By Brian Fairbanks
For aspiring educators and adult students, the question of why adult learning theories are important is an easy one. As the researcher Patricia A. Gouthro explains in her article on adult learning theories, "Theory can provide an important grounding for educators and students in their academic writing, scholarly research and in their applied practice."
Doris Savron, Vice Provost at University of Phoenix, recognizes the value of adult learning theories as they pertain to education, pointing out they impact both sides of the proverbial lectern.
She explains: "Adult learning theories give us insights on how to set up learning environments to get the best out of students. Adult learners come with knowledge and life experience and want to be able to apply those lessons in new environments. They learn better by applying lessons to real situations and having some say in how they plan their learning activities. They are also motivated by understanding that what they are learning is relevant."
Consider Gouthro’s example from her article. In a short-story writing workshop, she notes, adult learning theories can help the student writers look at their stories’ "worlds" through a different lens, get perspective on the characters and their motivations, and apply lessons from their own lives or research to beef up an outline, improve a second draft or just to become more conscientious (and thus better) writers.
But adult learning theories can impact more than those actively involved in education. In fact, it’s easy to extrapolate from the classroom how a good grasp of adult learning theories might make managers, human resource departments and corporate trainers more effective. Knowing how to train a team, or even master a new skill on the job can spell the difference between professional success or stress.
Adult learning may be possible, but is it easy? Not always. Some common obstacles to adult learning, whether in the classroom or on the job, include:
Adult learners who do commit to going back to school often benefit from a curriculum based on seven key adult learning principles. These principles are largely informed by the theory of andragogy and can help a school, training program, or other types of educational organization solidify and execute its educational mission.
Some of the main principles (which we’ll explore in greater detail below) rely on the assumption that adult learners tend to enjoy a stronger sense of self-direction and motivation to learn. As Knowles pointed out initially, adult learners like to use their life experience to learn, and they understand the value of a long-term goal or investment.
Adult learning theories aren’t just for adult students, though. Like Wilson, those who teach adults — as well as those who supervise employees in the real world — can become more effective at what they do by understanding adult learning theories. Instructing adult students or employees how to pinpoint their skill gaps, for example, and chart a path toward remediation is part of adult learning theory and can be instrumental in a person’s success.
When you get down to it, there are seven main principles of teaching adults. Learning how these core adult learning principles work can improve your own education, boost your organization’s performance and training, and bolster your ability to educate others.
|Self-directed||Learning at one’s own pace in one’s own way||You know what you need to learn and set your own goals, track down materials, and create a plan to foster your own learning, then self-evaluate.|
|Transformational||Learning can change your perspective on the world and vice-versa||Whether from a teacher, a mentor or some other channel, new information can shift a person’s worldview and challenge their preconceived notions. In shifting the learner’s outlook, the information becomes both applied and retained.|
|Experiential||Focuses on developing life experience or "hands-on" learning||Participate physically in the learning environment ("getting your hands dirty") and then reflecting on what worked and what didn’t.|
|Mentorship||Learning from an outside mentor (established figure) in a field||Mentors and mentees can learn from each other. (Mentees ask challenging questions, mentors challenge proteges’ understanding of the material.)|
|Orientation to (or of) learning||Adults need to reframe their emotions and assumptions around the experience and value of learning||Educators instruct their students on how to apply new lessons in the real world, which helps students retain information.|
|Motivation||Children are motivated by parents and laws requiring their education; adults often have internal motivation||Adults put in the time and effort to learn because they’ve typically internalized their motivation, whether it’s career success, the prestige of a degree or a better salary.|
|Readiness to learn||As a child matures, they reach a certain threshold of learning readiness (such as reading or basic math facts), but adults have already been through this development and need to rely on past experience or life changes to develop a renewed readiness||Renewing your readiness to learn as an adult often happens by way of a situational trigger. Perhaps you lose your job or want to switch careers, for example. Or perhaps your next promotion hinges on mastering a skill.|
For adult learners, understanding the principles of adult learning can improve the educational experience.
Adult students, for example, can implement certain techniques to improve academic performance. This can take many different forms. Since adult learners tend to be internally motivated, for instance, it might help to identify early on the "why" behind your decision to enroll in a university. Or, since adult learners tend to draw on their life experiences to learn new information, they can approach classes, lessons and even reading material from that perspective. Then, of course, there is the desire to learn when transitioning to a new role. Whether you have your eye on a promotion or a career change, or you’re simply looking to stay up-to-date in your field, professionals can find many reasons to go back to school.
"Employees often need to upgrade their skills to keep up with workplaces that are adapting to changing technologies," notes the School Money blog. "Sometimes learning new skills is necessary after a change in government regulations. Employers, employees and the levels of government may all play a role in encouraging adult education of this type."For managers, giving employees opportunities to learn and grow at work provides many benefits, including:
As an employer or supervisor, you may also need to adjust your understanding of what works best to improve employee performance, engagement and retention. You may even need to switch between adult learning methods, depending on how well a team performs or whether a certain employee seems to connect more with a different adult learning concept.