5 Theories of Adult Learning

The Five Theories of Adult Learning

Adult Learning

Adult learning theories don’t consist of theory jargon, but are tools for instructional designers and facilitators to design course content. To design a successful learning environment, instructors should know why learners learn. Motivated people learn because they want to. An answer to the question, “What’s in it for me?” is a compelling internal motivation. Here are some key theories of adult learning. And how can you use them to create engaging learning experiences?


A recent study examined learner-centeredness in adult learning from the perspective of instructors and learners. The authors of this study, Sarah McCombs and John Whistler, examined how adult learners define and use learner-centeredness. They found that many participants identified with the concept of learner-centeredness, which includes equity and inclusion. Although the study results are mixed, the authors conclude that learner-centeredness is more effective than traditional teaching practices.

Research shows that adult learners are motivated to learn by the purpose of their education and seek motivation from career advancement, personal growth, and remuneration. Learning activities should be designed to connect learning with personal and professional goals, so that participants are motivated to complete them. When possible, teachers should ask groups of learners to take a short survey before the tutorial begins to determine their knowledge gaps and make suggestions for activities. They should use the results to frame the rest of the tutorial.


Self-directedness in adult learning is an important characteristic of adults. It may be hard for self-directed learners to take initiative when surrounded by teacher-directed activities. Moreover, not all adults are self-directed; those who have been taught by teachers for years might not be able to display it. To promote self-directedness in adult learners, educators should structure learning environments in such a way that they foster self-direction. According to Brookfield, encouraging self-direction in adults makes them proactive and self-motivated.

However, some researchers have questioned the validity of this claim. For one, self-directed learners do not necessarily show a high level of independence. Instead, they exhibit behaviors that differ from those of those in middle-class backgrounds. In addition, they rarely mention the factors that are typical of adult learning. Moreover, the study findings suggest that educators need to learn more about self-direction in order to develop effective adult-learning environments.


Using reflective observation is an important part of adult learning. Participants must be provided the time and space to consider their experiences and ideas. Several methods can be used to promote reflection, including demonstrations, scenario-driven activities, and case studies. Educators should select materials that encourage critical thinking and abstract conceptualization. Here are some ideas:

Asking questions to explore new subjects and assessing their impact on the learner are two common strategies. Reflection helps learners examine what they’ve learned and how they can improve it for the next time. In addition, training programs should offer many ways for learners to engage with information, allow them to set their own pace, and provide opportunities for feedback. Adult learners are more motivated when they can visualize the benefits of completing a training course.

Active recall

Active recall is a form of testing where a learner is asked to remember information that was taught in class without the help of notes, books, or cues. This type of exam is especially helpful when studying anatomy for a specific test, since the learner has no time to look up information. Practicing retrieval practice and active recall can increase long-term retention by 50 percent. Learners can also use active recall in other learning activities, such as completing flaschard quizzes.

When used properly, active memory can help us recall information that was previously learned. Active recall is effective for learning trajectories and definitions, as well as the different pathways of blood in the body. This form of memory is better than reading text or staring at a screen, as it allows us to understand material more deeply and make inferences. Here are some examples of how active recall works:

Project-based learning

The basic principles of adult learning through project-based education are practical, relevant, and problem-based. Participants must also have opportunities to reflect on their learning. Anson Green, author of the Principles of Project-Based Learning (PBL) in Education, describes the principles at the core of the program. Trust and adaptation of materials are essential for effective learning. The program also emphasizes the role of teacher practice in professional learning.

Adult learning through project-based learning is closely related to participatory education and Freirean philosophy. Both emphasize empowerment of disenfranchised learners and encourage critical reflection and collective action. The philosophy of adult learning through project-based learning owes its popularity in part to the widespread use of community-based education in the community. The basic principles of adult learning through project-based learning are described below: