ADULT LEARNING THEORIES                               Home Mining Consultant


So far, the theories we have briefly reviewed were primarily developed with experiments on animals or studies on child development and learning. Some scholars emphatically argued that adult learning had its own dynamics. Knowles’ theory of andragogy is an attempt to develop a theory specifically for adult learning. Knowles emphasizes that adults are self directed and expect to take responsibility for decisions. Adult learning programmes must accommodate this fundamental aspect.

Andragogy makes the following assumptions about the design of learning

1.      Adult need to know why they need to learn something

2.      Adults need to learn experientially

3.      Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and

4.      Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

In practical terms, andragogy means that instruction for adults needs to focus more on the process and less on the content being taught. Strategies such as case studies, role-playing, simulations, and self-evaluation are most useful. Instructors adopt a role of facilitator or resource rather than lecturer or grader.

Andragogy applies to any form of adult learning and has been used extensively in the design of organizational training programmes. The main principles of andragogy are as follows:

1.      Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.

2.      Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for activities.

3.      Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.

4.      Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.

Knows (1984, Appendix D) provides an example of applying andragogy principles to the design of personal computer training:

1.      There is a need to explain why specific things are being taught (e.g., certain commands, functions, operations, etc)

2.      Instruction should be task-oriented instead of memorization – learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed.

3.      Instruction should take into account the wide range of different backgrounds of learners; learning materials and activities should allow for different levels / types of previous experience with computers.

4.      Since adults are self-directed, instruction should allow learners to discover things for themselves, providing guidance and help when mistakes are made.

Building on Knowles’ andragogy, Cross (1981) proposed the Characteristics of Adult as Learners (CAL) model in the context of her analysis of lifelong learning programmes. The model consists of two classes of variables: personal characteristics and situational characteristics. Personal characteristics including aging, life phases, and development stages. These three dimensions have different characteristics for lifelong learning: Aging results in the deterioration of certain sensory motor abilities (e.g., eyesight, hearing, reaction time), while intelligence abilities (e.g., decision making skill, reasoning vocabulary) tend to improve. Life phases and development stages 9e.g., marriage, job changes, and retirement) involve a series of plateaus and transitions that may or may not be directly related to age. Learning can be part-time or full time, and this will affect the administration of learning (i.e., schedules, locations, procedures). Learning being voluntary or compulsory pertains to the self-directed, problem-centered nature of most adult learning 

The following are the main principles of CAL.

1.      Adult learning programmes should capitalize on the experience of participants.

2.      Adult learning programmes should adapt to the aging limitations of the participants.

3.      Adult should be challenged to move to incresingly advanced stages of persons development.

4.      Adults should have as much choice as possible in the availability and organization of learning programmes.


Modeling Theory: The social learning theory of Bandura emphsises the importance of  observing and modeling the behaviours, attitudes, and emotional reactions of ohers. Bandurea (1977) states: “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours ae performed, and on later ocasions this coded information serves as a guide for action”. Social learning theory explains human behaviour in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between congnitive, behavioural, and environmental influences. The component processes underlying observational learning are: 

1.      Attention, including modeled events (distinctiveness, affective valence, complexity, prevalence, functional value) and observer characteristics (sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement).

2.      Retention, including symbolic coding, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, motor rehearsal)

3.      Motor Reproduction, including physical capabilities, self observation of reproduction, accuracy of feedback, and

4.      Motivation, including external, vicarious and self reinforcement.

Because it encompasses attention, memory and motivation, social learning theory spans both cognitive and behavioral frameworks. Bandrura’s theory improves upon the strictly behavioral interpretation of modeling. The principles of Bandura’s theory can be summarized as follows:

1.      Organizing and rehearsing the modeled behaviour symbolically, and then enacting it overtly helps to achieve the highest level of observational learning. Coding modeled behaviour into word labels or images results in better retention than simple observing.

2.      Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value.

3.      Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behaviour if the model is similar to the observer and has admired status and the behaviour has functional value.


THE MOST COMMON (AND PERVASIVE) examples of social learning situations are television commercials. Commercials suggest that drinking a certain beverage or using a particular hair shapoo will make us popular and win the admiration of attractive people. Depending upon the component processes involved (such as attention or motivation), we may model the behaviour shown in the commercial and buy the product being advertised.

Theory of social Cognition:

Vygotsky (1978) propose the social cognition learning model, that culture is the prime determinnant of individual development. Culture (including the culture of the family environment) affects a child’s learning development.

Culture makes two sorts of contributions to a child’s intellectual development. First, through culture children acquire much of the content of their thinking, that is, their knowledge. Second, the surrounding culture provides a child with the porcesses or means of their thinking, what Vygotastins call the tools of intellectual adaptation. In short, according to the social cognition learning model, culture teaches children both what so think and how to think.

Since children learn much through interaction, curricula should be designed to emphasize interaction between learners and learning tasks. With appropriate adult help, children can often perform tasks that they are incapable of completing on their own. With this in mind, scaffolding – where the adult continually adjusts the level of his or her help in response to the child’s level of performance – is an effective form of teaching. Scaffolding not only produces immediate results, but also instills the skills necessary for independent problem solving in the future.

