Adult Learning Theories

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There is no single explanation or all-encompassing theory that explains how adults learn. The adult learning process is complex, context bound, and highly personal. As a result, there is no single theory of learning that can be applied to all adults. Instead, the literature of the past century has yielded a variety of models, sets of assumptions and principles, theories, and explanations that make up the adult learning knowledge base. The more adult educators are familiar with this knowledge base, the more effective their practice can be, and the more responsive it can be to the needs of adult learners. This fact sheet reviews three major theories and discusses their implications for practice. What is Andragogy? In attempting to document differences between the ways adults and children learn, Malcolm Knowles (1980) popularized the concept of andragogy (“the art and science of helping adults learn”), contrasting it with pedagogy (“the art and science of teaching children”). He posited a set of assumptions about adult learners, namely, that the adult learner • Moves from dependency to increasing self-directedness as he/she matures and can direct his/her own learning; • Draws on his/her accumulated reservoir of life experiences to aid learning; • Is ready to learn when he/she assumes new social or life roles; • Is problem-centered and wants to apply new learning immediately; and • Is motivated to learn from internal, rather than external, factors. Inherent in these assumptions are implications for practice. Knowles (1984) suggests that adult educators • Set a cooperative climate for learning in the classroom; • Assess the learner’s specific needs and interests; • Develop learning objectives based on the learner’s needs, interests, and skill levels; • Design sequential activities to achieve the objectives; • Work collaboratively with the learner to select methods,…...

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