Everything You Needed to Know About Adult Learning Theory

April 8, 2021

Research suggests that the adult brain starts getting lazy at around 25 years old. Of course, that doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of learning new concepts. It just means we need to engage in things that keep the brain busy and keep us learning.

Hobbies are one way to accomplish this. They can improve creative thinking, memory, and job performance. It’s easy for adults to revisit the learning process. We just need to rely on different strategies to retain the material.

In this blog, we unravel the intricacies, motivations, and strategies that shape how grown minds grasp new skills and insights. We’ll introduce the theory’s main pillars along with a few competing theories as they apply to adult learning needs.

What Is Adult Learning Theory?

Adult Learning Theory is a framework that goes beyond the one-size-fits-all model. It delves into the diverse needs of adults, considering factors like prior experiences, responsibilities, and personal motivations. By acknowledging these nuances, educators can craft tailored strategies that make learning not only effective but also engaging and relevant.

American educator Malcolm Knowles introduced the concept back in 1968. Today, it is more commonly known as Adult Learning Theory.

The Importance of Adult Learning Theories

Unlike the traditional pedagogical approaches used with children and teenagers, adult learners bring a unique set of experiences, motivations, and challenges to the table. Adult Learning Theory takes center stage to decipher this enigma and provides educators and trainers with insights that can reshape education.

But why is this theory so vital? The answer lies in its power to bridge the gap between theory and practice. By understanding how adults learn best, educators can design courses, programs, and training sessions that tap into the real-world context of learners. This isn’t just about transferring knowledge; it’s about equipping adults with skills they can immediately apply to their careers, hobbies, and everyday lives.

The 8 Pillars of Adult Learning Theory

The principles of adult learning, often referred to as Andragogy, were formulated by Malcolm Knowles, a prominent figure in the field of adult education. These principles provide a framework for understanding how adults learn best. There are several adult learning principles, and the number varies depending on the source. Here are eight of the most commonly cited principles:

  1. Adults are self-directed learners.
  2. Adults have a wealth of experience that can be used to facilitate learning.
  3. Adults need to know why they are learning something and how it will help them achieve their goals.
  4. Adults learn best when the learning is relevant to their lives and work.
  5. Adults learn by doing and prefer hands-on experiences.
  6. Adults are ready to learn when they perceive a need for new knowledge or skills.
  7. Adults learn best when the learning is problem-centered and focused on real-world issues.
  8. Adults learn best when they are intrinsically motivated.

The Difference Between Adult Learning with Childhood Learning

Understanding the differences between how adults and children learn is essential for educators and trainers to design effective learning experiences for adult learners. Here’s an overview of the fundamental distinctions between these two learning processes:

Learning from Life ExperiencesChildren have limited life experiences to draw from, so they often rely more on imagination and curiosity to make connections.Adult learners come with a wealth of life experiences. They tend to engage more deeply with learning when they can relate the content to their personal and professional experiences.
Motivation and Goal OrientationChildren’s learning is more guided by external factors like parental guidance, curriculum, and societal expectations.Adults are often self-motivated learners. They seek out knowledge and skills that align with their personal goals, career advancement, or practical needs.
Self-Directed LearningChildren’s learning is more structured and guided by teachers, parents, and educational systems.Adult learners prefer to have a say in what and how they learn. They value autonomy and appreciate the opportunity to control their learning path.
Readiness to LearnChildren are often required to learn a broad range of subjects regardless of immediate practicality, and their readiness to learn can vary based on developmental stages.Adults are more likely to be receptive to learning when they perceive a need for the knowledge or skills being taught. They appreciate the practical application.
Problem-Centered LearningChildren’s learning often involves foundational knowledge acquisition and is more teacher-centered.Adult learners thrive in problem-centered learning environments. They prefer to tackle real-world challenges and apply solutions to their own contexts.
Learning PaceChildren often follow a predetermined curriculum schedule, regardless of individual learning pace.Adult learners generally have a self-regulated learning pace. They may want to delve deeper into topics of interest or spend more time on areas where they struggle.
Integrating the New and OldChildren are building their foundational knowledge and may not have as much existing information to connect with.Adults bring a wealth of prior knowledge to the learning process. New information is often integrated with existing knowledge frameworks.
Learning EnvironmentChildren’s learning environments are often structured to encourage cooperation and socialization.Adult learners benefit from collaborative and interactive learning environments that allow them to share experiences and insights with peers.

Additional Adult Learning Theories

Click here to learn more about hands-on learning and how it might apply to business management.

