Adult Learning Theory

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We came across a very interesting article by Sara Meij and are happy to share some extracts with you.

Adult learning is the process of adults learning new information and skills. In addition to there being a difference in motivation and enthusiasm between adult learners and children, there’s also an obvious difference in the level of existing knowledge.

Where child-oriented learning provides a basic level of knowledge on a topic, adult learners are looking to improve on their existing skills or learn new skills based on their personal interests. It’s helpful to let adults figure things out for themselves, whereas when teaching a child you often have to keep a tight handle on the learning environment.

What adult learning theories are there?


The transformative (or transformational) learning theory is all about helping learners change. It was developed by Jack Mezirow in 1978 and aims to transform a learner’s existing frame of reference through self-reflection, tasks, and problem-solving.

The way it works is to start with tasks that appeal to your learners and then move on to ones that challenge their beliefs and perspectives and allows them to reflect critically on it. The transformative learning theory is definitely the more cognitive learning theory of the examples listed due to the large amount of self-reflection that it makes up.


Drawing on other psychologists’ work, David Kolb developed the experiential theory in the 1970s. It’s a more hands-on approach to adult learning and is formed on the basis that adults learn best by doing.

The four elements that make experiential learning a success are:

– Self-reflection

– Active involvement

– Conceptualizing the experience

– Using the knowledge learned from it in real life.


As the name implies, self-directed learning involves a lot of initiative from the learner and it’s aimed at a lot of the informal learning we do as adults. Self-directed learning is part of Malcolm Knowles and D.R. Garrison’s theory of adult learning.

Mentors and teachers can facilitate the process through providing guidance and access to the training tools needed. The onus in this theory is more on the learner though, as with self-directed learning the progress, initiative, and objectives are driven by them.


Andragogy combines all of the theories above. Another theory of Malcolm Knowles, andragogy starts with agreeing that there’s a difference between how children and adults learn, and you create a learning plan from there.

The four principles of the andragogy theory are that:

– Adults prefer to learn from doing/experiences.

– They’re interested in learning something that has immediate relevance.

– They prefer a hands-on approach to learning.

– They prefer to solve actual problems.