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7 adult learning theories and principles to enhance your education

By Brian Fairbanks
August 24, 2021 • 8 minute read

At a glance

  • Adult learning theory is rooted in andragogy, the practice of teaching adults, as opposed to pedagogy, the practice of teaching children.
  • Adult learning theories have expanded to include an array of options since 1980 when educator Malcolm Knowles introduced the concept of andragogy.
  • The seven principles of adult learning include self-direction, transformation, experience, mentorship, mental orientation, motivation, and readiness to learn.
  • Adult learning theories can positively impact adult learning experiences both in the classroom and on the job.

Going to school is one thing. Going to school as an adult is another. Just as adults think, act, and process information differently than children, so too do they learn differently. In fact, there’s a lot of research out there about what makes a learning style effective for an adult. Here, we explore seven of the best adult learning theories, or adult learning styles, in play today.

What is Adult Learning Theory?

Adult learning theories trace their roots back to Malcolm Knowles, an adult educator who developed the concept of andragogy. Andragogy is the “art and science of teaching adults.” This is intentionally different from pedagogy, which is the practice of teaching children.

Knowles theorized that adult learning and childhood learning are entirely different and that older people do not process, comprehend or retain information in the same manner as children.

To develop his concept of andragogy, Knowles identified certain characteristics within adult learners. These include:

  • A preference for self-directed learning
  • An ability to draw on life experience to assist with learning
  • A willingness to learn when transitioning into new roles
  • A focus on immediately applying new knowledge to real-life situations and problems
  • A tendency to be internally motivated (rather than externally)

Institutions that specialize in andragogy offer a unique advantage to adult students. “We meet students where they are and raise them up,” says educator Christopher Wilson, Ed.S., MSL.

Wilson is a faculty member at University of Phoenix (UOPX) who recognizes the way adult learning theory empowers students not just to learn but to transform their lives with information that applies directly to the real world.

Knowing how to teach adults effectively, in other words, gives those adults a better shot at success.

Adult learning and neuroplasticity

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Because adult brains are different from children’s brains, it follows that their learning styles will differ. But how are their brains different? In part, it comes down to wiring.

Neuroplasticity is often used as a catchall term for many fields of research. In this case, it refers to the brain’s ability to develop new neural pathways while learning. It is a subject that has garnered significant attention with regard to adult learning capability, most of it negative.

But according to PositivePsychology.com, improved neuroplasticity can be cultivated in adults by way of a growth mindset. This is the belief that you can get smarter and better at things with practice. Focusing on learning rich subjects (a new language, for example, rather than rote facts) also helps. And maintaining a lifelong-learning mindset offers another potential way to boost neuroplasticity.

Why are adult learning theories important?

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.

Challenges of adult learning

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:

  • Time: As in there’s never enough of it.
  • Confidence. Competing against a younger, more agile workforce or student peer group can undermine any experienced professional’s confidence.
  • Money. Going back to school is an investment. And while the payoff can be worth it, making that initial financial commitment can feel daunting.

What are adult learning principles?

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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.

What are the 7 learning principles?

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.

LEARNING PRINCIPLE EXPLANATION APPLICATION
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.

How to use the principles of adult learning

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:

  • Improving your department/company’s capabilities
  • Increasing employee satisfaction and reducing turnover
  • Making it easier to identify worthy candidates in your current operation and promoting from within
  • Creating an environment where your employees develop and learn without supervision
  • Fostering a healthy work-life balance

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.

Adult learning theories in University of Phoenix instructional design

Considering University of Phoenix’s commitment to student success, it’s no surprise adult learning theories play a pivotal role in course design and instruction. In fact, according to Savron, the university takes a 360-degree approach to leverage adult learning theories for student success. “When we design programs and curriculum, this is at the forefront of our approaches,” she explains. That means the process looks like this:

  • UOPX identifies the skills critical to today’s employers and then maps those to the relevant program blueprints.
  • Courses are designed with weekly activities and deliverables that give students the opportunity to not only gain new insights but also apply those insights, whether that’s in a classroom discussion or a collaborative activity or project set within a real-world context. Collaborative learning, Savron notes, enables students to not only learn from faculty but also from other participants’ diverse experiences and knowledge.
  • Students are assessed on their ability to demonstrate their skills in those projects and activities.
  • Faculty members bring their industry experience to the table via course discussions and project feedback, thereby enhancing the real-world relevance of course lessons.

“In this approach,” Savron explains, “students get an opportunity to reflect, plan and direct their work for how it fits best in their lives each week (thanks to 24/7 access to the classroom). They get to apply theory to practice through projects, case studies or collaborative activities and classmates. And they get feedback from faculty who are practicing in the areas they are instructing.”

This instructional design intentionally mirrors the workplace, Savron notes, both to prepare students for their careers and because it is generally effective for adult learning.“[Students’] work environments are set up in a way that expects them to apply their learning to new circumstances and situations to solve problems,” Savron observes. “They are generally expected to figure things out and are empowered to get their work done.”

The same applies, she says, to UOPX classrooms where information, collaborative opportunities and deadlines are presented to students who can then leverage everything according to their experiences and schedules.

“All of this mimics what they might experience in a work environment while teaching them techniques and giving them tools to further their knowledge and skills applicable to the career path they chose,” Savron says. Whether in the classroom or the boardroom, adult learning theories offer valuable insight for how adults learn. And becoming a lifelong learner is one lesson that benefits everyone.

See how UOPX instructor Christopher Wilson implements adult learning theories in his virtual classroom.

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