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Part of Western Governors University

April 7, 2020

Online University Experience

Adult learning theories and principles.

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What comes to your mind when you think of the word “education?” Probably kids in a classroom, high schoolers walking past their lockers, or a teacher reading books to small children. It’s easy to overlook adult education when you think about schools and learning. But adult education happens every day, and there are many important reasons why adults may pursue education. Adult learners are typically classified as older students who don’t enter postsecondary education the same year they graduate high school. Adult learning is very common in the United States, and these students may sometimes be called non-traditional students in some colleges or universities. For most adults, pursuing education is a combination of a desire for self-improvement, a need to learn specific skills, and a want to improve job possibilities. 

Colleges like WGU are focused on helping adult learners. If you’re ready to pursue higher education, it’s important to understand how you learn differently as an adult. The theories and techniques for adult education help millions of adult students find success as they continue their learning and growth. Discover the theories behind adult learning and how they can help you with your higher education goals.

What is adult learning?

Adult learning is simply a situation where adults are pursuing education. This can be done in a formal setting in higher education, trade school, or apprenticeship. This can also be done for adults who simply want to learn a skill and pursue education in order to learn that skill. There are many techniques and theories about how to effectively educate adults specifically, making adult learning an important point of study for many experts. Children and adults are very different when it comes to how they learn, so different techniques must be used in order to make learning effective for adults.

Difficulties of adult learning.

Adult learning can be difficult for many reasons including:

  • Lack of time. Learners who are adults often have full-time jobs, and sometimes children or other dependents that are relying on them. This can make finding the time to continue learning very difficult. At WGU, our goal is to help remedy this difficulty. Because our degrees are online and flexible, you can pursue your education in a way that works with your life and busy schedule. You don’t have to sign in to class at a certain time, you don’t have due dates or deadlines—your education is in your hands and you can move through courses as quickly as you master the material. We understand that it is difficult for learners to find time for their schoolwork, and we want to help reduce that burden and stress.
  • Self-doubt. It’s common for learners to feel that they are too old to continue their education. They may feel it is too late, and they have missed their chance. That’s simply not true! You are never too old to pursue a degree, it’s never too late for you to follow your dream. Whether you have 5 years left in the workforce or 50 years left, you deserve to follow your passion and pursue a career that you’re excited about.
  • Neuroplasticity. Our brains have an element of plasticity to them that help us learn and grow. With every repetition of a thought, we reinforce a neural pathway. When we learn something new, we create a new pathway. The connections in our brain are constantly getting stronger or weaker, creating new pathways or strengthening older ones. Younger people have brains that are more plastic, so changes are easier for them. As we age, our brains become less plastic and we are more fixed in what we believe and know. That is a direct struggle for learners who are trying to take on new concepts, forge new pathways, and more. Adult learners may have a harder time understanding new things simply because their brains are less plastic. While this is a difficulty, it isn’t something that is insurmountable when it comes to adult learning.
  • Financial barriers. Younger learners may have parental help when it comes to higher education. That’s usually not the case for adult learners. Finances can get in the way of learners pursuing their dream of earning a degree. At WGU, we don’t want finances to get in your way. That’s why our affordable tuition is charged per six-month term instead of per credit, meaning that the faster you go through your courses, the less you pay. We also offer scholarships and financial aid to make our tuition even more affordable for you.
  • Contradiction. Some of the things adult learners will learn in their education may be different than what they thought they knew or learned before. This can be difficult for adult learners to wrap their heads around. Their previous knowledge base may have to shift to make room for new things, and that takes some mental power.
  • Lack of support. It can be overwhelming to try and tackle earning a degree without support. Students may find they don’t have the support system they need in place to be able to tackle the difficulty of classes and learning. At WGU, we want to make sure our students feel supported regardless of their situation. That’s why each and every student has a dedicated program mentor who will work with them every step of the way—from enrollment to graduation. These program mentors connect with students every week to see if they need any help, offer support and encouragement, answer questions, address concerns, and more.


Remote Learning Challenges

Major adult learning theories.

There are many learning theories when it comes to adult learners, and each theory has unique applications and techniques associated with it. Different theories and techniques will resonate better with students based on their primary learning style. Some of the top learning theories in the adult learning space include: 


Malcolm Knowles popularized the concept of andragogy in 1980. Andragogy is the “art and science of helping adults learn” and Malcolm Knowles contrasted it with pedagogy, which is the art and science of helping children learn. Knowles and the andragogy theory says that adult learners are different from children in many ways, including:

  • They need to know why they should learn something.

  • They need internal motivation.

  • They want to know how learning will help them specifically.

  • They bring prior knowledge and experience that form a foundation for their learning.

  • They are self-directed and want to take charge of their learning journey.

  • They find the most relevance from task-oriented learning that aligns with their own realities. 

