Adult Learning Theory and Principles
Become familiar with Adult Learning Theory and the six principles
of adult learning
Adult Learning Theory
Part of being an effective educator involves understanding how adults learn best
(Lieb,1991). Adult learning theory holds a set of assumptions about how adults
learn. It emphasises approaches to learning that are problem-based and
collaborative rather than didactic, and also emphasises more equality between
the teacher and learner.
Because of their life experience, adults approach learning differently than
children. Generally, adults…
support themselves hence are generally self directed
have their own ideas about what’s important to learn
tend to be concerned about effective use of learning time
have life experiences to which they can relate new learning
tend to learn when they need to in order to solve a problem or fulfil a need
are more likely than children to reject or explain away information that
contradicts their own experiences or beliefs
What do you mean by 'adult learning principles'?
Knowles identified the six principles of adult learning outlined below.
1. Adults are autonomous and self-directed. They need to be free to direct
themselves. Their teachers must actively involve adult participants in the
learning process and serve as facilitators for them. Specifically, they must
get participants' perspectives about what topics to cover and let them
work on projects that reflect their interests. They should allow the
participants to assume responsibility for presentations and group
leadership. They have to be sure to act as facilitators, guiding participants
to their own knowledge rather than supplying them with facts. Finally,
they must provide the class with opportunities to apply learning to address
their personal goals.
2. Adults have accumulated a foundation of life experiences and knowledge
that may include work-related activities, family responsibilities, and
previous education. They need to connect learning to this
knowledge/experience base. To help them do so, facilitators should draw
out participants' experience and knowledge which is relevant to the topic.
They must relate theories and concepts to the participants and recognize
the value of experience in learning.
3. Adults are goal-oriented. Upon enrolling in a program, they usually know
what goal they want to attain. They, therefore, appreciate an educational
program that is organized and has clearly defined elements. Facilitators
should support participants to work out how the program can help them
to attain their goals. The articulation of goals and program objectives
needs to be included early in the program.
4. Adults are relevancy-oriented. They must see a reason for learning
something. Learning has to be applicable to their work or other
responsibilities to be of value to them. This means, also, that theories and
concepts must be related to a setting familiar to participants. This need
can be fulfilled by letting participants choose projects that reflect their
5. Adults are practical, focusing on the aspects of a program most useful to
them in their work. They may not be interested in knowledge for its own
6. As do all learners, adults need to be shown respect. Facilitators must
acknowledge the wealth of experiences that adult participants bring to
the program. These adults should be treated as equals in experience and
knowledge and allowed to voice their opinions freely.
How can I use adult learning principles to facilitate professional
Here we will discuss some ways to facilitate learning by applying Knowles'
Adult Learning Principles:
1. Adults are internally motivated and self-directed
Adult learners resist learning when they feel others are imposing
information, ideas or actions on them (Fidishun, 2000).
Your role is to facilitate a learners’ movement toward more self-directed
and responsible learning as well as to foster the learners’ internal
motivation to learn.
As an educator you can:
Set up a learning program that moves from more to less structure,
from less to more responsibility and from more to less direct
supervision, at an appropriate pace that is challenging yet not
overloading for the student.
Develop rapport with the learner to optimise your approachability
and encourage asking of questions and exploration of concepts.
Show interest in the learner’s thoughts and opinions. Actively and
carefully listen to any questions asked.
Lead the learner toward inquiry before supplying them with too many
Provide regular, constructive and specific feedback.
Review goals and acknowledge goal completion.
Encourage use of resources such as library, journals, internet and
other department resources.
Set projects or tasks for the learner that reflect their interests and
which they must complete. For example: to provide professional
learning for colleagues on topic of choice; to present a case-study
based on one of their students; to design an educational handout; or
to lead a teacher or student learning session.
Acknowledge the diverse learning styles of learners.
2. Adults bring life experiences and knowledge to learning experiences
Adults like to be given opportunity to use their existing foundation of
knowledge and experience gained from life experience, and apply it to
their new learning experiences. As a professional learning leader you can:
Find out about your learners - their interests and past experiences
(personal, work and study related)
Assist them to draw on those experiences when problem-solving,
reflecting and applying reasoning processes.
Facilitate reflective learning opportunities which Fidishun (2000) suggests
can also assist the student to examine existing biases or habits based on
life experiences and "move them toward a new understanding of
information presented" (p4).
3. Adults are goal oriented
Adult learners become ready to learn when "they experience a need to
learn it in order to cope more satisfyingly with real-life tasks or problems"
(Knowles,1980 p 44, as cited in Fidishun, 2000). Your role is to facilitate a
learner’s readiness for problem-based learning and increase the learner’s
awareness of the need for the knowledge or skill presented. As a
professional learning leader, you can:
Provide meaningful learning experiences that are clearly linked to
personal, learner and organisational goals as well as assessment and
future life goals.
Ask questions that motivate reflection, inquiry and further research.
4. Adults are relevancy oriented
Adult learners want to know the relevance of what they are learning to
what they want to achieve. One way to help learners to see the value of
their observations and practical experiences throughout is to:
Ask the learner to do some reflection on for example, what they
expect to learn prior to the experience, on what they learnt after the
experience, and how they might apply what they learnt in the future,
or how it will help them to meet their learning goals.
Provide some choice of fieldwork projects by providing two or more
options, so that learning is more likely to reflect the learner’s
5. Adults are practical
Through practical fieldwork experiences, interacting with real teachers and
students in their real life situations, learners move to hands-on problem
solving where they can recognise first hand how what they are learning
applies to life and the work context. As a professional learning leader you
Clearly explain your reasoning when making choices about
assessments, learning activities and responses to learning needs.
Be explicit about how what the learner is learning is useful and
applicable in school contexts.
Promote active participation by allowing learners to try things rather
than observe. Provide plenty of practice opportunity in assessment,
and professional learning processes with ample repetition in order to
promote development of skill, confidence and competence.
6. Adult learners like to be respected
Respect can be demonstrated to your student by:
Acknowledging the wealth of experiences that the learner brings to
Regarding them as a colleague who is equal in life experience;
Encouraging expression of ideas, reasoning and feedback at every
It is important to keep in mind that the learner is still developing their skills.
However, with the theory and principles of adult learning in mind, you can
facilitate a learning approach that enables learners to move from novice to
more sophisticated learning methods. This facilitates greater integration of
knowledge, information and experience; the learner learns to distinguish
what is important when assessing and working with teachers and students;
how to prioritise teacher and student learning needs and goals; and how to
design locally for diverse contexts (Fidishun, 2000; Lieb,1991).