Somewhat maligned, adult learning theory generally developed around the idea that adults and children have different learning needs and that considering adult learning needs can improve instructional outcomes. Perhaps the biggest proponent and developer of adult learning theory was Malcolm Knowles (1968, 1978, 1980, 1995).
How adults and children differ
According to the theory, because adults have more life experience and more independence than children, they’re more likely to:
- Be motivated by perceptions of personal need
- Have a greater need to direct a learning experience
- Have a greater need to apply learning to create something relevant to their daily lives
Thus, an important aspect of adult learning theory is the concept of the instructor as a facilitator versus a content deliverer.
A critique of adult learning theory
If you’re not quite buying adult learning theory as a unique paradigm you’re not alone.
Clardy (2005) described some of the criticisms of adult learning theory.
- Adults aren’t fundamentally different from children when it comes to learning needs: It’s a question of degree
- Adults have heterogeneous learning needs: One theory doesn’t fit all
- Not all adults are ready to be self-directed learners
Instruction for the heterogeneous audience
How do you keep adult learners who are not as ready as others to be self-directed from getting lost? Part of the answer is building confidence, providing a scaffolded instructional approach (i.e., more instructional guidance and fewer challenges at the outset) and allowing students to serve as mentors for other learners by providing a comfortable social learning network. One of the pluses of elearning is that you can create a learning environment that allows for more individualized learning through resource selection.
For a summary of these ideas and a view of how to modify Gagné’s nine events of instruction (Gagné, 1992) to accommodate adult learning theory, check out this slideshare presentation. (You can also view it as a Captivate module for a larger screen view.)
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Clardy, A.(2005). Andragogy: Adult learning and education at its best? Towson, MD: Towson University. Retrieved June 2010, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED492132.pdf
Gagné, R., Briggs, L. & Wager, W. (1992). Principles of Instructional Design (4th Ed.). Fort Worth, TX: HBJ College Publishers.
Knowles, M. S. (1968). Andragogy, not pedagogy. Adult Leadership, 16(10), 350–352, 386.
Knowles, M. S. (1978). The adult learner A neglected species, 2nd ed. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.
Knowles, M.S. (1980). The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Chicago: Follett Publishing. (revised edition).
Knowles, M.S. (1995). Designs for Adult Learning. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development, 1995.