Adult learning matures

Uncomfortable may it be, but the marketing industry might really provide the next best insight into adult learning theory.

If learning is reflected in changes in behaviour, it may serve us as learning professionals to more deeply understand the drivers behind adult behaviours. The industry that has studied this most is the marketing industry.

Are your adult learning assumptions valid?

“Wash you hands” may be the simplest of messages to teach but getting adults to actually take it on board can be the hardest thing. You may have to challenge your assumptions about the adult learner. This example shows success can be enhanced by understanding nuances within your learning group.  How you say it can be all important:

NurseCaringEvery time you hand hygiene it shows you care.
General Medical StaffAdherence to processhand hygiene appropriately, you know it's right.
Full time SpecialistProfessional knowledgeThe data shows indisputably hand washing prevents hospital-acquired infections.
CleanerAdhering to rulesYou know when to hand hygiene so just do it
Private PractitionersProtect reputationIf you don't hand hygiene people might think are worse of you, your reputation might suffer.
Intern / registrarBuild reputationRealise your potential, perform good hand hygiene.

This case study challenges us to look at our own adult learning assumptions. The following is a summary of current understanding adult learning theory – starting with adult learning myths.

Adult Learning Myths

What this exposes is the myth of “one size fits all” for learning design.  Similarly, as Harriman (2004) points out, other myths arise from generalisation:

  • Adult learning is inherently joyful
  • Adults are innately self-directed learners
  • Good educational practice always meets the needs articulated by learners themselves
  • There is a uniquely adult learning process as well as a uniquely adult form of practice.

Knowles’ Androgogy theory is less “Learning Theory” and more “Learning Guideline” of what the adult learner should be like (McGrath, 2009 p105).

What are theses ‘guidelines’?


Adult Learning Theories and Tools

Start with the assumption of the adult learner:

  1. The need to know – answering why they should learning something or how it will benefit them.
  2. The learner’s self-concept – responsibility for their own decisions.
  3. The role of the learner’s experiences – differences in quality and quantity of experiences necessitates the need for learning individualisation.
  4. Readiness to Learn – adults move from one developmental stage to the next, learning in order to cope with their daily adult life.
  5. Orientation to learning – adults are life/task/problem-centered to confront their life situations.
  6. Motivation to learn – adults are more responsive to intrinsic value and personal reward from learning such as self-esteem.

Knowles 2015, p43-44.

The key here is to understand, while useful, that Knowles’ Andragogy theory only addresses certain types of learning at certain times (St. Clair 2002). It’s very much individualistic view and ignores the fact that learning is a collective process that is influenced by the cultural and social the individual lives within (Yannacci et al 2006, p7).

Tools of Adult Learning

There are many tools associated with various facets of learners, learning, learning design and learning development.  The tools help us understand our own assumptions when creating learning experiences:

  • What learners need – for learning and from learning
  • How learning happens – constructivism, cognitive, connectivism
  • Who learners are – as individuals, as a group, and as a society in a particular context and experience
  • How learners learn – processes for acquiring learning and how to optimise it
  • How learning is measured – evaluating efficacy of the process

These been pulled together in a cohesive, comprehensive framework such as Dialogue Education. The following is a brief look at some ideas underpinning adult learning theories:

Starting with the learning challenge to move from the unknown to the known. The Johari Window can neatly describe the learning challenge and the typical relationship between teacher and learner.


Bloom’s Taxonomy is a learning tool used to design educational learning objectives.  It aids structuring curriculum learning objectives, assessments and activities and covers the learning objectives in cognitive, affective and sensory domains:


(Taylor & Hamdy 2013, p.e1565)

A more detailed version:


An alternative more inclusive of modern digital technologies for:


(Carrington, 2013)


Miller’s pyramid reflects a hierarchy of competence assessment. Higher levels “Action” focuses on what occurs in practice rather than what happens in an artificial testing situation and are typically In-practice, work based assessment :


(Taylor & Hamdy 2013, p.e1565)

The lower levels of assessment, such as multiple choice questions and simulation. This is an unproved but logical assumption of assessing actual practice is superior to assessing abstracted versions of performance and/or knowledge (Norcini, 2003).

Dialogue Education

Dialogue Education is a highly structured approach to adult education developed by Dr Jane Vella, drawing upon adult learning theories.  Philosophically, it holds teachers accountable to the learner and vice versa.  Vella (2008) provides a view of an adult’s learning task requirements:

  1. Inductive work—a learning task that connects learners with what they already know.
  2. Input—a learning task which invites learners to examine new concepts, skills, etc.
  3. Implementation—a learning task that gets learners to experiment with their new content.
  4. Integration—a learning task which fully integrates this new learning into their lives.

