What is 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; things that 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.

Andragogy refers to the method and process by which adults learn. American educator Malcolm Knowles introduced the concept back in 1968.  Today, it is more commonly known as Adult Learning Theory. Keep reading to explore the study even further.

We’ll introduce the theory’s main pillars along with a few competing theories as they apply to adult learning needs

The Five Pillars of Adult Learning Theory

Learn the four principles of adult learning theory

In 1980, Knowles adapted his concept to include four assumptions about adult learners. They revolve around self-concept, the adult learning experience, readiness to learn, and orientation to learning. In 1984, he added a fifth assumption to the list: motivation to learn.


One of the most significant differences between how children and adults learn revolves around independence. Children are “dependent personalities,” meaning their learning process revolves around instruction.

As we grow older, our self-concept develops in ways that encourage self-directed learning.

While children remain entirely dependent on others for learning and understanding, adults carry the skills needed to learn and understand independently.

The Adult Learning Experience

The next pillar revolves around our past experiences. Children, understandably, have minimal experience to draw on when it comes to learning new concepts. Instead, they rely on the experiences of others.

Adults, of course, carry plenty of experiences to contextualize new ideas. This background allows things to come more naturally or more intuitively.

Readiness to Learn

As we mature, we tend to center our learning around our assigned roles and responsibilities. This applies to both our personal and professional life. New parents, for instance, must learn how to take care of children just as a new hire must develop skills associated with their new role.

Orientation to Learning

Children are more receptive to general education, also known as subject-based learning. Adults learn best when applying new concepts to their everyday lives, a concept also known as problem-based learning.

Motivation to Learn

A child’s motivation to learn is mostly external. Their parents tell them to go to school, and their teacher makes sure they apply themselves while present. Meanwhile, the adult drive to learn exists internally. They may put themselves in a new learning environment for a raise, promotion, or related reward.

The Four Principles of Andragogy

Right around the time Knowles penned the fifth pillar of his adult learning theory, he also introduced four pillars that we can apply to adult learning:

  • Adults want to participate in both the planning and evaluation attached to their instruction.
  • Experiences, both good and bad, serve as the backdrop for all learning activities.
  • Adults first gravitate towards learning things that are directly relevant to their job or personal life.
  • Adult learning centers on problems, not subjects.

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 in or across campuses.

Cooperative and Collaborative Learning

Group work can make learning assignments easier to understand

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 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 1970’s 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.


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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