Professional Development Module:
Learning Theory and the Adult Learner

By Vicky Lara, El Paso Community College

This module provides a series of annotated websites giving definitions, key concepts, teaching tips and lesson plans, sources of on-line books and magazine articles, and bibliographies for the reader’s use. Because the sheer number of learning theories can be overwhelming, this module presents cursory introductions to a wide variety of those theories first. Because the process of learning itself must be understood, many of these sites elaborate to some extent on the psychology of learning--based on the teachings of Jung, Piaget, Erickson, Maslow, and Skinner.

Key Concepts:

Section 1: Principal Theories and Approaches

Active Learning
Active learning is “a dynamic process involving continuous adjustment and re-structuring of basic elements…(talking and listening, writing, reading, and reflecting)…learning strategies (small groups, case studies, and so on)… and teacher resources (outside speakers, homework assignments, and so on).”
Meyers and Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

In the article, “Active Learning” by Gachuhi and. Matiru , the authors discuss ways to use this technique in distance learning.

L. Dee Fink at the University of Oklahoma’s Instructional Development Program offers a model of active learning designed to present “a way of conceptualizing the learning process in a way that may assist teachers in identifying meaningful forms of active learning.”

Adult Learning
Adult learning differs from children’s learning in that it is self-directed, problem-centered, experience based, and more often relevant to life.

Andragogy is learning theory specifically for adults. It emphasizes process more than content and makes the following assumptions about the design of learning: (1) Adults need to know why they need to learn something (2) Adults need to learn experientially, (3) Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and (4) Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value. This site offers a clear, no nonsense explanation of andragogy and includes links to other relevant sites and references.

Jackson’s article on “Adult vs. Child Learning” compares pedagogy and andragogy. It would interest educators working with both groups or changing from one group to the other.

Behaviorism is a school of psychology that focuses on the observable, measurable aspects of experience and that, educationally, is stimulus-response based.

Cognitivism stresses cognition and sees learning as occurring within the learner. It focuses on processing rather than behavior.

Constructivism acknowledges outside influences and stimuli while stressing individual formation and interpretation. Perhaps Piaget said it best when he said that humans are in “a process of continuous self-construction…we create knowledge in our heads and that created knowledge may be interpreted differently by each of us.” From William Jackson’s 1996 article, “Survey of an Adult Learner”

Cooperative Learning
Cooperative learning is an approach that requires interaction among learners for learning to occur.

Although this site was primarily designed to promote cooperative learning strategies in teaching children and adolescents, many of its examples and strategies have a much wider application and are still useful for young adults.

Apart from basic information about cooperative learning, this site offers explanations and examples of various strategies and techniques, including:

  • Three-step Interview
  • Roundtable
  • Focused Listing
  • Structured Problem-solving
  • Paired Annotations
  • Structured Learning Team Group Roles>
  • Send-A-Problem
  • Value Line
  • Uncommon Commonalities
  • Team Expectations
  • Double Entry Journal>
  • Guided Reciprocal Peer Questioning

The California Department of Education site presents an in-depth exploration of cooperative learning including the following topics: Interdependence, Interaction, Achievement, Professional Development, References, and Resources.

This site offers a scholarly presentation of key components of cooperative learning which must be included in activities through careful planning, i.e., heterogeneous groups and individual accountability.

Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is primarily significant in its emphasis on personal involvement and personal acquisition of knowledge and skills through relevant experiences. C. R. Rogers differentiates between “cognitive (meaningless) and experiential (significant)” learning. This concise discussion presents the main characteristics of experiential learning, an approach Rogers sees as particularly applicable to adults. It includes references and links to relevant sites.

This on-line publication includes the chapter, “Experience-Based Learning.” Foley states that “the experience of the learner occupies a central place in all considerations of teaching and learning.” He also sees analysis, reflection and evaluations, as essential.
Foley, G. “Experience-Based Learning.” Understanding Adult Education and Training. 2nd ed. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 225-239.

Humanism is more an approach than a theory. It stresses mutual respect and trust with learning firmly anchored in interpersonal relationships.

Learning is “the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skills.” It is physiological as it requires “the formation of cell assemblies and phase sequences. Children learn by building these assemblies and sequences. Adults spend more time making new arrangements than forming new sequences.”

Social Learning
Social learning sees learning as a mixture of behavior and cognition including the learner’s contribution to the process. It values modeling.

Transformative Learning
Transformative learning, according to Mezirow, is a theory that is “partly a developmental process, but more…the process of using a priori interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action.” See “The Theory and Practice of Transformative Learning: A Critical Review”

Section 2: Useful “Umbrella” Sites

Greg Kearsley’s website “Theory into Practice” is wonderful for both beginners and general investigators of learning theory for adults. It offers multiple, simple explanations of many of the theories under the heading “The Theories.” Each entry consists of the following subsections: Overview, Scope/Application, Example, Principles, References, and Relevant Web Sites.

This site consists of an extensive series of papers by William H. Jackson. Not only are the various theories included, but also information regarding the different stages of development in children and adults, practical suggestions for preparing lectures, and even study tips.

This site offers twelve links to highly relevant sites for anyone interested in adult learning theory. The site itself is interesting in that it was developed for police officers. Its selections contain clearly written, practical information.

This site is a very good, though at times quirky, source of basic concepts. This “Essential Guide” includes topics such as Brain and Intelligence, Adult Learning Theory, Adult Learning Theorists, Resistance to Learning, Lesson Plans (sidebar), and Study Tips. Each section includes links for each of the topics discussed.

This site is the home of the Interactive Website for Adult Education Practitioners. Primarily a literacy site and reading skills assessment site.

Section 3: Teaching Tips

Apart from the informative series of articles it includes, this site is a treasure trove of lesson plans, learning activities and teaching tips, at times, categorized by discipline. An entire series of links is designed to assist tutors.

This is the home of the journal Focus on Basics. It offers a wealth of practical and helpful information for applications of theoretical information.

Section 4: Additional Resources

This site offers both links to other sites and a bibliography. The authors of the materials are recognized experts in the field, i. e., Knowles.


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