Principles of Adult Learning

Principles of Adult Learning


Learning is a journey that extends far beyond our school years. It is a lifelong expedition that constantly pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and skills. As we grow older, the way we absorb, process, and apply new information undergoes a transformation, forming the core of what we refer to as adult learning.

Within the vast realm of educational psychology, there exists a vibrant and extensively researched field that is dedicated to studying adults as learners. This field recognizes our distinct needs, motivations, and the myriad of experiences we bring to the table when it comes to learning. It emphasizes the fact that as adults, we have a learning style that differs significantly from that of children. By understanding and acknowledging these differences, researchers and educators have been able to develop effective strategies and approaches to facilitate adult learning and training.

In this article, we will delve deeply into some of the key principles of adult learning and explore how they shape our perspective on lifelong education. We will examine the concept of “andragogy,” a term coined by American educator Malcolm Knowles in the 1970s. Andragogy focuses on the unique ways in which adults process information, why we consciously choose to learn, and, most importantly, how we apply what we have learned to various aspects of our lives.

Knowles’ pioneering work in adult learning has had a profound influence, laying the foundation for numerous researchers to expand upon his concepts and deepen our understanding of andragogy since the 1980s (Knowles, 1980). As we embark on this exploration, we will immerse ourselves in the richness of this continuously evolving field, unraveling the unique intricacies of how adults learn.

Self-Direction in Learning

Self-direction is a fundamental principle of adult learning. Unlike children who often rely on guidance and structure, adults take charge of their own learning journey. They have the autonomy to set their own objectives, determine the most effective learning strategies, and evaluate their progress along the way (Merriam and Bierema, 2014).

Let’s consider an example to illustrate this principle. Imagine an adult who decides to learn a new language, let’s say French. They take the initiative to set a specific goal for themselves, such as becoming conversational in the language within a year. This goal serves as their guiding light throughout the learning process.

To achieve their goal, the adult explores various resources and options available to them. They might choose to enroll in an online language course that offers structured lessons and interactive exercises. Additionally, they leverage the power of technology by utilizing language learning apps, which provide a flexible and convenient way to practice vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Moreover, recognizing the importance of real-world application, the adult actively seeks opportunities to practice speaking with native French speakers. This could involve joining language exchange programs, participating in conversation groups, or even arranging virtual conversations with language partners.

Throughout their language learning journey, the adult remains mindful of their progress. They regularly assess their proficiency, reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement, and make necessary adjustments to their learning strategies. This self-evaluation enables them to stay on track, refine their approach, and maximize their learning outcomes.

By embracing self-direction, adults have the freedom to tailor their learning experiences according to their specific needs, preferences, and learning styles. They have the agency to choose the methods that work best for them, whether it’s through formal courses, online resources, interactive apps, or immersive experiences.

The principle of self-direction underscores the importance of adult learners being active participants in their own education. It recognizes the intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility that drive adults to learn and grow. Through self-directed learning, adults become empowered agents of their own intellectual development.

If you’re interested in exploring further resources on self-directed learning and its impact on adult education, you can check out this link for an in-depth research paper on the topic.

Experience as a Learning Resource

One of the significant advantages of adult learners is the wealth of life experiences they bring to the table, which can serve as a valuable resource for learning (Kolb, 1984). These experiences, accumulated over time, can be leveraged to enhance the learning process, making it more meaningful and relevant.

Let’s take a closer look at an example to illustrate this principle. Imagine an adult learner who has enrolled in a business management course. As they engage with the course material, they can draw upon their past work experiences, relating the theories and concepts taught in the course to real-life scenarios they have encountered.

By tapping into their professional background, the adult learner gains a deeper understanding of the subject matter. They can connect abstract theories with practical applications, bridging the gap between academic knowledge and real-world practice. This connection not only enhances their comprehension but also enables them to apply their learning in meaningful ways within their professional endeavors.

Moreover, the adult learner’s past experiences bring richness and diversity to classroom discussions and collaborative learning activities. They can share insights, examples, and perspectives based on their unique journey, enriching the overall learning experience for themselves and their peers. This interplay of personal experiences fosters a dynamic and interactive learning environment where learners can benefit from the collective wisdom of their fellow adults.

Recognizing the significance of experience as a learning resource, educators and instructional designers strive to create learning environments that facilitate the integration of learners’ prior knowledge and experiences. They design activities, discussions, and projects that encourage adult learners to reflect upon and draw connections between their past experiences and the new knowledge they acquire.

By harnessing the power of experiential learning, adult learners can make the learning process more engaging, relevant, and practical. The incorporation of personal experiences enables them to see the value and applicability of what they are learning, reinforcing their motivation and deepening their understanding.

If you’re interested in exploring more about the role of experience in adult learning, you may find this link to be a valuable resource. It provides further insights into the importance of experiential learning in adult education and how it can be effectively incorporated into instructional practices.

