Adult Learning and Development Theories


Learning and development are life-long processes encompassing how individuals obtain new forms of knowledge and experience changes in their psychological, cognitive, and biological domains. Today’s technology-driven and rapidly changing world require adults to continually and systematically gain new skills, values, and attitudes to enhance their competency beyond or outside the traditional schooling systems.

Adult learning is anchored on specific philosophical theories founded on the ability, desire, and willingness to acquire advanced insights, which respond to their needs. Notably, understanding the various adult development theories, including the behavioral, cognitive, and sociocultural development models, is critical and can be utilized as the building block for instructional design efforts. Although adult learning encompasses the acquisition of new forms of knowledge, the application theories are distinct from children’s pedagogical approaches to involuntariness, self-motivation, and the problem-centered nature.

Theories of Adult Learning

There are various adult learning theories, with each having unique techniques and applicability. Obtaining an in-depth understanding of how grownups acquire knowledge is fundamental in designing the appropriate strategies and enhancing the complete optimization of the adopted approaches. According to Mukhalalati and Taylor (2020), adult learning philosophies enable educators to fully exploit the distinct attributes of learners to their advantage. Notably, andragogy, transformational, and experiential models are widely applied since they integrate the learner’s willingness, abilities, and previous experiences.

Andragogical Approach

Andragogy is an adult learning theory based on the knowledge that grownups are differently motivated, oriented, and experienced. This model is attributed to Malcolm Knowles and based the strategy on four fundamental principles, which reflect the intelligence and age factor of the learners. This implies that the andragogical approach is distinctively problem-centered instead of content or subject-oriented (Loeng & Omwami, 2018).

For instance, the model amplifies that grownups are self-directed, motivated, and learn best when the knowledge being acquired provides immediate value (Joshi, 2017). Moreover, it considers integrating interactivity and experience as fundamental components, which enhance the effectiveness of learning by demonstrating the knowledge acquisition process as a problem-solving skill. Andragogy theory considers the age and intelligence levels of learners by highlighting the reason why they need to gain new skills, emphasizing the centrality of experience, and viewing learning as an approach to problem-solving. Therefore, the strategy recognizes that experience and intrinsic motivation are the basis for optimal learning outcomes in adults.

Transformational Learning

Also known as transformative adult learning theory, the transformational model focuses on changing how learners perceive themselves and their world. This model is attributed to Jack Mezirow, who posited that adult learning is optimized by adopting and integrating strategies, which present a dilemma that disorients and challenges the existing beliefs. The resulting critical evaluation and review of the incoming information trigger a shift in the individual’s perspective, thereby replacing the old understanding and past ideas with new insights and comprehension (Kurnia, 2021).

According to Tsimane and Downing (2020) and Chao (2017), transformative learning promotes critical reflection and fosters the questioning of experiences and assumptions to achieve in-depth understanding, resulting in the validation and acceptance of the new information. From this perspective, Mezirow’s transformative theory considers the intelligence and age factors of the learners by anchoring its effectiveness on their ability to interrogate and reflect on past experiences as the basis for knowledge acquisition.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is the process through which knowledge is acquired by engaging learners in direct experiences and focused reflections to develop skills, expand proficiency, and enhance values. The experiential learning theory, developed by David Kolb, recognizes the indispensability of the hands-on approach and places the learner at the center of the entire process. In this regard, this model emphasizes active participation, activity reflection, conceptualization, and the subsequent utilization of the attained skills. Leal-Rodriguez and Albort-Morant (2019) and Morris (2019) contend that experiential learning is built on the realization that grownups are shaped by their experiences and that the optimal knowledge acquisition emanates from reflecting on such exposure. Notably, experiential learning factors the intelligence level and age of the learners by utilizing their past experiences and their ability to reflect and synthesize the newly acquired information.

