Everything to Know About Adult Learning Theory

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Adult learning theory is important for anyone looking to study as an adult (or for teachers of adult education). In this article, we’ll explain the basics of adult learning, go over adult learning principles and theories, and finally, give some tips for adult students embarking on the path of education.



What is Adult Learning?


Simply put, adult learning is any situation in which an adult is pursuing an education, a new skill, or information. An adult may find themselves in this situation by enrolling in further education, a trade school, or even a new job role. 


Children and adults learn and pick up skills very differently, and so adult learning theory is paramount to ensuring efficient learning among adults, no matter the setting or situation.



Difficulties in Adult Learning


Compared to children, adults have a unique set of difficulties when it comes to learning and processing in their education. Below are a few common difficulties in adult learning.



Lack of time


Many adults have less time for education and studying. Whether it is due to a demanding job or family responsibilities, most adults do not have the same free time that children, or even college students, enjoy. Even when adults have available time for further education, it may not be enough to enroll in an education program with inflexible hours.



Self doubt


It is more common for adult learners to doubt whether they can or should invest in education. Adults may feel that too much time has passed since they were in a learning environment, or that they are simply too old to learn.





With age, plasticity in the brain, which helps create and strengthen neural pathways, is weakened. Young childrens’ brains are more plastic, helping them take in new information, create new neural pathways, and establish habits through repetition. Though it may be harder for adults to create these new neural pathways and accept new ideas, it is a difficulty that can be overcome with proper adult learning theories.



Financial barriers


Unlike children and college students who may have financial help from parents, adults have a harder time investing in their education. However, finances shouldn’t prevent adult learners from achieving their goals or getting a degree. Financial aid, scholarships, and tuition-free education make it possible to pursue an education as an adult.





Some adults may run into contradictory information in their adult education. As mentioned before, it can be difficult to integrate new information. This is especially difficult if new information contradicts previous education or outdated concepts that an adult learned as a child.



Lack of support


It can be quite difficult to earn a degree without support. Adults pursuing an education may feel that they lack a proper support system to help them. An adult may need a mentor, program advisor, or people in their life to help them on the path to success.



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5 Principles Of Andragogy (Knowles)


The concept of andragogy, the science of adult learning, was popularized in 1980 by Malcolm Knowles. The 5 main principles of Knowles’ andragogy outlines the unique ways in which adults learn differently than children.


  1. As we grow older, our learning shifts from dependent to independent. Therefore, many adults prefer independent study and self-directed learning.
  2. Adults draw from their experience and previous knowledge, and this can be used to their advantage while studying.
  3. Adults want their studies to be directed by a reason or goal, such as growth and development related to their career or other personal goals.
  4. Adults prefer subjects to include a practical approach, as opposed to merely theoretical information. This means that the studies should relate to everyday life, skills, and work.
  5. As mentioned above, adults prefer education to be directed towards a goal. This includes having a self-directed goal. Whereas children learn through external motivation, like parents, teachers, and rewards, adults need their own internal motivation for learning.



Adult Learning Theories


Different adults will thrive in different learning environments based on their different learning styles. Below are a few of the top adult learning theories.



Transformative learning


Transformative learning, a theory developed by Jack Mezirow in 1970, is a method in which adult students challenge, discuss, and evaluate their underlying beliefs and assumptions about the world. This process encourages students to learn about themselves and expand their own understanding.



Self-directed learning


Though the concept of self-directed learning has been around for a long time, the theory was formalized in the 70s by Alan Tough. In self-directed learning, students take full initiative in their studies by planning and setting their own goals, implementing a study plan, evaluating their own study needs, and more. As mentioned in Knowles’ 5 principles, adults are naturally drawn toward independent and self-directed learning.



Experiential learning


Another theory popularized in the 70s by David Kolb, experiential learning is an intuitive concept for many adult learners. The theory proposes that people learn well through life and hands-on experiences, as opposed to memorization or passive reading. Students draw on their own life experiences in order to make sense of information, or by utilizing role-play, and hands-on lessons. 



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Project-based learning


Similar to experiential learning, project-based learning is a “learning by doing” method of study which emphasizes tactile and goal-oriented projects as opposed to reading or listening. This method utilizes real-world skills and training that students may encounter in their desired field of work, which means that it’s a great option for students who wish to gain practical skills.



Adult Learning Techniques


If you’re interested in beginning your own education as an adult, here are a few helpful techniques to get you started and help you find the right learning theory for your needs.



Set goals


Determine what your educational goals may be, so that you know what you’re working toward. Do you have a specific career path in mind? Do you want to learn a new language for an upcoming trip? Are you developing a new skill, or taking an old one to the next level? Find your specific goal so that you know where to begin, and what will help you get there.



Decide on a “why”


Though this may sound similar to the above tip, knowing your “why” can help you stick to your goals. Ask yourself why you are pursuing a specific goal, and why certain tracks or programs will help you achieve that goal. Knowing your “why” will keep you motivated when it gets difficult, and help you make the right choices to stay focused on your initial goal.



Review regularly


Since adult brains have less plasticity than childrens’, reviewing regularly will help you stay on top of new information and create new neural pathways. 



Find learning experiences


Be on the lookout for hand-on experiences, such as internships, shadowing, and projects, to help you integrate your studies for your desired career or goal. This will not only help in your learning process, but will keep you excited and motivated toward your goals.



Wrap Up


If you’re an adult embarking on education or earning a degree, adult learning theory can help you understand how you learn most effectively. 


At University of the People, we value making education accessible to adult learners by keeping in mind the unique difficulties that adult students face. University of the People helps adult learners by making schedules flexible around work and family, and making education affordable with our tuition-free degrees.