Andragogy learning theories focus on giving students an understanding of why they are doing something, lots of hands-on experiences, and less instruction so they can tackle things themselves. The andragogy adult learning theory isn’t without criticism—some suggest that the andragogy adult learning theory doesn’t take other cultures into consideration well enough. While there are pros and cons, many students find andragogy is extremely accurate and helpful as they work to continue their education and learning. 

Transformative learning.

Jack Mezirow developed this learning theory in the 1970’s. The transformative adult learning theory (sometimes called transformational learning) is focused on changing the way learners think about the world around them, and how they think about themselves. For example, learners studying religions of the world may gain new perspectives on their principles and thoughts about regions and cultures as they learn more about different religions.Their assumptions may change based on what they learn. Sometimes transformative learning utilizes dilemmas and situations to challenge your assumptions and principles. Learners then use critical thinking and questioning to evaluate their underlying beliefs and assumptions, and learn from what they realize about themselves in the process. Mezirow saw transformative learning as a rational process, where learners challenge and discuss to expand their understanding. 

There is criticism that transformative learning doesn’t account well for relationships, feelings, and cultural contexts, making learners feel unsafe or nervous to share their thoughts with teachers or other learners in an educational setting. There are ups and downs with transformative learning, and many adult learners find that working to change their underlying beliefs can be rewarding and demanding at the same time.

Self-directed learning.

Self-directed learning is an interesting adult learning theory that has been around for hundreds of years. It became a more formal theory in the 1970’s with Alan Tough and is used by teachers in a variety of educational settings to help improve adult learning. Self directed learning (sometimes called self-direction learning) is the process where individuals take initiative in their learning—they plan, carry out, and evaluate their learning experiences without the help of others. Learners set goals, determine their educational or training needs, implement a plan, and more to enhance their own learning. Self-directed learning may happen outside the classroom or inside of it, with students working by themselves or collaborating as part of their self directed learning process. 

Criticism for this self-directed approach comes from those who say that some adult learners lack the confidence and understanding to do self directed learning well. Critics also say that not all adults want to pursue self directed learning. But for many adults, self directed learning happens naturally without anyone explaining it or suggesting it. Adult learners are more prone to self directed learning because they are often excited about their education and feel confident in their ability to take it on themselves. For many adult students, self directed learning is a fantastic way to learn. 

Experiential learning.

David Kolb championed this theory in the 1970’s, drawing on the work of other psychologists and theorists. Experiential learning theory focuses on the idea that adults are shaped by their experiences, and that the best learning comes from making sense of your experiences. Instead of memorizing facts and figures, experiential learning is a more hands-on and reflective learning style. Adult learners are able to utilize this theory and learn by doing, instead of just hearing or reading about something. Role-play, hands on experiences, and more are all part of experiential learning.

Critics of experiential learning say that there are many benefits to non-experiential learning that can be overlooked with this theory. These critics suggest that there is great value on goals, metrics, decision-making, and details that can be overlooked in experiential learning. Many adult learners find that this more hands-on approach is a great option for them. Instead of reading or memorizing, adult learners can utilize their past life experiences and their current understanding to improve their education. 

Project-based learning.

As early as 1900, John Dewey supported a “learning by doing” method of education. Project-based learning (sometimes called problem-based learning) is similar to experiential and action learning in that the overall idea is to actually do something to help you learn, instead of reading or hearing about it. Project-based learning utilizes real-world scenarios and creates projects for students that they could encounter in a job in the future. Students can choose their own projects and pursue things they are interested in, which is a great option for adult learners who need real-world applications from their learning.

The major criticism of project based learning is that the outcomes aren’t proven. There isn’t enough evidence to show that project-based learning is as effective as other learning methods. But many adult learners find that this kind of learning is hugely beneficial for them as they apply what they have been taught to their career, giving them direct access to seeing what they can do with their knowledge.

Distance learning

Adult learning techniques.

There are many techniques that adult learners may use to help them learn more effectively, including:

  • Setting goals. For example, learners who have a specific career goal in mind will have a better experience as they pursue their degree program. Or adults who want to learn Spanish might have a specific goal to be conversational before a trip to Mexico. Adult learners need these goals because their learning is more in their own hands than younger learners.

  • Decide their why. Knowing why they want to pursue education will help adult learners feel confident about their learning process. Understanding why different courses will help them reach their goal can make sure they stay motivated.

  • Review information regularly. Because adult brains are less plastic, they have a harder time creating new neural pathways. So adult learners need to be ready to review their material more regularly in order to help create those pathways.

  • Find experiences to help facilitate learning. Adult learners can greatly benefit from finding ways to get hands-on learning. Finding internships, job shadow opportunities, projects, and other experiential opportunities can help them get a firmer grasp of their learning and be more excited about how it will translate to real-life.

If you’re an adult learner getting ready to pursue higher education, understanding different adult learning theories and strategies can help you be even more successful. Knowing your learning style, understanding the strengths and weaknesses adult learners may have, and preparing for your individual strengths can help you be a successful adult learner. 

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