Though Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory remains an incredibly influential method of instruction, competing theories do exist. These theories are important components of instructional design.

The more familiarity individuals responsible for our learning experiences have with them, the better they can instruct a diverse cast of adult learners.

Transformative Learning

Introduced in 1970 by sociologist and professor Jack Mezirow, this adult learning theory revolves around the premise that adults can adjust their thinking based on new information.

The theory, also known as “transformational learning,” is reserved for adults, as they possess the necessary set of experiences needed to undergo a significant thought transformation.

Mezirow says his theory revolves around two specific focuses: instrumental learning and communicative learning. The first relates to task-oriented problem-solving, while the second emphasizes how people communicate their feelings, needs, and desires.

Both elements are central to the transformation process, as students must embrace new perspectives that are both logical and emotional to challenge their previous understanding.

There is, however, a certain amount of criticism that follows Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. Concerns have been raised surrounding how the theory interacts with cultural contexts, relationships, and feelings. While new perspectives are often welcome, it’s difficult to accept them as a means of altering existing principles.

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning (SDL) has roots in Andragogy. The theory maintains that adults must exercise control over learning decisions. Educators may act as supporting guides, but it’s up to the individual learner to take the initiative.

The idea here is that all students are responsible for their cognitive development. Students must be ready to self-regulate and self-evaluate their learning goals. This model is often used to describe eLearning environments.

Experiential Learning

Though he relied on existing theories to craft this adult learning theory, David Kolb introduced the concept of experiential learning back in 1970. This adult learning theory reflects a more hands-on approach, with actual experiences needed to make sense of new information.

In place of memorizing facts and statistics, adults will rely on real-world learning experiences to initiate reflection, review, and abstract thinking. They can then conclude and conceptualize the meaning of the experience.

Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning (PBL) was developed by American philosopher John Dewey back in 1897. This adult learning theory revolves around the concept of “learning by doing.”

Learners must demonstrate their knowledge by completing a project or overcoming an obstacle. The idea is that the adult learner will have an easier time retaining new information by completing a task than listening to someone explain it.

Find out what it means to attend a technical school today. Learn more about the kinds of learning styles they use.

Action Learning

Like many other theories on this list, action learning revolves around solving problems. Under this theory, learners need to exercise their critical thinking skills to isolate the problem and identify the solutions needed to resolve it. Only after these two steps have been completed should they take action.

This theory can facilitate learning in a group setting. This forces participants to both think critically and work collaboratively. Often, it is practiced in the workplace or across campuses.

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

This theory applies to groups of two or more individuals sharing a common goal. It relies on collaborative skills, direct interaction, interdependence, personal accountability, and group interaction. Past experiences help learners form goals, resolve conflicts and post questions to the group.

Discovery Learning

This theory states adults learn best by formulating their own questions and answers. Originally introduced by Jerome Bruner, the theory encourages practitioners to rely on past experiences, knowledge, and even intuition.

Though instructors play a helpful role, it is up to the student to discover new information, correlations, and truths. Instead of absorbing recited information, learners should seek out original answers to their questions.

Elaboration Learning

Educational theorist Charles Reigeluth founded the elaboration theory. The model suggests that information should be presented in a specific order, from the most rudimentary to the most complex.

The idea is to help learners recognize connections between interrelated ideas. This method remains particularly popular among corporate learners.

Social Learning

Social learning theory was introduced back in the 1970s by psychologist Albert Bandura. The concept emphasizes the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating others’ behaviors and emotional reactions. The theory draws on both cognitive and behavioral elements.

Individualized Learning

This theory states that learners must be able to navigate topics independently to fully understand the ideas they involve. In a classroom setting, this typically involves some kind of assessment at the end of a chapter or unit. Social learning activities are peppered in to help broaden the learner’s understanding.


Behaviorism frames all learning experiences as responses to external stimuli. Learners, in this case, can be considered “blank slates,” which may develop specific behaviors based on their interactions with the environment.

In this case, innate or inherited factors will have very little impact on a student’s existing knowledge base. The philosophy stems from the work of B.F. Skinner.


This theory operates in contrast to behaviorism, asserting that individuals actively partake in learning. This kind of mental processing involves language, concept formation, and information processing. Cognitive theorists believe discrete changes in states of knowledge can measure learning.


Constructivism revolves around the idea that learners create meaning through experience. Though considered a branch of cognitivism, constructivism distinguishes itself through its unique definition of knowledge.

Constructivists believe we process new information through individual experiences. That means our catalog of knowledge is constantly subject to change.

