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Adult Learning


Adult Learning Essentials:

  • What is adult learning?
  • Why is adult learning different? Or is it?
  • What are the principles of adult learning?
  • Adult Learning Myths
  • How adults are best taught online




  • What is adult learning?

    Adult learning is any "post-compulsory" learning. Other terms used for Adult Learning are "Life-long Learning" and "Continuing Education".

    Adult learning is a broad term that can comprise formal college education; job related training, community education, or self improvement. Adult learning is vital in today's changing world where the facts and approaches we learned in our formal education are obsolete within a few years. Life-long learning has visible economic implications, contributes to the growth of society, helps bring about change, and improves the quality of life for the individual.

    Its been said that adult learning is all about change - change in attitude, change in knowledge, change in behavior, change in a skill, change in how we think, and change in productivity.
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    Why is adult learning different? Or is it?

    Since the first adult learning theory was developed it has been argued that adults learn differently because, among other things, they bring with them experiences that children don't.

    Andragogy (how adult learn) differs from Pedagogy (how children learn) in that pedagogy does not address prior experiences. To this extent we can say that they are different, however, even with young learners, andragogical or a mix of andragogical-pedagogical approaches, work better than purely pedagogical ones. The reason for this is simple; we retain and understand better those things that relate to our experience or real world situations.

    Knowles coined the term andragogy but he evolved in his views as can be seen in the table below. His most recent conclusion is that the use of andragogical and pedagogical principles is to be determined by the situation and not the age of the learner.


    Malcolm S. Knowles evolution: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy
    Andargogy 1970 The art and science of helping adults learn. Pedagogy is not always appropriate for teaching adults on the basis of crucial assumptions about adult learners that are different from those of child learners

    Andragogy 1980 A model of assumptions about all learners to be used alongside the pedagogical model. The choice of which model to use depends upon the situation rather than solely upon whether the learner is an adult or a child.

    Knowles, Malcolm Shepherd. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy Versus Pedagogy. New York: Association Press, 1970.
    Knowles, Malcolm Shepherd. The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy. 2nd ed. Wilton, Conn.: Association Press, 1980.



    Still, in spite of what was said above there are observable differences between adult and childhood learning. To understand the differences we can turn to the summary complied by Marie Wallace.

    Adults are not a homogenous group but in learning they generally:
    • Are much more self-directed than children.
    • Take responsibility for their learning experiences.
    • Seek learning experiences that are learner-oriented.
    • Have a large reservoir of life experiences to bring to and support new learning.
    • Flourish when their abilities and life achievements acknowledged and respected.
    • Prefer a practical and immediately relevant approach.
    • Learn readily from their peers.
    • Have formed a dominant learning style and know what it is.
    • Want immediate and regular feedback.
    • Are ready to learn when an event in their personal/professional life sparks "the need to know."
    • May be "education wounded" from earlier pedagogical experiences and require "unlearning" to become an effective adult learner.
    Contrast adult learning with what children experience in primary and secondary education:
    • An authoritative atmosphere with subject-oriented instruction.
    • A teaching hierarchy who decide what subjects you learn, what the approach will be, when the instruction will take place and how you are to learn.
    • Little practical, how-to-use-this-in-your-life today instruction, unless you are in music, sports, or the arts.
    • A teaching model resembling a funnel with the teacher at the big end pouring in knowledge and the students at the little end filling their empty brains.
    In spite of the differences stated above, Wallace agrees with Knowles. She states that "adult learning started out meaning the art and science of helping adults to learn but has come to mean learner-focused education at any age."
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    What are the principles of adult learning?

    Adults learn best when:
    • Their prior learning is appreciated and/or rewarded
    • The subject matter is relevant to their needs (professional or other)
    • Full of partial opportunity for self direction is provided
    • They can employ critical reflection
    • Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn
    • The instruction provides opportunity for interaction
    • Dialog is part of the learning
    • Practical/hand-on experience is part of the learning
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    Adult Learning Myths

    • Adult learning is inherently joyful
    • Adults are innately self-directed learners
    • Good educational practice always meets the needs articulated by learners themselves
    • There is a uniquely adult learning process as well as a uniquely adult form of practice.
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    How adults are best taught online

    1. LECTURE - usually a straight talk
    • May have presentations slides/screens
    • May be steamed, downloadable or podcasted (MP3)
    2. LESSON - traditional "chalk and talk" now may:
    • Develop ideas/arguments via online conferences
    3. DEMONSTRATION
    • Streaming audio
    • Streaming video or animation (live pre-recorded)
    • Sharing desktops (conferencing)
    • Demos (Captivate)
    4. DRAMATIC PRESENTATION
    • Pre-recorded or live (audio, video, desktop media)
    5. DISCUSSION - tutor-led or group-led
    • Structured or unstructured
    • Group or plenary
    • Each group requires space
      (The above can be performed via forums, live chat/desktop conferencing, messenger groups, listservs, telephony, etc.)
    6. BUZZ GROUP - small groups of 3 or 4 convened in situ for a brief time to consider a topic (same technology as 5 above)

    7. FISH BOWL - a small group discussion observed by another group. Then process is then discussed by the group as a whole.
    • Online conferencing, forums, chat
    8. BRAINSTORMING - Ideas on a given topic is collected by the leader without modification from the group
    • Any of the synchronous or asynchronous technologies.
    9. EXPERT PANEL - Input by a group of experts
    • Synchronous technology (conferencing, desktop sharing)
    10. FORUM - all can post messages and all can reply to them.
    • Online forum technology
    11. ROLE PLAY - Participants are assigned roles within which they act out
    While we often think of role play as a live interaction between the roles, asynchronous role play is another avenue with that may yield superior learning due to the time for reflection.
    • Synchronous or asynchronous technology.
    12. SIMULATION - For situation where the real thing is not accessible
    • Online synchronous or asynchronous (custom development is often needed)
    13. GAMES - An extended simulation with role playing, addition of objectives, rules, rewards or scores
    • Online synchronous or asynchronous games (custom development is often needed)
    14. SOCRATIC TECHNIQUE - Questions and answer process, designed to stimulate thought and move logically from old to new knowledge or skill
    • Forums, chat, conferencing.
    15. PRACTICE - often involves 12, 16, 17 & 18
    • Carrying out a task
    • Learning by doing
    16. PROBLEM SOLVING
    • Synchronous or asynchronous problem solving are valid approaches depending on the subject matter.
    17. CASE STUDY - An account of a situation its problem, and choices for courses of action.
    • Web pages with decision making links.
    18. INDIVIDUAL OR GROUP PROJECTS
    • Asynchronous technology, forums,
    19. MIND MAP - similar to brainstorming specifying the most important/ priority issues
    • Synchronous or asynchronous (forums, chat, conferencing)
    "How adult best learning online" was inspired and followed the format provide by the WEA Adult Learning section. Adapted for online learning for this site.
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