Relevance to Real Life

Adult learners are known for their pragmatic approach to learning, driven by a desire to acquire knowledge and skills that have immediate relevance and applicability in their lives (Merriam and Bierema, 2014). This inclination often leads them to prefer problem-centered learning experiences over content-centered ones.

To illustrate this principle, let’s consider a cooking class as an example. In such a setting, adult learners would find greater value in learning how to prepare a specific dish rather than focusing solely on the various cooking methods or the history of culinary arts. The practicality and immediate applicability of acquiring the skills to create a delicious meal resonate more strongly with their learning preferences.

By engaging in problem-centered learning, adult learners have the opportunity to acquire tangible, practical skills that can be immediately put into practice. In the cooking class scenario, they can learn the step-by-step process of preparing a dish, including ingredient selection, culinary techniques, and presentation. This hands-on approach allows them to gain proficiency in a specific skill set and empowers them to recreate the dish in their own kitchen.

Moreover, problem-centered learning experiences offer adult learners a chance to apply their existing knowledge and experiences to solve real-world challenges. By presenting them with authentic problems or scenarios, learners can draw upon their prior expertise, critical thinking abilities, and problem-solving skills to find practical solutions.

This problem-centered approach not only enhances the relevance and applicability of the learning materials but also promotes active engagement and motivation among adult learners. When they can see the direct connection between what they are learning and how it can be immediately applied in their daily lives or professional endeavors, their motivation to learn and succeed increases significantly.

To cater to the preferences of adult learners, educators and instructional designers strive to incorporate problem-centered learning experiences into their teaching methodologies. They create scenarios, case studies, and hands-on activities that simulate real-life challenges, enabling learners to actively engage, collaborate, and develop problem-solving skills within a practical context.

If you’re interested in delving deeper into the topic of problem-centered learning and its benefits for adult learners, you may find this link to be a valuable resource. It explores the advantages and strategies of problem-centered learning in adult education, shedding light on its effectiveness in promoting meaningful and practical learning outcomes.

Intrinsic Motivation

Adult learners are predominantly driven by intrinsic motivation when it comes to their pursuit of knowledge and skills (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation refers to the inner desire and personal satisfaction that adults derive from learning, as opposed to external factors such as rewards or societal pressure.

To illustrate this, let’s consider an adult who decides to learn how to play the piano. Their motivation stems from an internal drive to experience personal growth, fulfillment, and a sense of accomplishment. They embark on this learning journey simply because they find joy in mastering a new skill and derive satisfaction from the progress they make along the way. The intrinsic rewards of learning and achieving proficiency in playing the piano become the primary source of motivation for the adult learner, rather than any external recognition or tangible rewards.

This intrinsic motivation is grounded in the desire for self-improvement, self-fulfillment, and personal satisfaction. Adult learners are often motivated by the opportunity to expand their knowledge, develop new skills, and explore their passions. They appreciate the inherent value and enjoyment that learning brings, and this inner drive fuels their commitment and perseverance throughout their educational endeavors.

The focus on intrinsic motivation highlights the importance of creating learning environments that nurture individuals’ internal desires to learn and grow. Educators and instructional designers strive to design engaging and meaningful learning experiences that tap into learners’ interests, curiosity, and personal goals. By aligning the content, activities, and assessments with learners’ intrinsic motivations, educators can foster an environment that cultivates sustained interest and deep engagement.

If you would like to explore more about the role of intrinsic motivation in adult learning, you may find this link to be a valuable resource. It delves into the psychological aspects of intrinsic motivation and its impact on adult education, shedding light on how educators can leverage intrinsic motivation to facilitate effective and enjoyable learning experiences.


The principles of adult learning recognize the unique characteristics of adult learners and provide a foundation for creating effective adult education programs. These principles emphasize self-direction, experiential learning, relevance, and intrinsic motivation. By understanding these principles, we can create learning experiences that meet the needs of adult learners and facilitate their lifelong learning journey.

In the end, the goal of adult learning is to provide learners with skills and knowledge that are immediately applicable and relevant to their lives, that contribute to personal growth, and that respect their autonomy and experience.

Online Resources and References

  1. The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles: This article provides a detailed overview of Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy. It is a great starting point for understanding the basic principles of adult learning.
  2. Experiential Learning (Kolb): This page offers a detailed introduction to Kolb’s experiential learning theory, which forms the foundation for understanding how adults use their experiences in learning.
  3. Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being: This paper by Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci is a seminal work on the topic of intrinsic motivation, which is a key element in adult learning.
  4. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide: This book by Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Bierema is a comprehensive resource that covers various aspects of adult learning, including detailed discussions on the principles of adult learning.
  5. Andragogy: Adult Learning Theory (Knowles): This page provides an overview of Knowles’ theory of andragogy, along with applications and criticisms of the theory. This resource is helpful for those who want to delve deeper into the subject of adult learning.