Challenges of Adult Learning

Adult learners can face various challenges that can impact their learning journey. Recognizing and implementing strategies to address these challenges is crucial for creating effective adult education and training programs.

Here are some common challenges of adult learning, along with strategies that New England Tech offers to help adult learners overcome them:

Time Constraints

Adults often have busy schedules due to work, family responsibilities, and other commitments, which can make it difficult to allocate time for learning.
Strategy: Offer flexible learning options, such as online courses or self-paced modules, that allow adult learners to fit learning into their schedules. Emphasize the value of small, consistent learning sessions.

Motivation and Relevance

Adult learners need to see the practical relevance of what they’re learning. If they can’t connect the content to their real-life situations, motivation can wane.
Strategy: Clearly communicate the practical applications of the learning material. Incorporate case studies, real-world examples, and scenarios that resonate with their experiences.

Fear of Technology

Some adult learners may be uncomfortable with technology, particularly if they haven’t had much exposure to digital tools.
Strategy: Provide user-friendly technology interfaces, offer tech support, and include tutorials to help learners navigate online platforms. Gradually introduce technology to build confidence.

Learning Styles and Preferences

Adults have diverse learning styles and preferences. A one-size-fits-all approach may not effectively engage all learners.
Strategy: Offer a variety of learning materials and methods, including visual, auditory, and hands-on activities. Allow learners to choose the formats that suit them best.

Financial Constraints

Adult learners may have financial limitations that affect their ability to access learning resources or courses.
Strategy: Offer affordable or accessible learning options whenever possible. Provide information about scholarships, grants, and financial assistance programs.

Learning Overload

Balancing learning with other responsibilities can lead to cognitive overload and hinder effective information retention.
Strategy: Break down complex topics into smaller, manageable chunks. Use spaced repetition techniques to reinforce learning over time.

Limited Study Skills

Adult learners might not have well-developed study skills or effective learning strategies.
Strategy: Incorporate study skills and learning techniques into the curriculum. Offer resources on time management, note-taking, and effective reading.


Adult Learning Theory isn’t just a concept; it’s a transformative force that has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach education for adults. It recognizes that the journey of learning doesn’t end with youth; instead, it evolves, adapts, and takes on new dimensions as we mature.

By acknowledging the autonomy of adult learners, valuing their prior experiences, and understanding their unique motivations, educators, and trainers can create learning experiences that resonate deeply. The principles of relevance, self-directed learning, and practical application become the pillars upon which effective education for adults is built.


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What exactly is Adult Learning Theory, and why is it essential for educators and trainers?

Adult Learning Theory is a framework that outlines how adults learn best, taking into account their unique experiences, motivations, and learning styles. It emphasizes principles like self-directed learning, relevance, and practical application. For educators and trainers, understanding this theory is essential because it enables them to create tailored, engaging, and effective learning experiences that resonate with adult learners, fostering better retention and application of knowledge in real-world contexts.

Is Adult Learning Theory applicable to all industries and professions?

Yes, Adult Learning Theory is applicable to all industries and professions. Its principles, such as recognizing prior experience, fostering relevance, and promoting self-directed learning, are universally relevant. Whether in corporate training, healthcare, technology, or any other field, understanding and implementing this theory enhances learning outcomes and engagement for adult learners across diverse contexts.

Can individuals benefit from understanding Adult Learning Theory for their personal development?

Absolutely, understanding Adult Learning Theory can greatly benefit individuals in their personal development. It provides insights into effective learning strategies, making self-guided learning more efficient. By recognizing one’s learning style, valuing prior experiences, and staying motivated through practical application, individuals can enhance their ability to acquire new skills, knowledge, and personal growth effectively.

How do you teach adults effectively?

Though different theories will emphasize different educational techniques, there are a few commonalities across the board. Most adult learning theories embrace the idea of angling lessons in ways that appeal to learners directly.

Drawing personal connections to information presented, keeping assignments relevant to the learners’ everyday responsibilities, and integrating existing academic training are good ways to approach adult education.

Why is Andragogy important?

Andragogy has been recognized as one of the first theories to distinguish adult learning patterns from how children digest new information. In other words, it was the first theory to point out that adults learn differently from kids.

This gives educators, coworkers, and even bosses much more direction when introducing new information to adult learners.

How do teachers use theories in teaching?

Teachers rely on adult learning theories when instructing older audiences in a variety of ways. These methods provide them with a basis to understand how their students learn.

At New England Tech, we know that everybody has their own way of learning. Our hands-on approach lets students learn and execute at the same time. Our faculty is prepared to work with students personally, armed with different tools to use when dealing with different kinds of learners.

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