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Adult Education Theory Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 29th, 2019

Adults have special educational needs unlike other age groups such as teens and children. This warrants an instructor or teacher to be sensitive to the way adults learn for effective application of viable educational programs. In spite of the unique identification of adult needs in education, adult learning is apparently a new area of research (Lieb, 1991).

Malcolm Knowles is a pioneer in this study who identified that adults are usually self-directed, autonomously motivated, rich in knowledge and life experiences, oriented towards achieving goals, emphasize more on relevancy, practical and often need to be treated with respect (Lieb, 1991).

These characteristics evidently show that adults have a self-induced need to be in control of their destinies; therefore forcing instructors and teachers to limit theory participation and compliment them to pursue projects or courses that reflect their interests. There is also a pressing need for instructors to elevate how education will supplement their goals or achieve personal growth as opposed to equipping them with facts.

Unique to adult education, students are often bogged down with huge responsibilities which may include family responsibilities, work related obligations and previous educational experiences.

Adults therefore feel the need to draw these experiences and merge them with the present activities they are currently engaged in. For instructors to effectively supplement this need, they are often forced to draw out the experiences of the participants and relate them to the learning knowledge; in addition to existing theories and principles for the attainment for personal gratification.

Unlike other age groups, adults often exhibit the tendency of knowing what they want and often exhibit this in educational pursuits. Well organized educational programs and those that contain defined elements of study are therefore attractive to adult learners. In addition to these unique attributes, adult learners often exhibit a strong desire to understand why they are learning something. In other words, the learning experience must be in tandem to their career growth.

This often forces instructors to identify specific objectives in educational goals as well as enabling the learners identify courses that reflect their career progression goals. This fact also exposes an important attribute to adult education which is the fact that adults are never merely motivated by the need to acquire knowledge but how the knowledge will be relevant to their jobs.

Moreover, adults often bring a rich pool of knowledge (that may even sometimes rival an instructor’s knowledge) into the classroom, often prompting them to command a sense of respect as compared to other learning groups.

For example in the contemporary classroom setting, adults often seem to challenge their instructors much more strongly than other learner groups. It is evidently noted that their challenges come from their work experiences because no matter what their instructors tell them, the knowledge learnt should augur well with their work experiences, otherwise they may go on and on to ask related questions until the knowledge ultimately makes sense to them. This tendency sometimes makes teaching adults very difficult and often frustrating for instructors.

Adult education therefore encompasses a number of behavioral and experience variables that are only unique to adult learners. As a result, adult education theories have been developed to explain these unique needs.

This study seeks to explore this dynamism to establish the existing relationship between adult learning and what goes on in classrooms and workshops today. Inherently, from the unique attributes, it is important that instructors treat adult learners differently from other learning groups through adoption of unique learning techniques.

Self Direction

Self direction is an important technique instructors can use to supplement the unique need of adult learners to be in control of their learning. In the words of Malcolm Knowles, self direction is a process “… in which individuals take the initiative, with or without the help of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identifying human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes” (Smith, 2002).

Self direction is a good strategy instructors can use to teach adults various skills and impart knowledge because it initiates action among learners. Adult learners who take this cue to heart are observed to often learn more and learn better than learners who lack self initiative (Smith, 2002).

These types of learners are more passive than ordinary learners and often sit at the feet of teachers to be spoon-fed. This strategy can increase the motivational level of adult learners and is more inclined to purposeful learning as opposed to reactive learning. This blends well with the unique need of goal accomplishment among adults.

Self directed learning is also better aligned with the natural learning process among learners as opposed to other learning groups who often acquire knowledge for the sake of it. This kind of scenario is artificial and the knowledge acquired rarely lasts.

Self direction is a mark of maturity, in that, learners take more responsibility for their lives and is autonomously directed towards the achievement of certain goals without much supervision. This exactly narrates the nature of adult learners and is also in line with new developments in education that require learners to take a proactive approach to learning.

Research studies have identified that adult learners and indeed learners of all age groups often tend to be more frustrated and anxious if high probabilities of failure are expected (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 2010). Sometimes, this trend can be easily observed from a common adult classroom setting especially if dotted with younger learners.

Adult learners being older than other age groups and indeed more experienced, often feel an internal pressure to excel, since typically, its expected that their rich experience and immense life knowledge would be advantageous. Some of them however fail to live up to this expectation.

In this regard, they often feel very anxious especially when they realize that the probability of failing is high. Additionally, common experience notes that some adults also feel embarrassed when they have to compete with lower age groups in the same class; some even younger than their sons or daughters. This also increases the level of anxiety because it is embarrassing to be defeated with students younger than their own children.

