Adult learning theories are premised on the idea that there are significant differences between children and adults with regards to learning. Adult learning theory can help faculty and instructors to understand their students and design meaningful learning experiences for them (Cercone, 2008).
Adult Learning Theories Defined
What is adult learning? There is no one theory that explains how adults learn, just as there is no one theory that explains all human learning (Cercone, 2008). Particularly influential in the development of adult learning theories is Malcolm S. Knowles’ concept of andragogy, the “science and art of helping adults learn” (Knowles, 1980, p.43). Knowles originally outlined four assumptions about the adult learner and later expandedhis model to include fifth and sixth assumptions:
- Adults are independent and self-directed learners.
- Adult students build on previous knowledge and experience by relating new information to past events and experience (Cercone, 2008).
- Adults know what they want to learn, and like to see the relevance in their learning to personal goals.
- Adult learners are more problem-centered than subject-oriented.
- Adults are motivated to learn more by internal rather than external factors.
- They need to know why they should learn something.
It is important to note that andragogy is less a theory of adult learning and more “a model of assumptions about learning or a conceptual framework that serves as a basis for an emergent theory” (Knowles, 1989, p.112, as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). Other models of adult learning have been proposed, such as McClusky’s theory of margin, Illeris’s three dimensions of learning model, and Jarvis’s learning process.
Three adult learning theories that are commonly discussed in the literature as being related to the concept of andragogy are examined briefly below. They are:
- self-directed learning,
- transformational learning, and
- experiential learning.
Self-directed learning is a student-centered approach to education and exemplifies the most visible and most studied form of informal learning (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). It can be incorporated into both formal and non-formal learning environments, and has been studied from multiple perspectives: as a goal, as a process of learning, and as an attribute of learners. As it relates to adult education, this approach has been linked to other forms of learning, such as problem-based learning, self-regulated learning, transformational learning and lifelong learning.
Knowles (1975), in his guide for learners and teachers, defines self-directed learning as
a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying human and material resources, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (p.18).
Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner identify three main goals of self-directed learning:
- to enhance the ability of adult learners to be self-directed in their learning;
- to foster transformational learning as central to self-directed learning; and
- to promote emancipatory learning and social action as an integral part of self-directed learning.
Considered a constructivist theory of adult learning, transformative, or transformational learning was influenced by the work of Jack Mezirow. This approach helps adult learners understand their experiences, how they make sense or “meaning of their experiences, the nature of the structures that influence the way they construe experience, the dynamics involved in modifying meanings, and the way the structures of meaning themselves undergo changes when learners find them to be dysfunctional” (Mezirow, 1997, p.xii). Furthermore, the goal of this learning theory is to enable the adult learner to become a more autonomous thinker. This theory is about change and the mental construction of experience. Inner meaning and reflection are accepted components of this approach.
Experiential learning is composed of three components:
- knowledge of concepts, facts, information, and experience;
- prior knowledge applied to current, ongoing events; and
- reflection with a thoughtful analysis and assessment of a learner’s activities that contributes to personal growth (Cercone).
Kolb conceptualizes that learning from experience requires four kinds of abilities:
- an openness and willingness to involve oneself in new experiences (concrete experience);
- observational and reflective skills so these new experiences can be viewed from a variety of perspectives (reflective observation);
- analytical abilities so integrative ideas and concepts can be created from their observations (abstract conceptualization); and
- decision-making and problem-solving skills so these new ideas and concepts can be used in actual practice (active experimentation).
Jarvis (1987, 2001) expands on Kolb’s model and describes two types of learning from experience:
- non-reflective learning, which includes remembering an experience and repeating it or just doing what we are told to do; and
- reflective learning, when we “plan, monitor, and reflect upon our experiences” (Jarvis, 2001, p.52, as cited in Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).