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Adult learning Theories Term Paper Sample

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Adult learning Theories


In the past, scholars have written several books that cover aspect of adult learning. It is believed that adults learn in a different fashion, in comparison to children or young learners. As discussed by Wertsch (1985), learning is a process of constructing new knowledge and these new ideas are added to what an individual already knows. The development of the curriculum used for learning is essential because it provides an avenue in which individuals can share knowledge. As documented by Jaques (2003), adults learn differently in comparison to children. In his assessment of adult learning, Knowles (1980) introduced the term andragogy, which was used in differentiating adult learning from pedagogy. With time, it is has evident the principles that guide andragogy could be of great essence to children’s learning. Some scholars have supported the idea of lifelong learning, which stretches into adulthood. This paper analyses the assumptions regarding adult learning, and goes further to examine adult learning theories, outlining the relevance of these theories in adult learning in higher education.

Assumptions concerning adult learning

As part of the efforts in understanding the learning process in adults, as well as how these people foresee their goal orientation, it would be require evaluating Knowles (1980) publication. The author suggests four assumptions relating to adult’s learning behaviors. In his view, every individual has the capability to conceptualize an idea, through personal reflection (Knowles et al., 2005). This is commonly referred to as self-concept. It is inferred that the self-concept is the reason an individual adult changes from being a dependant on other person to being independent (Knowles, 1989). As such, an adult is capable of making decisions on their own, which have a great influence on their lives. It is argued that these changes come with maturity. The more an individual grows, the more they are mature in reasoning and learning to control their lives. However, maturity is known to vary from one individual to another (Loyens, Magda & Rikers, 2008). Sometimes individuals within the same age cannot reason in a similar manner, when faced with the same situation. In this sense, teachers have a responsibility of guiding adult learners and need to be actively involved in nurturing adult learners to be responsible (Jaques, 2003). In higher education, teachers are expected to mould matured and emotionally balanced adults, who will work effectively under self-direction. Teachers expect that adult learners should be independent, and these teachers play pivotal role in ensuring that adult learners are independent. As an individual grows and matures, he or she accumulates vast experiences. These experiences are a valuable resource in learning. In the case of adult learning, teachers need to acknowledge the experiences of these adults and capitalize on this experience in teaching these adults (Merriam et al., 2007). It is worth noting these experiences could be useful in resolving issues related to their lives and ensuring that a workable solution is reached. Indeed, experience is a great resource to a leaner and it has a great potential in giving the learner the confidence, empower an adult learning to more articulate, assertive, and communicative.

As opined by Knowles, Holton and Swanson (2005), adult learners are more willing to gain knowledge, if these learners are exposed to a learning environment that focuses on solving real life problems. In this respect, the learning experience is enhanced when learning is centered on personal development goals. On this account, adult educators or facilitators should factor in problem-solving techniques and focus on self-discovery techniques, through assessing of their needs. It is established that adult learners learn better and faster, when the learning is modified to help them solve their real life problems. In fact, learners should be more concerned with their current developmental needs. In this sense, the place of learning and the time for the learning is equally important when adults are learning. In fact, the assumptions developed among adult learners are fundamental in helping educator to design a learning environment that is favorable for all the learners (Merriam et al., 2007). When education facilitators in an adult learning environment understand the underlying factors in learning, they work on creating a learning environment that helps learners to be self-directed learning individuals (Loyens, Magda & Rikers, 2008). Indeed, self-directed adult learners, in most cases, are active learners in the learning process. This is attributed to the fact that adult learners have the ability to diagnose their desires and needs. It is believed that the processing and enhancing of a strong self-image among learners is important in building a strong self-esteem in adult learners (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). As such, adult learners are in a position to develop a personal ownership of the learning program (Loyens, Magda & Rikers, 2008). Indeed, these factors should happen from the beginning to the end. Education facilitators are directly involved in planning the learning environment, which will motivate adult learners to be committed in learning.

In examining theories that guide adult learning, it is clear that several factors influence the learning process among adult. Andragogy theory, which was developed by Knowles (1968) has used widely in adult education. Andragogy offered a contrast to the pedagogy, since it is believed adult needed in learning science and art. This help is different from the one accorded to children. In his view, Knowles believe that Andragogy was an emerging technology, with a massive capability of facilitating the development and implement of a smooth learning experience for adult learners (Knowles, 1988). As outlined in the andragogy theory, adults need to be informed the need of learning something. On the other hand, effective teachers should clearly explain their reasons for imparting specific skills. As Knowles et al. (2005) suggests, adults learn when they are directly involved in activities. In other words, adults learn through experience. Therefore, high education learning should concentrate on issuing of instructions on tasks that adults could perform well. As discussed by Merriam et al. (2007), adults are problem solvers and they would appreciate lessons that could be of immediate use to them. In this sense, learning should focus on solving real-life problems, in order to get adults to concentrate (Loyens et al., 2008).

