Adult Learning Theory: Methods and Techniques of Teaching Adults

Adult Learning Theory: Methods and Techniques of Teaching Adults
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Developing effective, engaging learning programs for adult learners is a challenge for many educational institutions and organizations. For one, adult learners don’t have the freedom to fully devote their time to education. Adult learners may also face challenges such as financial constraints, which hinder them from fully engaging in the learning experience. These crucial differences are thoroughly explored in adult learning theory.

By understanding adult learning theory, professionals involved in corporate learning and postsecondary education can learn more about the factors that motivate adults to pursue further education. As a result, teachers and trainers can create more meaningful and useful programs for adult learners.

Adult learning strategies and theories take into account the distinct principles that have proven effective in steering adult learners to expand what they know, enhance their problem-solving skills, achieve their goals, and find their meaningful places in their respective societies (Kim, 2020).

This article sheds light on what is adult education and why it is being practiced by many institutions today. It also explores the essential principles and assumptions of adult learning methodologies and how these impact both educational and corporate organizations, as well as education practitioners.

Adult Learning Theories Table of Contents

  1. What is adult learning?
  2. Adult Learning Theories: A Brief History
  3. Andragogy
  4. Self-Directed Learning
  5. Transformative Learning
  6. Applying Adult Learning Theory to Corporate Learning

What is adult learning?

Adult learning refers to the education and training pursued by mature learners. It is the process by which adults gain knowledge, competence, and skills, whether formally or informally. It emphasizes learning that is relevant to immediate application and the learners, usually college-aged or older, making sure they are in charge of their own development.

According to the U.S. Department of Education (2018), adult learners are aged 25 and older. They make up 40% of the student population, and the figure is expected to rise over the next decades.

Three major characteristics comprise the definition of adult learning: learner-centeredness, self-directed learning, and a humanist philosophy. Learner centeredness is the principle that refers to how the learner’s needs and wants are central to the process of teaching, while self-directed learning touches on the responsibility and involvement of learners in their education (“Invariable structure,” 2001).

For its part, humanistic adult education philosophy is anchored on personal development as the key to continued education. It facilitates learning by promising learners of personal growth and development as a learning outcome. In other words, the humanistic approach to adult learning refers to how learners assume the responsibility to learn (“Adult Education Practiced,” 2002).

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Adult Learning Theories: A Brief History

Early studies about adult learning began in the mid-1960s when educators began exploring different theories, models, and frameworks that explain how adult learners can be distinguished from children. These studies spawned many theoretical approaches to learning, giving rise to adult learning as a separate entity that differs from childhood education.

In the early decades of the century, behavioral psychologists conducted the earliest research in adult learning. Early studies defined learning as a behavioral response triggered by the learner’s interaction with the environment (“What is the behavioral,” 2020). Although these principles are still present today in training programs and evidence-based practices in the corporate, military, instructional technology, and medical and health arenas, the humanistic perspective on learning resulted in adult education becoming a recognized field of practice.

By the mid-20th century, three major adult learning techniques or theories have emerged: andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformative learning. These methodologies are firmly lodged in the humanistic approach to learning, which emphasizes personal growth and development as the key focus of education.


Developed in 1968 by Malcolm Knowles, andragogy is a term that refers to the concept of adult learning and how it differs from children’s education. Knowles defines andragogy as “the art and science of teaching adults.” According to Knowles, andragogy, also known as adult learning, is premised on five key assumptions: self-concept, adult learner experience, readiness to learn, orientation of learning, and motivation to learn.

Knowles believed that these are the five pillars of adult learning, and each must be taken into account for shaping adult education programs accordingly. Today, the education programs for adult training are still built around andragogy—instead of education being teacher-centric, much of the curriculum’s focus is given to students and their learning needs.

1. Self-concept

As people grow older, they become more independent and turn to a more self-directed learning approach. Unlike children who are dependent on others for learning and understanding, adults have more control and responsibility over their personal education and progression.

