Adult Learning Theories

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Education has been viewed as providing a significant contribution to a person’s success. A person goes through more than a decade of education in his youth. It is at this time when learning is believed to take place the fastest.

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The term learning may be defined in a myriad of ways. “Learning is the act or process by which behavioral change, knowledge, skills and attitudes are acquired” (Boyd, Apps, et al., 1980, pp.100-101). In this definition, even animals have the capacity to learn, as acquisition of behavior has been known to be trained in animals.

Education as “an activity undertaken or initiated by one or more agents that is designed to effect changes in the knowledge, skill, and attitudes of individuals, groups, or communities. The term emphasizes the educator, the agent of change who presents stimuli and reinforcement for learning and designs activities to induce change.” (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005). This definition gives a more communal flavor to the definition of learning, as it indicates that the learner adapts to the knowledge, skill and attitudes of the group he belongs to.

Change is evident in learning. The agent of change is the educator or teacher, who is responsible in stimulating learning to effect that change in his learner. The more person-centered thinkers like Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow and Malcolm Knowles share a humanistic view of education, and are specifically concerned with adults who are taking their second chance at it.

Malcolm Knowles, known as the Father of Andragogy or adult education has formulated his own Andragogical Theory of Adult Learning as the art and science of helping adults learn. It is organized around the notion that adults learn best in informal, comfortable, flexible and nonthreatening settings. Andragogy is also differentiated from Pedagogy, which is childhood education, the kind most people grew up with.

In the humanistic view, adult learners are assumed to be motivated to learn as they are more conscious of its benefits. They experience needs and interests that learning satisfies. Their orientation to learning is practical and centered on their own lives. Adults value experience as the richest resource of learning, that is why they have no hesitations learning something while they are engaged in a new experience. “Nearly all adult education is voluntary. Educational activities must meet the needs of as adult learners in order to survive”( Ellias & Merriam, 1980, p135).

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Adult learners have a deep need to direct their own learning, possessing a pride and learning style that suits their own personalities. As people mature, individual differences increase with age.

Accepting these assumptions of how adults learn, Carl Rogers (1969), a humanistic psychologist further details the process of humanistic learning. He claims that the learner is personally involved in a holistic way. His or her feelings and cognitive aspects are deep into the learning experience. Even when the learning stimulus comes from an external source, the sense of discovery, of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending comes from within. Rogers also emphasizes that learning makes a difference in the behavior, attitudes, even the personality of the learner. This is consistent with the definition of learning presented earlier. The learner is aware whether his learning meets his personal need, whether it leads toward what he wants to know and whether “it illuminates the dark area of ignorance the individual is experiencing. The locus of evaluation resides definitely in the learner.” The essence of learning for the adult learner is meaning. When learning takes place, the element of meaning is built into the whole experience. Ellias and Merriman (1980) concur, “the truly humanistic teacher respects and utilizes the experiences and potentialities of students”(125). He gets his cues from his students in order for his class to be more productive.

Abraham Maslow, influential in his theory of man’s Hierarchy of needs illustrates that a person goes through a ladder of needs for survival. His needs for safety is basic, as it encompasses biological and psychological needs of security –his hunger is satiated, he is clothed and sheltered and he does not feel threats to harm his cocoon of security. When these basic needs are met, then he goes up to the need for affection as he seeks warm and satisfying personal relationships to make him feel loved and to love others in return. Upon satisfying that need, he feels a need to build up his esteem, as how he feels about himself and how others think of him becomes essential to his survival. Finally, he reaches self-actualization which is the “full use of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” At this point, ambivalence is felt by the individual as two opposing sets of forces within him determine his growth toward his goal: one set clings to safety and defensiveness out of fear, tending to regress backward, hanging on to the past in his comfort zone. The other set of forces “impels him forward toward wholeness to Self and uniqueness of self toward full functioning of all his capacities. We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety” (Maslow, 1970, pp.44-45).

The educator is not spared from such a process. “Ideally, the humanistic teacher is self-actualized or fully functional individual. That this applies to an adult educational setting as well as any other is obvious. An adult instructor dealing with adult students can hardly ignore the wealth and variety of individual experiences as a foundation for facilitating learning”.