The principles of social cognition theory are as follows:


1.      Cognitive development results from a dialectical processs wheby a child learning through problem-solving experiences shared with someone else, usually a parent or teacher but sometimes a sibling or peer.

2.      Initially, the person interacting with child assumes most of the responsibility for guiding the problem solving, but gradually this responsibility transfers to the child.

3.      Languae is a primary form of interaction through which adults transmit to the child the rich body of knowledge that exists in the culture.

4.      As learning progresses, the child’s own language comes to serve as her primary tool of intellectual adaptation. Eventually, children can use internal language to direct their own behaviour.

5.      Internalization refers to the process of learning – and thereby internalizing – a rich body of knowledge and tools of thought that first exist outside the child. This happens primarily through language.

6.      A difference exists between what child can do on her own and what the child do with help. Vygotskians call this difference the zone of proximal development.

7.      Since much of what a child learns comes form the culture around her and much of the child’s problem solving is mediated through an adults help, it is wrong to focus on a child in isolation. Such focus does not reveal the processes by which children acquire new skills.

8.      Interactions with surrounding culture and social agents, such as parents and more competent peers, contribute significantly to a child’s intellectual development.


Action Learning Theory: The theoretical framework of action learning (Revans, 1980) has been widely applied to management education. Action learning involves structured projects in organization rather then traditional classroom instruction. The key elements of action learning are commitment to learning, social interaction, action plans, and assessing the results of actions.


Carl Roger’s (1969) theory of learning evolved as part of the humanistic education movement Rogers distinguished two types of learning: cognitive (meaningless) and experimental (significant). The former corresponds to academic knowledge such as learning vocabulary or multiplication tables and the latter refers to applied knowledge such as learning about engines in order to repair a car. The key to the distinction is that experiential learning address the needs and wants of the learner. Rogers lists these qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and pervasive effects on leaner. Rogers lists these qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and pervasive effects on learner.

To Rogers, experiential learning is equivalent to personal chage and growth. Rogers feels that all human beings have a natural propensity to learn; the role of the teacher is to facilitate such learning. This includes 

1.      Setting a positive climate for learning,

2.      Clarifying the purposes of the leaners

3.      Organizing and making available learning resources,

4.      Balancing intellectual and emotional components of learning, and

5.      Sharing feelings and thoughts with learners but not dominating.

According to Rogers, learning is facilitated when:

1.      The student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction,

2.      It is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems, and

3.      Self-evaluation is the principle method of assessing progress or success. Rogers also emphasizes the importance of learning to learn and an openness to change.

The following are the principles of Roger’s theory :

1.      Ssignificant learning takes palce when the subject matter is relevant to the personal interests of the student.

2.      Learning which is threatning to the self ( e.g., new attitude of perspectives) is more easily assimilated when external threats are of a minium

3.      Learning proceeds faster when the threat to the self is low

4.      Self-initiated learning is the most lasting and pervasive.

Double-loop theory: Argyris (1977) has proposed double learning theory, which pertains to learning to change underlying values and assumptions. The focus to the theory is on solving problems that are complex and ill-structured ad which change as problem solving advances. 

Double loop theory is based upon a “thoery of action” perspective outlined by Argyris & Schon (1978). This perspective examines reality from the point of view of human binge as actors. Changes in values, behaviour, leadership, and helping others, are all part of, and informed by, the actors’ theory of action. An important aspect of the theory is the distinction between individuals; exposed theory and their “theory-in-use” (What they actually do); bringing these two into congruence is a primary concern of double loop learning. Interaction with others is necessary in this regard.

There are four basic steps in the “action theory” learning process:

1.      Discovery of espoused and theory-in-use.

2.      Invention of new meanings.

3.      Production of new actions, and

4.      Generalization of results.

In double loop learning, assumptions underlying current views are questioned and hypotheses about behaviour tested publicly. The end result of double loop learning should be increased effectiveness in decision-making and better acceptance of failures and mistakes.

According to it, effective problem solving about interpersonal or techinical issues requires frequent public testing of theories-in-use, and double loop learning requires learning situations in which participants can examine and experiment with their theories of action 

Here are two examples from Argyris: A teacher who believes that she has a class of “stupid” students will communicate expectations such that the children behave stupidly. She conform her theory by asking them questions and eliciting stupid answers or puts hem in situations where they behave stupidly. The theory-in-use is self-fulfilling. Similarly, a manager who believes his subordinates are passive, dependent and require authoritarian guidance rewards dependent and submissive behaviour. He tests his eliciting dependent outcomes. In order to break this congruency, the teacher or manger would need to engage in open loop learning in which they deliberately disconfirm their theory-in-use.

Cyclie TheoryKolb (1976) proposed the cycle of experiential learning of adults. The cycle has four parts (Exhibit 1), on following the other, in order:

Experiencing ( a learner has some concrete experience, or is helped to have experience during the training programme)

Processing (reflecting on and analyzing the experience individually and in group)

Generalizing (abstract conceptualization based on the experience, and forming a tentative theory or a way to explain the data).

Applying (active experimentation; trying the new behaviour, or using it in the day-to-day work). Then it is followed by a new experience, and the cycle continues.

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