My Introduction to Adult Learning

When you’re a teacher one of the most important factors to consider in the practice is your learners. What is best for them? How can you ensure that you are teaching to them in a way that they will be able to retain what they are learning? There are many theories and strategies put out there. A quick google search will pull up a myriad of results ranging from direct instruction to project based learning. Though there are many theories, I have found each year tweaking my practice to what best meets the needs of my individual students works best. Though I do not consider myself an expert on all theories, I am confident in my abilities to meet the needs of my students.

This week in grad school we have been focusing on meeting the needs of adult learners and the role of adult learning frameworks in professional development.  Our focus has been on ISTE Standard 5a: Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs. As I teach elementary school students, this is an area that I do not have much practice in. With that in mind my research question aims to connect what student and adult learners have in common.

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Child Learners

In all of my research one of the recurring themes is that children rely on their teacher in order to increase their learning. They are dependent on someone else to teach them how to learn. Another big item is choice. Typically, children do not have the choice but to be in school and learn. This affects their engagement as it is not self-directed. Their instructors have to work to build their enthusiasm and engage them in the learning process.

Another theme that was brought up was due to child learners being at an early stage in their life, they may have limited life experience to compare what they are learning to. As child learners are usually in a class with a group of peers who are the same age and share a similar background. As the instructor, this can make context a little easier as it may be applicable to a majority of students in the room.

Adult Learners

In comparison to what I shared above, adult learners are generally choosing to be in a situation where they are a student. This puts more responsibility on them as the learner because they have decided they want to be there. This also plays in to motivation. They understand why they are there and so their motivational levels are higher with less extrinsic motivation.

Adult learners also have more life experience so they have a wider base of knowledge to compare with what they have learned. They have more from their history to pull from and therefore can contextualize information more independently. The role of teacher for adult learners is can also be varied as they may be learning from a mentor, coach, peer, or expert.

Adult Learning Theories

In my research, I came across many theories geared towards adult learners. I am going to share a few that stand out to me and my biggest takeaways.

  • Andragogy – This theory from Malcolm Knowles suggests that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for their learning. There are four principles to this approach:
    • adults learn better from experience
    • adults need to know why they need to learn about something
    • adults are interested in learning things that will have immediate relevance
    • adults need to be involved in the process of their instruction
  • Transformative Learning – This theory from Jack Mezirow is about challenging student’s thinking by introducing disorienting dilemmas. This theory is about helping learners change or transform their existing frames of reference.
  • Project Based Learning (PBL) – This theory comes from John Dewey. It is frequently brought up with child learning and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it popping up in adult learning. This theory believes that learners acquire more knowledge by active exploration of problems. “Learning by doing”.
  • Action Learning – This theory from Reg Revans is an approach to problem solving. Learners take action and reflect on the results. The goal is to improve the problem-solving processes of the learners. This theory focuses on a group working together to solve a problem.

Concluding Thoughts

I have barely scratched the tip of the iceberg in adult learning practices. At the end of the day learners want what they are learning to matter to them. They want to interact with information and apply it in their own world of existence. I am pleasantly surprised that much of what I already know or use with my students can be brought into adult learning. I just need to get to know my students, find out what our needs are, and go from there. What are your thoughts on adult learning?


  • CCU. (2011, October 6). How adults learn compared to younger learners. CCU. Retrieved from,and%20the%20next%20subject%20matter.&text=Adults%20challenge%20new%20information%2C%20but%20younger%20students%20implicitly%20accept%20it
  • Colman, Heather. (2019, October 11). 6 Adult learning theories and how to put them into practice. ispring. Retrieved from
  • IREC. (N.D.) Effective Adult Learning Practices. IREC. Retrieved from
  • Rasmussen, Catherine. (2015, June 23-24). Adults as Learners: effective teaching strategies. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from
  • Roueche, Suanne. (2007, February 9). 30 things we know for sure about adult learners. Innovation Abstracts. Retrieved from
  • WGU. (2020, April 7). Adult learning theories and principles. WGU. Retrieved from

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