In this respect, it is important that self direction be perfectly imparted into adult education to induce a sense of autonomy and reduce competitive tendencies, although a mechanism needs to be developed to ensure it is effectively implemented. Self direction technique therefore needs to be packaged in a model entailing diagnostic learning for need identification, identification of appropriate learning materials, choice and implementation of appropriate learning methods, and an evaluation of learning outcomes (Smith, 2002).

In this manner, instructors will essentially conceptualize the way learners grasp concepts, although it is no different from the way adults execute instructions in an institutional setup. This is normally represented as a linear representation (Smith, 2002). From existing literature on reflection, it is important that this process be undertaken with extreme caution.

Also relevant is the fact that adults don’t necessarily follow a defined given set of steps or procedures. This means that the success of the process is extensively dependent on fate or probability.

From this analysis, it is evidently clear that the adult learning process is often triggered by a certain occurrence or change in the circumstance of an individual such as retirement, parenthood, death and such like events.

This therefore triggers the process of self directed learning although the way it is done, largely depends on the circumstance an individual finds himself/herself in. Learning is therefore defined by simultaneous episodes dictated by circumstance but self directed learning is defined by a series of events which collectively create a stimulus for personal reflection and exploration.


Andragogy in common definition represents the art of making adults better understand learning in their own circumstance. This technique is very important in enabling adults develop and implement their learning skills. The basic pillars to this technique are recapped as self concept, experience, readiness, orientation and motivation. These pillars were advanced by Knowles in 1968 but they are a dovetail as compared to other similar theories (Swanson, 2009, p. 204).

The concept of experience in this technique is important in giving adults an opportunity to learn through work and personal experiences. This is a very important aspect if adult learners have to create, transfer or retain knowledge. Critical reflection is equally important in providing adults with a learning opportunity because adults have the need to relate their ramification of the learning process with their experiences and responsibilities.

However, in implementing the andragogy approach, various assumptions are often in place to ensure effective implementation of the technique. These assumptions advance the fact that adults learn by actions, are problem solvers, have the need to identify why they are pursuing a certain course and learn best when the courses being taught have an immediate need (Oxford Brookes University, 2010). In this respect, it is important for instructors undertaking the andragogy approach to explain why they are undertaking given learning tasks.

In other words, they should undertake common tasks as opposed to memorization of facts as well as accommodate diversities among adult learners or allow adults to learn autonomously, from their mistakes. This approach should however never be confused to be a teaching technique but an adult learning tool since some people may confuse it to be an ideal model of learning that can be used even for children.

Andragogy technique has also been applied in many companies across the globe as a method of improving the skills and techniques of adults. However, before its application, it is important to identify the principles of adult learning that can effectively help instructors design a program for effective adult learning. With this concept in mind, it should be understood that adult learning is not only aimed at improving personal skill and knowledge but also improve productivity in an overall organizational context.

It is commonly noted from classroom interaction that adults go back to school to improve their performances back in their respective organizations, as opposed to undertaking learning to improve their chances of employment (like younger learners do). In other words, adult learners often seek to learn so that they may be promoted or achieve organizational excellence in their respective work stations.

It is therefore important for instructors to advance critical thinking and problem solving skills in their teaching techniques as well as cooperative learning which is aimed at improving interpersonal skills, which is very important in the organizational context.

Of equal importance, instructors should apply situated learning and seek to improve technical skills, which is important in improving basic skills on a practical level. Each technique discussed here is aimed at improving adult learning and is inclined towards the fulfillment of adult learning needs.

Adult Learning Anxieties

Instructors should acknowledge the fact that adult learners face a significant degree of anxiety especially when they are forced to learn and unlearn different types of information. This is the biggest factor to the failure of transformational learning. Most workshop managers are the biggest culprits to this problem because they rarely change traditional processes in light of adult learning needs. This has thrown a lot of skepticism to the fact that adult learning can be fun for adults.

Instructors and various workshop designers should therefore tailor-make their programs to accommodate the anxieties adults experience when faced with such challenges. Crucial in accommodating learning anxieties among adults is the fact that instructors should acknowledge the fact that anxieties experienced by learners is on two fronts; learning and survival. All these variables depend on the environment learners are exposed to.

