses authentic and engaging scenarios to stimulate a real-world, complex challenge to mimic what learners would need to apply their skills to in real life.  

  1. Action learning theory

Action learning theory is like a combination of all the above theories – this theory allows learners to take action by gathering knowledge and collaborating with others in a group environment to find a solution to a problem or scenario. 

Business simulations are an example of action learning theory, where learners are supposed to take on multiple management roles to solve a problem.  

Adults are expected to reflect upon the results of their actions, learning from experience under pressure. The purpose of this learning theory is to fill in those knowledge gaps and establish important team-building skills. 

  1. Collaborative learning theory

This model of learning aims to direct learners to expand their knowledge through group learning. Collaborative learning theory involves peer-to-peer learning that develops higher-level thinking, oral communication, self-management, and leadership skills. 

While adult learning is more independent than learning as a child is, there are still many different scenarios where adults can benefit from learning in a group. This is especially true in the workplace, where adults may be paired together for group projects.  

Collaborative learning theory supports adults working cohesively to solve conceptual problems. This theory is also applicable to online learning and helps people establish connections virtually.

Related: What Is Universal Design For Learning? (Examples & Best Practices)

Challenges of adult learning theory

 There are many ways or reasons adults would want to pursue further education. This could be done in a more traditional higher education setting, through skill-based courses to advance in the workplace, for self-improvement, or simply for the enjoyment of learning a new subject independently.  

With all the different options for adults to pursue further learning opportunities, it’s not to say that learning as an adult doesn’t come with its own set of challenges.  

Some challenges as an adult learner include:

  • The time to set aside for dedicating yourself to learning
  • Lack of support from others (emotionally or financially)
  • The financial burdens of pursuing higher education 
  • Self-doubt or lack of confidence in learning as an adult
  • Unlearning old habits and becoming more adaptable

These barriers may provide more of an obstacle for adults to overcome when trying to reach their learning goals.  

Principles of adult learning 

Adult education is all around us, which is why it is so important to understand the best principles and practices when it comes to learning as an adult.  

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Consider these key points to take into consideration when understanding the adult learner

  • Create a positive learning environment that makes people excited and eager to show up to (remember that no one is forcing adults to attend schools or lessons). Engaging adult students is the same as any age – make your course as interesting as possible. 
  • Emphasize the practical application of what is being studied. This is why adults like hands-on learning and problem-solving… because usually they need to apply this knowledge to their work or personal lives right afterwards. 
  • Encourage active participation to ensure students are retaining the information. Even for those self-directed courses, make sure there is a way to engage your students in any kind of learning environment they may be in.
  • Provide assessments for learning outcomes. This is the best way to ensure everyone is on track and understanding the material. Assessments are also a good way to gauge what adults previously know from past life experiences.

Related: The 5 Most Effective Teaching Styles (Pros & Cons of Each) 

Applications of adult learning theory 

Adults don’t have the same amount of time set aside for learning as children do – adults typically have many responsibilities along with the craziness that comes with, well… simply being an adult! This means that how adults learn will look a little different than how children traditionally learn every day in a classroom with a teacher.  

Here are some common ways that adults expand their knowledge: 

  1. Adult education programs

Adult education programs are an umbrella term for any kind of further education adults themselves wish to pursue. This can include getting your GED, a diploma in a specialization, an apprenticeship program, military training, post-secondary school, and independent studies. 

While these programs often have some structure, it is not the same as being in school every day and learning as a child. 

  1. Corporate training programs

One of the most common ways that adults engage in learning is to further themselves in their career through corporate training programs. Seminars, workshops, and conferences make up a lot of corporate training programs, as well as specific case studies that offer a more hands-on approach.  

Adults learn specifically about the company they work for through corporate training programs, as businesses want to ensure that everyone is at an appropriate knowledge level for the position they are in. 

  1. Online learning environments

Online learning environments are a bit more niche than adult education programs, as these learning spaces are strictly virtual and usually are for a shorter duration.  

Some examples of online learning environments include coaching, taking a course in a specific subject matter, learning a language, and professional certification. Some adults enjoy taking online courses just for fun, simply because of the convenience of virtual learning.  


Future directions for adult learning theory research and practice

We have uncovered that the biggest difference between teaching adults versus children is that adults are self-directed learners. The goal of adult learning theory is to inspire adults to educate themselves in ways that suit their needs and learning styles. 

There are many different theories that explain how adults learn in the current day. From the five key assumptions that make up Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory to the other theories we uncovered – it’s been unveiled that there is no one or correct way to tackle the differences and challenges of adult learning. 

Our understanding of adult learning has evolved over the years, and future directions for adult learning theory research and practice will continue to evolve with technology and the changing needs of adult learners.  

For those who find themselves with adult students, keep in mind that it’s okay to test out different adult learning theories and try different approaches until you find what works best for your older students. Keep in mind that adults are very autonomous, and what works for one adult student could not work for another. Experiment and engage your students in the learning process, and ask them what their preferred learning style is.  

As adults are constantly changing and evolving, the adult learning theory should as well. Regularly access the application of your theory for teaching adults. Adult learning strategies should be in constant evolution.

 With that said, remember that it’s never too late to start learning something new. You can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it!  

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