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Adult Learning Theory

Lu Liu


Before 1970, the majority of adult educators adopted education models developed mainly for children or adolescents. In addition, children’s learning theories were used to guide adult learning for many years. After that time, educators realized that the education model that adults need is different from that of children (Knowles, 1980). As early as 1980, Knowles put forward and promoted the concept of andragogy, which is a theory suitable for helping adults learn, and compared and recorded the differences between it and theories of children’s learning. Andragogy states that for adults, education is a lifelong process of exploration and also a process of continuous improvement of independent exploration skills.

Research on the characteristics of adult learning has been mainly devoted to uncovering how adults learn and it summarizes the differences between adults and children into principles, models, and theories. In this respect, the Characteristics of Adults as Learners (CAL) model proposed by Cross (1981) integrates andragogy and other frameworks. The purpose of the model is to distinguish the differences between adult learners and child learners, highlight the characteristics of adult learners, and explain how adults learn.

Previous Studies

Research using adult learning theory (ALT) has focused most on professional development of medical personnel. For example, Green and Ellis (1997) conducted a 20-week management course with 34 doctors based on ALT. Their experiment used a pre-test and post-test design to analyze the effectiveness of the training. The results showed that medical residents increased their frequency of reading original articles and their evidence-based medicine (EBM) awareness and skills. Most important, they increased their praise for clinical research reports and their ability to re-diagnose individual patients. Overall, the effectiveness evaluation showed that the management course training, based on ALT, had a positive impact on EBM behavior and the skills of residents and it improved their management skills and management level.

The importance of ALT is also mentioned in other medical studies. Rutherford-Hemming (2012) pointed out that adult education in the field of medicine includes both medicine and nursing education, and simulation is the standard practice for many projects in adult nursing education. In addition, Halalau (2017) further discussed the importance of sufficient EBM knowledge and skills for residents and pointed out that acquiring these skills and knowledge requires a long-term learning process and constant exposure to EBM concepts. In this study, the researcher developed an EBM course based on ALT. Before and at the end of a year of EBM  training, the ability of all residents to apply EBM was assessed. The results showed that the EBM curriculum based on ALT successfully improved the satisfaction of in-patients with the concept of EBM.

To sum up, ALT aims to provide guidance for adult education. At present, little research is available to support the application of this model in the broader field of education; however, some studies have been conducted in higher education and distance education. The need for additional research is clear, as Ross-Gordon (2011) points out that the number of non-traditional adult learners (with full-time jobs, family members, and generally over 25 years old) is growing on the university campuses, and it now accounts for a large proportion of undergraduate students. According to the data, from 2000 to 2012, the enrollment of students over the age of 25 increased by 35%, and more and more adult learners are entering the university through online classroom learning (NECS, 2016). For these learners, ALT can not only be used as individual theoretical guidance; it can also be combined with other theories and work together in classrooms with adults. For example, Yarbrough (2018) suggests that theories by Watson (1930), Vygotsky (1978), Mezirow (1991), and Dirkx (2006) can be applied to standard online classrooms as “checklists” for course development, projects, or assignments that match adult learning theories.

 Model of Adult Learning Theory


In this model, aging, life phases, developmental stages, part-time learning, full-time learning, voluntary learning, and compulsory learning are concepts. They are the constituent elements of the two constructs of the ALT model.

More specifically, for aging, when people get older, some abilities lessen or are lost, such as eyesight, hearing, and reaction time, but intellectual abilities (such as decision-making skills, reasoning, and vocabulary) can gradually improve. For life phases, the common phases of life can be roughly divided into childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. These stage of life and development includes marriage, job change, retirement, and other factors that can influence learning. In addition, part-time learning versus full-time learning refers to the kind of education in which students study most of the time; it also refers to a learning system in which students choose a certain period of time to study independently. In voluntary learning versus compulsory learning, students choose to learn independently to improve their personal ability or are forced by a company or school to choose to learn to improve their personal ability. Overall, the idea is that, with individuals’ constant maturity, their self-concept will change from dependence to independence, and their learning purpose will gradually change from preparing knowledge for future work to applying knowledge directly. Adults’ accumulated experiences in life can provide rich resources for adult instruction, so lesson planning, learning objectives, contents, and instructional methods should be closely related to their social characters, knowledge, and experience.