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Focusing on the person and how he perceives the learning experience is the heart of the humanistic view of adult education. More than the concepts or skills he acquires through the activities designed around how he learns, “the emphasis of the humanistic educator, however, is not upon the works of the past and the values these possess, but on the freedom and dignity of the individual person that is highlighted in this tradition” (Ellias & Merriman, 1980, p109).

Being psychologically healthy is a prerequisite for it. Carl Rogers states, the learners’ most important work focuses on demonstrating the optimum psychological conditions which allows for open communication and the empowerment of individuals to achieve their fullest potential (Rogers, 1969). This implies that adults who are on their way to self-actualization are the best candidates for optimum adult learning.

Self Analysis of Learning

Taking the self-analysis test in the website provided made me look deeper into myself. It forced me to confront some issues that were unclear to me before. The personal inventory offered a lot of choices about a person’s description of his or her personality and how he learned.

The test results revealed my learning style was a combination of both Analytical and Global, although, the scale tipped more for analytical. My top four learning styles are: visual, physical, social and solitary.

My visual learning style manifests itself when I prefer to learn with visual reinforcement. I respond well to pictures. At the same time, I express myself to others visually by using a lot of gestures when I speak. This also shows that I am a physical learner. I find the need to take many breaks and enjoy information delivered with by anecdotes, humor and emotions. My preference is the more informal, less structured and more flexible environment. I get restless when required to sit still for long periods of time and affects my concentration.

It is ironic that the test results reveal that I am a social learner as well as a solitary one. I am not uncomfortable working with others, in fact I enjoy interactive discussions. I also tend to give directions to others. However, I would much rather work on my own since I have a strong drive to complete tasks and not be reliant on the participation of others. Making decisions based on facts, common sense and logic works with me and I could better do those by myself. I like working on my own in quiet, shaded places where I could be alone with my thoughts.

Comparison of Personal Learning Style with Adult Learning

Theories and Beliefs

In doing the research on adult learning theories, I felt validated of the learning styles I now possess as an adult. I know that as an adult, everything I learn is voluntary and more welcome, as opposed to when I was a child or adolescent when learning was a requirement posted by school and rewarded (or punished when there is a lack) by grades. I also know that I am now more set in my ways, and can be assertive of some learning styles I have preference for. I also approach learning with more enthusiasm and with ready connections with my vast life experiences. That way, I find more meaning in the new things I continue to learn.

Having satisfied my more basic needs of physiological, security and belongingness in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I am at the stage where I continually struggle to meet my self-esteem needs through continuous learning experiences. I am aware that this would eventually lead to self actualization. As a lifelong learner, I know I am constantly in the state of being a “work in progress”.

As an adult learner, my learning styles, as revealed by the test I took, are more acceptable in the learning institutions I get involved in. Physically, I am no longer constrained to a small space and my breaks are not monitored by the teacher. Visually, I take no shame in the need for visual cues and requesting for visual representations like drawings, illustrations, maps, etc. to help me deepen my learning. Socially, I have developed enough confidence to network with other learners and gain more knowledge from them while keeping my preference of being a solitary learner on hand to serve me when I am left alone to process my learning.

To apply all these in occupational therapy would be relevant. Occupational therapists may take on the role of the adult educator discussed above, in that he must be respectful of the nature of learning his adult patients have. Some patients may approach therapy enthusiastically, knowing the benefits it would bring them, and are willing to endure whatever exercises will be given them. Others would be more hesitant to try out exercises, and should be given alternatives as to which activities they may be comfortable with. It is no use, or excuse to pressure them to perform some activities which they are not resilient to do no matter how advantageous you think it will be for them.

Another application is to get to know the learning styles of patients. In doing so, an occupational therapist may be more adept at interacting with a patient and providing him with activities he would be more amenable of doing.

I believe the key word here is respect. Everyone deserves that, especially adults who have earned it through a lifetime of meaningful experiences. They know themselves best and should be listened to what they wish especially if it involves their bodies.


Boyd, R., & Apps, J. (1980). Redefining the disciplining of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ellias, J.L. & Merriam, S.B. (1980) Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education. Krieger Pub Co.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. New York: Cambridge Books.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. A. (2007). The Adult Learner, Sixth Edition. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Maslow, A.H. (1970) Motivation & Personality. Harper & Row Publishers.

Rogers, C.R.. 1969. Freedom to learn: a view of what education might become. Columbus, OH, Charles E. Merrill.

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