Self-Directed Learning

Loyens et al. (2008) opine that approximately 70 percent of adult learning is self-directed. He goes further to point that close to 90 percent of all adults are involved in at least one project annually, which requires self-directed learning. Knowles (1975) describes self-directed learning as a process in which individuals take initiative by themselves, without depending on the help of others. As such, these individual are the architects of planning and evaluation of their learning experiences. Self Directed Learning (SDL) is suitable for individual who are learning outside the classroom. It should be remembered that SDL involves the learners making decisions on the content, resources, methods, and evaluation of learning. In other words, individuals have the responsibility in constructing their learning, where they determine their needs, identify the resources, and implement a plan to ensure that learning goals are realized. SDL is advantageous when learning is incorporated into the daily routines. All these routines are molded to the convenience of the learners. In most cases, it depends on the preferences of the learner. In higher education, adult learners may be actively involved in isolated activities, for instance, learners use the internet to research information on different topics. Alternatively, SDL allows learners to be in contact with the experts and peers, and this happens in a similar fashion as the traditional classroom. It is important to remember that SDL could be difficult for adults, with low-level literacy skills, especially for candidates who lack confidence, internal motivation, or resources.

In adult education setting, the teacher is at liberty to augment traditional classroom instructions, through using different techniques that help improve SDL for individuals or a small group of learners (Loyens, Magda & Rikers, 2008). It is important that these learners embark on independent, as well as self-directed learning experiences. Cranton (2002) describes self-direction as a fundamental element of persistence in adult education. It is has proved useful for learners, teaching them the appropriate way to engage in self-study. Some of the strategies could be used in reinforcing SDL, as a way of ensuring that adult learners to realize a tremendous learning experience. In higher education, teachers should be willing to conduct a self-assessment of skills, which helps learners determine appropriate learning objective. Moreover, educators need to conduct a self-assessment of the skills, and this is vital in determining the appropriate learning objectives (Watkins & Marsick, 2001). It is vital to identify the starting point for a learning project. Importantly, educators should negotiate a learning contract, where the goals, strategies, and evaluation criteria are identified. Leaner are need to develop positive attitudes and independence, which should be in line with self-directed learning. SDL encourages teachers to offer support to adult learners in the entire learning, and this is vital as learners are in better position in identifying their own growing thought processes and strategies.

Transformational Learning

In adult learning, transformative learning refers to the learning process that makes individuals to think of themselves in a different way. In other words, it shifts their consciousness. As King (2000) suggests, most adults who learn English language tend to shift their view of the United States culture and this is likely to reinforce their confidence, particularly when communicating a new language. It is noted that learners sometimes develop some perceptions, which could hinder their learning (Watkins & Marsick, 2001). As such, it is essential to encourage these learners to have a different view of their social structures, as they embrace new ideas. As Mezirow (2000) claims, transformative learning is a rational process. The adult learner gets the chance to discuss the assumptions they held about the world, and these learners end up experiencing a different perspective of the worldview. For transformative learning to be successful, the adult learners need to be engaged in a reflective discourse and should analyze the assumptions made by others (Pilling-Cormick, 1997; Taylor, 2000). This will help these students to consider various perspectives, promoting sharing of accurate information on the topic (Meyer & Marsick, 2003). In doing this, the biasness of the opinions may be eliminated, and it paves way to the acceptance of the environment and building of trust in adult learners. As a way of fostering transformative learning, educators should be on the forefront in creating a climate that supports transformative learning (Pilling-Cormick, 1997). It is believed that transformation learning can only be effective if teachers are empathetic, authentic, and caring. It is important for teachers to demonstrate a high degree of integrity (Taylor, 2000). In this regard, educators need to provide a helpful feedback and adopt practices that will promote student autonomy, collaboration, and participation (Pilling-Cormick, 1997; Taylor, 2000). The exercise helps students explore alternative perspectives, as they address problems that affect them. For adult learning to be seamless in higher education, it would require educators to know their students and the activities that would appeal to adult students.


In conclusion, this paper has analyzed the assumptions regarding adult learning. Moreover, it delved deeper to examine adult learning theories, outlining the relevance of these theories in adult learning in higher education. It is established that adult learners have the capability of conceptualizing ideas, and this happens as through reflection of events. Adult learners are capable of conceptualizing ideas, enabling them to be independent. The three theories linked to adult learning include andragogy, self-directed, and transformative learning. All these three theories are touted to be instrumental in adult learning. In all these three theories, the roles of the educators in enhancing learning have been identified. For instance, in transformative learning, requires that educators to provide feedback and be on forefront in ensuring that the learning process is seamless. Elsewhere, self-directed learning is described as a learning process that does not depend on the help of others.


Cranton, P. (2002). Teaching for transformation. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, (93) 63–71.

Jaques D. (2003). ABC of learning and teaching in medicine: Teaching small groups. Br Med J 326(3), 492–494.

King, K. (2000). The adult ESL experience: Facilitating perspective transformation in the classroom. Adult Basic Education, 10(2), 69–89.

Knowles, M. (1988). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston, TX: Gulf.

Knowles, M. S. (1975) Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Knowles, M., Holton, I., & Swanson, R. (2005). The adult learner: the definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. Burlington, MA: Elsevier.

Knowles, M. (1989). The making of an adult educator: An autobiographical journey (Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Loyens, M., Magda, J., & Rikers, P. (2008). Self-directed learning in problem-based learning and its relationships with self-regulated learning. Educ Psychol Rev 20(1), 411–427.

Merriam, B., Caffarella, S., & Baumgartner, M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Meyer, R., & Marsick, J. (2003). Professional development in corporate training. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 98(3), 75-82.

Pilling-Cormick, J. (1997). Transformative and self-directed learning in practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 74(34), 69-77.

Taylor, E. (2000). Analyzing research on transformative learning theory. In Mezirow and Associates (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Watkins, E., & Marsick, J. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 89(34), 25-34.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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