Principles and Theories of Adult Learning

By Theresa J. Barrett, PhD, CMP, CAE

Alliance National Learning Competency 1.1
Apply adult learning principles in CEhp activities and interventions and overall program planning.

The phrases “adult learning principles” and “adult learning the­ories” are used interchangeably. However, there is a difference between the two. A learning principle represents those factors that have a consistent influence on learning. Principles are foundational beliefs, whereas a theory provides the model to predict or explain how people learn based on beliefs represent­ed by the principle. Why is it important that we, as educators, have an awareness of the principles and the theories that sup­port learning? Because what we believe about how people learn influences how we design the learning intervention.

Principles of Learning
While there are several principles that provide the foundation for adult learning theory, three of the most common are behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Each principle provides a theoretical framework for learning.

Behaviorism is based on the premise that the source of behavior is external (a response to stimuli or environment), not the result of what happens in the mind (Graham, 2007). In other words, behaviorists view learning as a simple process of stimulus and response (Braungart & Braungart, 2011). To promote learning, a behaviorist will change either the environmental stimulus or what occurs after a response (Braungart & Braungart, 2011). Behaviorism influences instructional models that employ reinforcement and consequences of learned behaviors (Dabbagh, 2014).

Where behaviorism focuses on the environment and ignores the inner workings of the mind, the focus of cognitivism is on the learner’s mental process (Braungart & Braungart, 2011; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). In cognitivism, learning is considered an active process that involves the organization of the material to be learned, a prior knowledge of the subject, and the perception, comprehension, and storage of the information (Gredler, 1997). Learning is considered to have occurred when this information is stored in the memory in an organized, meaningful fashion (Dabbagh, 2014). A subset of cognitivism is social cognitivism, which posits that we do not only process information cognitively, we also process what is going on in our social environment, observe how others are behaving, and then model that behavior (Merriam & Bierema, 2014).

Constructivism asserts that because no two people can understand an experience in the same manner, each person constructs a vision of their personal reality based on their own knowledge of the world (Cobb, 2000; Owen, 2002). Constructivism weaves together a series of assumptions about knowledge, human nature, social interaction, and the meaning of learning to present a view of how people make sense of their reality (Candy, 1991; Merriam et al., 2007). The goal of constructivism is to support the construction of knowledge rather than the communication of knowledge (Dabbagh, 2014). Much of adult learning theories are built on a constructivist framework (Merriam et al., 2007).

Theories of Adult Learning
No discussion of adult learning would be complete without Malcolm Knowles and his theory of andragogy — although it has been said that Knowles developed a series of assumptions rather than an actual theory (Brookfield, 1986; Davenport & Davenport, 1985). Regardless, Knowles (1980) introduced andragogy into the lexicon of adult learning. Where pedagogy was focused on the teaching of children, Knowles defined andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults learn” (p. 43). In later years he revised this concept, considering pedago­gy and andragogy to be two ends of a learning spectrum that was independent of age with pedagogy being teacher-driven and andragogy being learning-driven (Merriam et al., 2007).

Whether assumption or theory, Knowles (1980) provided a model to understand adult learning. The theory states that, as individuals mature, they (a) move from dependency to self-directedness; (b) collect considerable experiences that influence their learning and thereby attach more meaning to learning from that experience than from passive learning; (c) learn when they realize the need to deal with real-life problems; and (d) want to be able to apply their learning immediately. In later editions of his work, he added two more assumptions: (e) adults need to know the reason they have to learn before they will tackle the task of learning it; and (f ) internal motivators are more powerful than external motivators (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 2005).

Self-directed learning is another theory for adult learning. For learning to be considered “self-directed,” the learner must have authentic control over the form, purpose, and content of their learning to be the ultimate judge of the significance and meaning of the learning experience (Brookfield, 1994). The benefits of being self-directed are clearly documented in literature — including the development of critical thinking skills (Garrison, 1997), learners who learn better and learn more (Ramnarayan & Hande, 2005), and who are more self-confident (Miflin, Campbell, & Price, 2000). In addition, and perhaps most importantly in the field of continuing education for health professionals, self-directed learning provides learners a way to stay current in a world where the rate of change is unprecedented and growing exponentially (Guglielmino, 2013).

Experiential learning places emphasize on the role of experience in the learning process. Kolb’s learning cycle is probably the best known model of experiential learning. In his model, Kolb stresses the value of concrete experiences in (a) creating meaning and validating the learning process, and (b) the importance of feedback as the beginning of continuous cycle of goal-directed action followed by evaluation of the results of that action (Elkjaer, 2009). There are varying theoretical perspectives regarding the role that experience plays in the complex process of learning (Merriam et al., 2007). However, one central concept that ties these perspectives together is the importance of helping adults connect what they have learned from current and past experiences as well as future circumstances (Merriam et al., 2007).

This article presents a high-level overview of a few of the most well-known principles and theories for understanding how adults learn. There are many more, with no single concept standing above another. This vast array allows us to choose from complementary philosophies, principles, frameworks, and concepts to guide us in the development of unique learning experiences that meet the individual needs our learners.


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  2. Brookfield, S. D. (1986). Understanding and faciliating adult learning: A comprehensive anyalsis of principles and effective practices. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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  9. Garrison, D. R. (1997). Self-directed Learning: Toward a Comprehensive Model. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(1), 18-33.
  10. Graham, G. (2007). Behaviorism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from fall2007/entries/behaviorism/
  11. Gredler, M. E. (1997). Learning and instruction (3 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  12. Guglielmino, L. M. (2013). The case for promoting self-directed learning in formal educational Iinstitutions. SA-eDUC Journal, 10(2), 1-18.
  13. Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (revised and updated). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.
  14. Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R. A. (2005). The adult learner. Burlington, MA: Elisevier.
  15. Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  16. Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (third edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  17. Miflin, Campbell, & Price. (2000). A Conceptual Framework to Guide the Development of Self-directed, Lifelong Learning in Problem-based Medical Curricula. Medical Education, 34(4), 299-306. doi:10.10 46/j.1365-2923.2000.00564.
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  19. Ramnarayan, K., & Hande, S. (2005). Thoughts on self-directed learning in medical schools: Making students more responsible. New Horizons for Learning. newhorizons/lifelonglearning/higher-education/medical-schools

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