Posted On: February 9, 2023

What is Adult Learning Theory?

Adult learning theory studies how adults learn and how it's different from how children learn. This field of study is also known as andragogy.

The term was introduced by Alexander Keep in 1833 and popularized by Malcolm Knowles in 1968. That's why it's sometimes known as Knowles' Adult Learning Theory.

What Are Knowles' Adult Learning Principles?

Knowles laid out several assumptions for how adults learn, and each of these adult learning principles has a corresponding technique.

The first principle or assumption is that adults learn best when involved in the planning and evaluation phases. You need to explain why certain things are being taught, and the learning experience should be more of a conversation than a lecture. You should also ask for feedback after the learning is complete to improve the experience for future students.

In a computer-based training environment, an adult learning technique that corresponds to this first principle is making courses searchable and self-enrolling so learners can direct their learning.

The second adult learning principle is that experience, including mistakes, is integral. As a result, one of the most critical adult learning techniques is to use the occasion to reinforce learning or even introduce new concepts. This could be as big as an internship or job shadowing or as small as in-course exercises.

The third assumption is that adults are most interested in learning when it has immediate relevance to their job or impact on their personal life. One of the reasons that the previous principle, experience, is so integral is that it helps them connect the dots on relevance. Short of that, it means that explaining why you're teaching what you're teaching is a vital adult learning technique.

The final of Knowles' adult learning principles is that problem-centered learning is more effective than content-centered learning. This means curriculum and assessments should be task-oriented and full of learning activities that help them earn knowledge for themselves.

Other Models of Adult Learning

Andragogy is only one model of learning for adults.

Other prominent adult learning theories include transformational learning, experiential learning, project-based learning, and constructivism.

However, you'll see that many common threads from andragogy appear in the other models of adult learning.

Transformational Learning Theory

According to this adult learning theory, transformational learning doesn't just involve acquiring knowledge. A particular type of learning will help you transform your existing frame of reference and see the world differently.

Learning transformations begin with a trigger – a problem or dilemma that makes us realize our existing knowledge is flawed or inadequate. The transformational learning process involves problem-solving and critical self-reflection as your frame of reference is rebuilt.

Experiential Learning Theory

This adult learning theory suggests that our attempt to make sense of what we've experienced is a fundamental part of learning for adults.

It also says that experiential learning is a cycle of four stages.

First, you help them gain concrete experience through real-life action or simulations that reveal cause-and-effect relationships.

Then, adult learners must reflect on their experiences where they "observe" and analyze what they went through (called Reflective Observation).

The next stage is Abstract Conceptualization, where learners use their critical thinking skills to generalize the relevance of what they've gone through.

Finally, there should be a stage of Active Experimentation, where adults can apply what they've learned in slightly different circumstances and form different concrete experiences. From there, the cycle begins all over again.

Project-Based Learning

Project-based learning involves acquiring more profound knowledge through active exploration of real-world problems. It's a form of education by doing. It's similar to experiential learning, but project-based learning is focused on accomplishing a specific goal while you learn rather than "doing to learn."


Constructivism is an adult learning theory that says the instructor doesn't give the learner knowledge. Instead, the instructor helps learners create their knowledge through assimilation and accommodation.

In other words, as an adult learner, you combine new information with your existing experiences and beliefs to construct new meaning. Instructors are fewer teachers than guides that actively help learners through this process.

Adult Learning Made Easy

It's important to understand adult learning theory and the various adult learning models if your goal is to develop your curriculum.

But the biggest challenge of adult learning is that we never have enough time or money. That's as true for an organization hoping to promote education as it is for the individual trying to learn.

Investing in a custom curriculum is expensive for an organization, whether you're building an L&D department from the ground up or purchasing the required skills from a third party. Either way, the subject matter expertise and working knowledge of adult learning techniques don't come cheap.

Promoting continual learning within your organization doesn't require reinventing the wheel. Instead, you can make use of training experts like us. We have over 20 years of experience in online training in regulatory compliance and professional development. Our course catalog spans topics like OSHA to food safety to real estate

Our courses are self-paced and available 24/7 for your organization's convenience, allowing your people to direct their learning and work around existing obligations. Courses are developed by industry experts using proven adult learning techniques and principles.

We offer a complete business solution for your training needs, whether a small business or an international enterprise. As a business client, you'll get bulk rates, a dedicated account manager, and a free Learning Management System, with integrations available to make our courses a seamless part of your existing ecosystem. The relevant authorities approve regulatory courses, and our certificates make proving compliance easy.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can be your complete training solution!

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