The Theory of Adult Learning:

Major theorists include: Bandura, Cross, Knowles, Kolb, Lave, Revans, and Rogers.

Adult learning theory is based on the idea that there are significant differences in learning characteristics between children and adults. Since most thinking about teaching methods is based on traditional pedagogy, adults often face classroom or training environments that offer less than optimal learning opportunities. Adult learners are different from children in terms of what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, the degree of experience they bring to the classroom, and the amount of control they want in their own learning and assessment. In addition, most adult learners are taking courses voluntarily, and many of them are going to school on a part time basis while working. Further, adults usually have advanced skills in reasoning, vocabulary, and decision making. These characteristics indicate that classroom methods used for children are not adequate for adult learners.

The popular term for adult learning is andragogy. This is opposed to pedagogy which, once the term for learning in general, has now come to mean children’s learning. When teaching adults, it is important to remember that adults are often self-directed and their motivation to learn is internal. Adults want to be able to solve problems that are of immediate concern, and they want to learn more about what to do and how to do rather than learn a lot of general theory. Adults have life experience they are usually willing to share with others and in groups respond very well to social construction activities. Adults also learn well in situations where they can experience using their new knowledge. One method of experiential learning is based on learners having an experience followed by a time of reflective observation about the experience. Reflective observation is then followed by abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.

Instructors often act more as facilitators, rather than lecturers, and allow students to experience discovery as part of their learning. Guidance is limited and only given to correct errors. Learning is facilitated through full student participation and the use of self-evaluation as the primary means of assessment. Instructors should take into account the varied backgrounds of their students and use their knowledge to enrich classroom presentations and discussions.

Meaningful learning experiences for adults often include case studies, role playing, and simulations. The closer the content and its expression fits within an authentic domain (is closer to real life), the greater likelihood of student learning. In the role of learners, adults are most successful when they are open to change and allow their curiosity to lead the way. When working with adult learners, issues such as loss of hearing and eyesight need to be taken into consideration. Even the pace of events may need to be adjusted to the comfort level of older students.

Adult Learning in Practice:

Most community college classes have a wide range of students, but the majority of them can be classified as adults and therefore the concepts of adult learning can be applied in almost every case. It is important to remember that adult learning is about the process or methods of learning and not about content. Remember that adult learners are in charge of their own learning and your job is to assist them. Adults will determine what they want to learn and how they will go about doing so. A successful teacher of adults will help students understand how the course material is relevant to their lives and will use a wide variety of teaching methods to engage their curiosity and support a range of learning styles. In courses directly relevant to professional goals, the closer the learning environment is to the working environment, the greater the degree of student interest and learning.

To work as a facilitator of adult learning, set up a positive climate in your classroom, clarify the purpose of the session, organize the content, and make additional learning resources available. Try to strike a balance between the intellectual and application components of your topic. In discussions share your understandings with your students but do not dominate. Over the span of your course, give students ample opportunity to evaluate their own progress. When possible, set up projects that support experiencing the topic as a way of learning. This may be done by role playing as a corporate executive in a business class or as an editor in a writing class. Encourage interaction with other students. Allow time for reflection and provide opportunities for your students to be creative. Whenever possible, make the content of your course relevant to your students' lives and show the value of learning new material.