There are two main model constructs: personal characteristics and situational features. Personal characteristics include aging, life phases, and developmental stages. Situational features include part-time / full-time learning and voluntary / compulsory learning.


The theory proposes that, when instructors consider the personal and situational variables of adult learning, they can create the most effective instruction for their adult learners.

Using the Model

This is an example of three adults who have analyzed the situation by using a model of ALT. These three adults are a nursing student, a new parent, and a middle-aged social worker about to take a course on child development.

Table 1

Example of Using the Model

Nursing student

New parent

Middle-aged social worker 





Life/developmental phases




Situational characteristics

full-time and compulsory

part-time and optional

part-time but required

Each of these individuals differs in age and life / developmental phases. They also differ in terms of situational characteristics. For the nursing student, the course is full-time and compulsory; for the parent, it is part-time and optional; for the social worker it is part-time but required.  According to the ALT model, a different learning program might be necessary for these three individuals to fit the differences in personal and situational characteristics.


There are many ways that adult educators can integrate ALT in the classroom. First, teachers should respect students, try to inspire their confidence, and trust in their self-control ability. Compared with teenagers, adult students can have strong independent personalities, self-awareness, and self-discipline, and they can use self-guidance in learning (Malone, 2014). Adult learners also may be more eager to be understood and respected by others, so adult educators should create the right learning environment and a sense of security in the process. Teachers should pay attention to the needs of students, be willing to adjust the teaching model, be approachable, and give full affirmation to the efforts and achievements of students. Since students are adults, teachers should focus on guiding learning rather than maintaining order and allow students to self-discipline.

In addition, the model suggests that teachers should guide learning based on learners’ previous knowledge and experience. Adults often use personal experience to guide their activities, so teachers must understand students’ knowledge, experience, and needs before teaching. In teaching, teachers can stimulate adult students to recall the knowledge they have learned before to promote the complimentary transfer of learning and avoid negative transfer.

Further, adult teaching should be done step by step, and feedback should be given to students promptly. Because adult students can have many outside social activities, their brains may tire more easily, resulting in forgetting quickly and making them underestimate their learning ability and producing anxiety. Therefore, in the teaching process, teachers can move activities from easy to difficult and from group activities to individual activities. The teacher should give timely feedback to the trainees continuously to know what progress has been made and what efforts need to be made.

Finally, teachers should arrange their time reasonably. Because of the students’ unstable class time, the teaching arrangement should be as reasonable as possible so that the course can start and finish on schedule. In selecting and arranging teaching content, instruction should pay more attention to the practical and make it closely related to work and life, which can help the student quickly understand and master the class content.


Maybe people lose some instincts and natures in the process of growing up, but our analytical ability can improve. We can use these unique characteristics of adults to help them learn more scientifically, systematically, and effectively.


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Green, M. L., & Ellis, P. J. (1997). Impact of an evidence-based medicine curriculum based on adult learning theory. Journal of General Internal Medicine12(12), 742-750.

Halalau, A. (2017). Application of Adult Learning Theory in teaching evidence based medicine to residents. Journal of Medical Education, 15(4), 185-193.

Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy.  Cambridge Adult Education.

Malone, S. (2014). Characteristics of adult learners. Training and Development, 41(6), 10-13.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. Jossey- Bass.

NCES. (2016). Table 311.15. Digest of Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_311.15.asp

Ross-Gordon, J.M. (Winter, 2011). Research on adult learners: Supporting the needs of a student population that is no longer nontraditional. Peer Review, 13(1), n.p. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/research-adult-learners-supporting-needs-student-population-no

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Yarbrough, J. R. (2018). Adapting adult learning theory to support innovative, advanced, online learning–WVMD Model. Research in Higher Education Journal, 35, 1-15.


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Adult Learning Theory by Joy Egbert and Mary Roe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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