2. Adult learner experience

Over time, adults gain innumerable experiences that deepen their resources for learning, placing them in a position where they can use their experiences as a useful tool in self-education. Based on this assumption, adult education programs must usually center around experimental tasks and open discussions based on what learners already know.

3. Readiness to learn

The third element in Knowles’ adult learning theory is the learner’s readiness to learn. As mature learners take on various roles in society, their readiness or motivation to learn becomes oriented toward the skills necessary for these roles. Whether they’re an employee, parent, spouse, or citizen, a large part of their readiness to learn is directed toward these roles.

4. Orientation of learning

For children, the application of a subject is postponed in later life, and their orientation of learning is usually subject-centered. The things they learn at school are not normally applied to real-life problems, and they must wait until they’re older and encounter a need for the skills and knowledge they acquired.

This is in contrast to Knowles’ adult learning theory, where the application of learning becomes immediate and more problem-centered as the learner matures. When adults encounter issues and complications, they immediately apply their knowledge to solve those problems.

5. Motivation to learn

The last assumption in Knowles’ adult learning theory relates to motivation. According to Knowles, adults are motivated to learn internally (Knowles et al., 2012). Their desire for career growth and professional development drives their motivation to pursue education.

Self-Directed Learning

When individuals pursue education to gain a new skill or learn certain information, they often seek the help of a professional instructor who can supervise the entire learning process. However, another alternative for learners is to assume the primary responsibility for initiating, planning, and conducting the learning project. Such behavior is referred to as self-education, self-instruction, or self-directed learning.

Knowles defined self-directed learning as “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.” (Knowles, 1975, p. 18)

In essence, self-directed learning is an informal learning process that takes place outside the traditional classroom setting. In this approach, the learner decides about the method, content, resources, and evaluation of learning programs. By determining their needs, setting goals, and seeking resources, learners assume full responsibility for the learning process (“Adult Learning Theories,” 2011).

Knowles (1975) cites three reasons why adult learners turn to self-directed learning. First, individuals who take the initiative in learning can learn more and better things compared to learners whose education is forced upon them. Another reason is that self-directed learning is a natural process that takes place in an individual’s psychological development. Lastly, developments in the education sector put a heavier emphasis on independent learning processes.

Training managers, instructional designers, and HR professionals use the self-directed learning approach to facilitate a robust and sustainable learning culture across various industries. With the younger population dominating today’s workforce, the concept of self-directed learning is increasingly becoming more popular. In fact, a survey conducted by Censuswide (“2019 Workplace Learning Report,” 2019) reveals that Gen Z and Millennials show more favor toward self-directed and independent learning compared to their Gen X and Boomer counterparts.

Source: Censuswide (2019)

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Transformative Learning

Originally developed by Jack Mezirow, an American sociologist, transformative learning theory refers to how learning changes how individuals think about themselves and their surroundings. He describes it as “learning that transforms problematic frames of reference to make them [learners] more inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change” (Mezirow, 1991).

Transformative learning challenges students’ underlying assumptions and opinions about the world. In doing so, learners become more encouraged to apply critical thinking when forming their beliefs and judgment. For instance, English language learners often experience an improved opinion of themselves and a shift in their view of the U.S. culture as they learn the new language (King, 2000).

There are a number of reasons why adults pursue additional learning. In one survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 80% of personal learners revealed that they pursued learning programs for personal interests because they wanted to broaden their viewpoints and make life more interesting (“Americans,” 2020).

Mezirow (1991) believed that “disorienting dilemmas” often changes an individual’s view of the world. As a result, they are forced to reconsider their principles and seek knowledge to fit their newfound beliefs and experiences into the rest of their worldview.

Transformative learning theory touches on two basic kinds of learning: instrumental and communicative. Instrumental learning includes task-oriented problem-solving, as well as the determination of cause-and-effect relationships. Meanwhile, communicative learning emphasizes how learners communicate the needs, feelings, and desires (“Transformative learning,” 2018).

Source: Pew Research Center (2016)

Applying Adult Learning Theory to Corporate Learning

Learning doesn’t stop at school and university premises. Even after pursuing high-paying degrees, many adults opt to continue to seek further education to gain more advanced knowledge and develop valuable skills that can help them improve their career prospects. For adults, continuing knowledge and education is based on the idea that they can immediately apply the information they have learned to real-life situations.

Thus, educators and learning professionals seeking to foster effective training programs for mature learners should consider adult learning theories as the focus of their learning models. Since adult learning is fundamentally based on self-directed and independent learning, it is essential for training courses to incorporate autonomy, collaboration, enablement, and self-direction in their design (“Adult learning theory,” 2020).


An effective corporate training program should function a lot like a workshop and less like a droning lecture inside a classroom. Compared to younger learners, adults have a broader reservoir of experiences, and they are more capable of giving richer meanings to the new ideas and skills that they acquire during learning programs (“Application of Adult Learning,” n.d.).

Thus, ample time should be allotted to allow adult learners to absorb information and examine and discuss it with one another. Training leaders should serve as facilitators and conduct the program with one-third being part lecture while the rest is active.


Before designing training courses, it is essential to collaborate with learners and identify their learning needs. Adults often need a reason to learn before deciding to participate in learning programs, and they like to be involved in every stage of the learning process.

This is why corporate training programs should be based on the valid needs of employees, and lectures and activities should be centered around real work experiences. In one study conducted by the Association for Talent Development (Gutierrez, n.d.), 38% of managers reveal that their learning programs are meeting the needs of their employees.

During learning, adults like to experience a sense of participation throughout the process. Hence, encouraging them in collaboration, asking their opinions, and opening discussions between learners and instructors will create a climate that supports a conducive learning environment.

Managers Who Believe That Their Learning Programs Meet Their Learner’s Needs

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Source: Association for Talent Development (2016)

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Enablement and Self-Direction

Adult learners have a deeper need to be self-directing. They prefer to have independence and control over their life decisions. When it comes to learning, it is important for them to be able to choose where and when they would like to complete mandatory learning programs. With the help of elearning modules, they can accomplish this feat, making it incredibly easy for them to study at their own pace.

Learning management systems allows adult learners to experience a more self-directed and independent learning environment. This also provides them with a variety of training and learning opportunities, allowing them to assume full responsibility for their learning plans.

Learning Benefits

Adults spend a considerable amount of time and energy weighing the costs and benefits of a learning program. While younger learners accept the fact that the knowledge they are acquiring today will not be immediately applied to real-life scenarios, this is not the case for adult learners.

Before actively engaging in the learning process, adults need an important reason for continuing education, as well as an accessible and convenient mode of learning.

Hence, when designing courses, it pays to provide adequate information about the advantages of the course. This enables learners to explore the benefits that they will gain from the program.

Understanding Adult Learning Theories

The art of teaching adults requires a deeper understanding of why and how adults learn. This is where the study of adult learning methods proves essential—by knowing the motivation behind adult learning, facilitators and professional instructors can come up with more effective practices and learning models for adult students.

The truth is that adults experience more difficulties when it comes to learning a new skill, trade, or even a language. Over the years, educational researchers have explored many different principles to find out what drives adults to pursue additional learning. The methods of teaching adults learners answer this very question. Specifically, they shine a light on learners’ eagerness to study relevant material and their motivation for personal and professional growth.

These theories build a solid foundation that instructors and learning professionals can take advantage of. Tying together these principles of adult learning with the nuts and bolts of corporate training should bring countless benefits to industries across various sectors.



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The website is funded by advertising. All school search, finder, and match results, as well as featured or trusted partner programs, are for schools who pay us. Our school rankings, resource guides, or any other editorially impartial content on our website are unaffected by the compensation we receive.