What works?

In terms of evidence to prove / disprove adult learning theories, Yannacci et al (2006, p10) the empirical research simply lacking. However, in a pragmatic response, the Association for Medical Education in Europe asked teachers to collect and promote “best evidence medical education”, keeping only those techniques that worked:

  • Fact based teaching and cramming only reinforced short-term knowledge.
  • Learning and application environments should be as similar as possible.
  • Exercises in application of knowledge should be repeated
  • Less can be more; 2:3 ratio of learning to self study is optimum.
  • Problem based learning leads to more accessible knowledge.

Similarly Harriman (2004) identifies adults learn best when:

  • Their prior learning is appreciated and/or rewarded
  • The subject matter is relevant to their needs (professional or other)
  • Full of partial opportunity for self direction is provided
  • They can employ critical reflection
  • Mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn
  • The instruction provides opportunity for interaction
  • Dialog is part of the learning
  • Practical/hand-on experience is part of the learning

Satisfying the needs of adult learners rather than the needs of learning programs require practical techniques.  Yannacci et al (2006, p10) that found that compared to other approaches, the following worked best in the medical teaching:

  • Interactive sessions – role playing, discussion groups, and experiential exercises that focus on problem solving.
  • Outreach visits / detailing – face-to-face education of learners by trained professionals on process and procedures
  • Audit and feedback – peer review of professional practice and the provision of feedback
  • Opinion leaders – influential
  • Patient mediated –
  • Social marketing – identify and anticipate the barriers to change in behaviour. (Remember: wash your hands!)

More generally, Wallace (2000) identified the following adult learning techniques as better satisfying the adult learner’s needs:


  • Talk to some of the learners as part of your needs assessment.
  • Involve the learners in the choice of instructional techniques.
  • Use alternative delivery via internal networks, The Web and other technology to give learners a choice of time and place.
  • Vary the instructional techniques so that a diversity of learning styles are satisfied.
  • Keep the time agenda flexible to allow for related “detour” discussions.


  • Select examples and demonstrations that are familiar to the learners.
  • Integrate the new knowledge with what the learners already know.

Training Preparation

  • Arrange for a location that is pleasant, comfortable and without interruptions.
  • Provide a means for learners to contact the instructor(s) before the instruction to ask questions and share their concerns.
  • Identify the instructional technology to be used in the program brochure.
  • Organise seating to promote interaction rather than authoritarian schoolroom style.

Training Delivery

  • Start the learning event with an ice breaker in order for group bonding to occur.
  • Build trust between the instructors and learners so no one is afraid to ask “dumb” questions.
  • Help create a learning community for collaborative learning.
  • Allow for practice of new knowledge and skills in a “safe” environment.
  • Arrange for feedback on the learner’s progress.


  • Support post-instruction performance with guides, checklists and charts.

Dialogue Education – a structured approach

Dialogue Education provides a more detailed and structured approach to adult learning design.  Vella (2008, p2) pulls many adult learning theories and ideas together in “On Teaching and Learning” in cohesive approach:

1. Learning needs and resources assessment (LNRA) To discover the present knowledge and skills with the subject, and their needs and hopes for learning.

2. The seven design steps:

  1. Who – are the learners, the educators, other participants?
  2. Why – the situation that calls for the learning, especially in terms of why the learners want to be there.
  3. When – will the learning take place (timing & total length of time available)?
  4. Where – will learning take place (location, set up, etc.)?
  5. What – specific Content (Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes) will be covered to address the Why?
  6. What for – Describes the Achievement-Based Objectives (ABOs) for each element of Content
  7. How – the Process (learning tasks) through which learners interact with the What to meet each ABO (What For).

By answering these questions in detail and ensuring congruence throughout, a strong, accountable design can be prepared.

3. Learning tasks (How?) – using active verbs that engage the learner and ensure both individual and group proficiency in knowledge, skills and attitudes:

  • Inductive – work connecting with the life of the learner
  • Input – new content: knowledge, skills, attitudes
  • Implementation – work using the new content
  • Integration – projecting use of the new learning at home.