Adult Development Theories

Adult development provides valuable insights through which educators can obtain in-depth comprehension and understanding of their students to meet their needs better. It encompasses the attendant psychological, biological, behavioral, cognitive, and sociocultural changes, and progressions that are characterized by increasing complexities in an individual’s intrapersonal capacities. Notably, each developmental phase includes the previous stages’ abilities upon which new competencies are added. The successive transformations play an influential role in determining the ways through which people absorb information.

Mechanistic/Behavioral Theory

The behaviorist theory views adult development as changes in behavior, with particular emphasis on how past experiences predict future habits. This theory is associated with behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson, who posited that the most logical approach to determining the progression to adulthood is by observing the changes in behavior. From this perspective, this model is primarily focused on how experiences and interactions with stimuli impact peoples’ habits and conduct (Jager et al., 2019).

This implies that development, under this theory, is a reaction to the environmental forces, which reinforce or discourage the continued inculcation and ingraining of specific sets of habits at the adulthood phase of psychological development. For instance, realizing the desired outcomes from a given activity increases a person’s likelihood of adopting and repeating such actions. However, this theoretical perspective assumes that development is initiated as a response to occurrences in the surroundings. Therefore, the observable behaviors in adults reflect the outcome of a series of habits that are incrementally reinforced positively or negatively.

Cognitive/Psychological Theory

The cognitive/psychological theory focuses on a person’s internal transformation processes and their interaction with the environment. This theory integrates useful insights from Jack Mezirow and indicates that the sequential life events and transitions define the progression of adult development based on past experiences (Girgis et al., 2018). In this regard, grownups are active participants in constructing their habits or behaviors through the objective awareness of their beliefs and emotions previously residing in the subconscious. This implies that individuals are not merely responding to external stimuli and interactions but are actively engaging their intelligence and reasoning to understand the world around them. The cognitive theory assumes that individuals retain have the ultimate control when they interact with their surroundings. Therefore, people attain more complex levels of development through active participation and involvement in the environment.

Sociocultural/Contextual Development Theory

The sociocultural/contextual theory of adult development views the progression of grownups from a socio-historical contextual perspective. This theory is associated with Vygotsky and asserts that individuals are inseparable from the circumstances and conditions in which they live (Shabani & Ewing, 2016).

As a result, their daily experiences and interactions influence numerous dimensions of their life, including the skills to obtain, activities to participate in, and the specific people allowed to engage in particular actions. For instance, diverse cultures place different values on a range of competencies, such as informal apprenticeship and competence in social interaction, which determine who the people become (Zittoun & Baucal, 2021). This theory assumes that social structures are objective and influence all human behavior. Therefore, the intersection and interplay of these multiple factors instead of a single element ultimately determine the developmental trajectory of an adult.

Synthesis of Adult Learning and Development

Adult learning entails the knowledge acquisition processes in grownups and is anchored on the perspective that obtaining more skills and competencies is a life-long venture. Adult educators utilize different contextually appropriate approaches to ensure the effectiveness of the undertaking and the realization of optimal outcomes. To achieve this, the facilitators combine various factors, including the developmental phase of the learners, environmental influences, and the practical significance of the undertaking to the learners. According to Lafta and Saleh (2016), adults participate in the learning process more effectively when the skills and knowledge to be obtained have immediate application and can solve a given problem. However, environmental influences, such as sociocultural context, influence the desire to acquire more competencies or abilities and ultimately shape individuals’ willingness to participate in adult learning.


Adult learning differs significantly from the knowledge acquisition process in childhood and is more method-oriented than content-inclined. Educators for grownups ought to understand the specific motivations and requirements for this learning to ensure that they integrate and utilize developmentally appropriate interventions for optimal outcomes. Additionally, they should consider the psychological and contextual factors when designing and implementing adult education programs to facilitate the effective acquisition of skills and competencies. In this regard, the ideal results in adult learning can only be realized when the training programs are anchored on content relevance, the experience of the learners, practical and active participation, developmental appropriateness, and learners’ self-governance.


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ChalkyPapers. "Adult Learning and Development Theories." April 15, 2023.