For example, it would be easy to manage anxieties by providing a good environment where adult learners can study with ease. The chances of failure in such kind of environment is often minimal as opposed to a threatening environment which is definitely bound to increase anxiety levels through unwarranted elements like threatening the position of a student, imposing unavoidable consequences accompanying failure and encouraging competition in the classroom.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is very important for adult learning processes because it blends well with adult experiences. In this respect, the learning theory is quite unique from cognitive theories because when compared, cognitive theories provide a good emphasis on cognition as opposed to affective or behavioral learning processes.

From practical differences between adult learners and younger learners, cognitive learning should be applied more to younger learners as opposed to adult learners because it is more inclined to understanding as opposed to understanding in the context of practical experience.

Obviously children or relatively younger learners don’t have the practical experience needed in experiential learning and this implicitly makes experiential learning more suitable for adult learners. Also, experiential learning has many aspects to it because it helps students apply new skills and techniques in relevant field that’s in line with their experiences. These fields can be environments monitored by instructors, professors, teachers or sponsored institutions for adult training.

In close relation, experiential learning has been observed to provide a forum for application of life experiences (Smith, 2002). Learning is therefore not best practiced in a formal environment but a comfortable setting that allows for the participation of daily life events. Experiential learning is however detailed and contains four pillars, advanced by Kolb (1975) (Smith, 2002).

These pillars are fundamental experience, observation and reflection, creation of concepts which are abstract to their meaning, and sampling new situations (Smith, 2002).

The fundamental experiences provide the basis where observation and reflections are made, whereby, the same applications can be further disseminated to create a pool of concepts from which applicable solutions like experiences can be drawn. From practical experiences, it is evidently clear that adult learners can relate to the process at any significant period or step. Progression through the steps is however evidenced when the learner masters one step into the next.

Learning Environment

In adult learning, it is important that the right environment is facilitated for learners to feel comfortable. Such environments are often dictated by the kind of variables learners are exposed to; such as the learning structure or time constraints. Positive results in adult learning are therefore determined by the nature of the learning environment. In other words, positive environments have a positive outcome and negative environments have slow productivity.

When a positive environment is created, it is easier for adult learners to pick on new skills and also for instructors to instill new behaviors among learners. This fact is supported by the positive transformational theory which advances the fact that organizations enable their employees grow within the organization if they provide a positive environment (Smith, 2002).

However, learning can also occur through failure, although this may take a longer time. Nonetheless, one can be contented in the fact that negative learning creates a thorough circumspect; improving the overall understanding of a given subject or issue.

However, the biggest question people would ask themselves is how long would a positive environment last and would it be affected by other external factors? With regard to adult learning, it is safe to say that the process of creating a positive environment would be slow because it should be based on practical understanding of issues.

Time factor is also important for adult education because learners have different responsibilities and obligations; putting more pressure to learners to speed up their learning process. However, if this pressure is immense, it becomes destructive and learners can experience a lot of difficulty studying or even find it impossible to learn all together.

For example, learning modules in adult education are usually very flexible to create a practical structural timeframe in which adult learners can learn comfortably. Examples of this trend include evening or weekend study programs that are quite practical for adult learners because of their daytime work commitments. This creates a flexible time environment where adult learners can study.


Contemporary theories relating to adult education revolve around behavior and experience. Beyond any doubt, adult learners are unique groups that have special needs incomparable to other age groups. Adult learners are more articulate, and know what they want. In this regard, their learning is more practical and often directed towards the accomplishment of certain goals. The accumulation of knowledge can therefore not apply to this group.

It is therefore important that learners apply a self directed mode of study where much of the learning power is vested on the learners instead of the instructors. This is in line with the adult need to be proactive. Instructors should therefore only play a facilitative role. These characteristics evidently show that adults have a self induced need to be in control of their destinies; therefore forcing instructors and teachers to limit theory participation and compliment them to pursue projects or courses that reflect their interests.

Experiential learning should also be employed because of the pertinent need for adults to relate their experience with learning. This can also be a unique way for adult learners not only to relate their work experiences to class modules but also relate their daily life experiences with learning.

Andragogy is also an important technique instructors can use to ensure the unique needs of adults are properly accommodated because it aids adults understand their learning experiences better in their own circumstances. Collectively, adult learning has its own experiences and anxieties that need to be curbed through a positive learning experience. These elements are important in the success of adult education.


Lieb, S. (1991). Principles of Adult Learning. Web.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (2010). Adult Learning Theory. Web.

. (2010). Adult Learning. Web.

Smith, M. (2002). . Web.

Swanson, R. (2009). Foundations of Human Resource Development. New York: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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