4. The principles and practices at every level:

  • Learning needs and resources assessment – Learners need to participate in the planning of what will be learned. Conducting an LNRA, allows the educator to begin to model the dialogue with learners that will continue during the educational event. Additionally the design may be enhanced because it is informed by the themes of learners and an understanding of what is meaningful to them.
  • Safety – Learners must feel safe in order to engage with other learners, teachers and the content. Challenge is still necessary for learning to take place, but with the promise of support, reinforcement and being provided with all of the tools (skills, knowledge and abilities) necessary to do the task, learners can feel prepared to undertake this challenge.
  • Sound Relationships – This involves respect and interest in the views of all involved in the learning process and is established on an individual basis. It is based on the soundness of the person who is in the position of teacher.
  • Sequence and Reinforcement – Sequencing activities help to ensure learner safety and success in task completion by building from small to large, simple to complex, single to many and familiar to unfamiliar. When learners repeatedly interact with the content in diverse and engaging ways, learning is reinforced.
  • Praxis – action/reflection/action: Learners must have opportunities to act upon content and then reflect on their actions in order to draw conclusions and then to have further opportunities to act again.
  • Respect – Seen through the effort that is put into the learning endeavor by all participants. The teacher in the preparation and structuring of the learning process and the learners in the engagement and effort exhibited back.
  • Ideas, Feelings, Actions – In order for significant learning to occur, ideas (cognition), feelings (affection) and actions (psychomotor) all need to be involved in learning activities.
  • Relevance and Immediacy – Content needs to be immediately applicable, useful and meaningful (relevant) to the context of the learner in order for learning to occur.
  • Clear Roles – Learners must see the equality between teacher and learners and among learners. This can be supported by teachers through the demonstration of listening intently, showing interest in the learners and expressing humility.
  • Teamwork and Small groups – The use of small group work is a central practice in Dialogue education because it creates a safe environment for learners to find their voice, reflects life situations of teamwork and allows for peer mentoring which can enhance learning.
  • Engagement – Learners are engaged with making theory on any subject and educators must use cognitive, affective and psychomotor activities to engage learners in this process. When learners are engaged they are committed to the learning process.
  • Accountability – Teachers must be accountable to learners through their learning design and facilitation and learners must be accountable to the teacher, each other and themselves through their actions.

5.Evaluation Indicators

  • Learning – Is “the end of it all. Learning is what occurs during the event, and achievement-based objectives are designed to ensure this” (Vella, 2007, 217).
  • Transfer – Is use of the newly learned material “in a new context, after the learning event. Indicators of transfer are behavioral evidence that cognitive, affective, or psychomotor (kinesthetic) learning has taken place” (219).
  • Impact – Is “the difference or change that occurs in a person or an organization as a function of a learning event or a series of learning events” (216).

(Vella 2008, p.2) and (“Dialogue education“, n.d.)


Androgogy as a distinct theory of adult learning is not supported by the clinical neatness of numerical evidence. However, the theories, ideas, guideline and frameworks have evolved over time in a pragmatic way to support adult learning. Evidence is slowly emerging on what works and what doesn’t. Insights can come from anywhere – even the marketing industry. Knowing our assumptions, it helps us to question them, making our learning design frameworks more robust, breakdown learning myths and ultimately a better learning experience.


Bloom’s taxonomy. (2016, May 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 06:14, June 13, 2016, from

Dialogue education. (2016, May 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:05, June 13, 2016, from

Harriman, G 2004, Adult Learning,, Retrieved 13/6/2016 from

Knowles, Holton E and Swanson R 2015, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, Rutledge, Oxon.

McGrath, V 2009, Reviewing the Evidence on How Adult Students Learn: An Examination of Knowles’ Model of Androgogy, The Irish Journal Of Adult And Community, Retrieved 12/6/16 from

Norcini, J 2003, Work Based Assessment, PubMed Central, Retrieved 13/6/2016 from

St. Clair R 2002, Andragogy Revisited: Theory for the 21st Century?, ERIC, Retrieved 12/6/2016 from

Taylor DC and Hamdy H 2013, Adult learning theories: Implications for learning and teaching in medical education: AMEE Guide No. 83. Retrieved 12/6/2016 from

Vella, J 2008, On Teaching and Learning, Jossey-Bass.

Wallace, M 2000, Guide on the Side – Adult Learning and Continuing Education Courses, Law and tech,, Retrieved 13/6/2016.

Yannacci, J, Roberts, K, and Ganju V 2006, Principles from Adult Learning Theory, Evidence-Based Teaching, and Visual Marketing: What are the Implications for Toolkit Development?, Centre for Mental Health Quality and Accountability.

   Credit: Petras Gagilas
    Source: License: CC SA 2.0.

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