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Adult Learning Theories_LLG4

Adult Learning Theories_LLG4

Adult Learning Theories  

By: Colleen Dawson

Saint Joseph’s University

Introduction.  Adult learning theory is a consistently changing model in today’s society.  Adults from all over the world, are learning new things from different jobs, experiences, and technologies.  A new mother has to learn and adapt her skills to take care of a newborn baby.  Changing a diaper, feeding the baby, getting the baby on a schedule, are just a few examples that show that life is a constant on-going, ever-changing, learning experience.  In this day and age, many adults are going back to school to pursue their master’s degree, doctorate, or PhD because of the job qualifications and expectations. With this forever changing model, there is a lot of different learning that occurs when adults go back to pursue a higher education.  Many challenges that adult learners could face are: changes in technology, being able to afford school, relevant information to the current field, time constraints, and motivation. The adult learning theories explored below are motivation, relevant information and life experiences, technology and the digital age, and environment in which they are learned.  These theories have shaped each and everyone one of us in a unique way that creates the unique world that we live in.  If every person has the same motivation, environments and experiences, the world would be stagnant.   Fortunately, with the technology and the digital age constantly adapting, we are able to learn about things we never thought would be possible. 

Motivation.  Adult’s in today’s day in age are more motivated than ever to succeed.  The job market is tight and many people are qualified but not everyone can get the job they want.  As a former college athlete, motivation is what drives me to be successful in everything I do.  When I was in college, we were motivated to be the best team in the country.  When we fell short, we were disappointed and even more motivated for the following year.  Sports teach you from a very young age, that if you are not motivated, you will not succeed. The reason I pursued a higher education is because I am motivated to become a successful coach, then hopefully move on to be an athletic director.  In my current job, as a lacrosse coach, the motivation to win is something that drives me to be successful.  Being successful means, getting the best recruits, making the best game plans, having the proper recovery, eating meals to fuel the teams’ bodies, and so on.  There is not one key factor that if you say, if you do this, you will be successful.  Success comes from the motivation within each individual, whether it’s on the field or in the classroom.  Most adults are motivated to be successful in the workplace because it is based on making an income to support their lifestyle and their family.  In many cases, the motivation for adults is for the professional advancements, improving job status, or moving to a better job (Merriam, Cafferella, & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 640).  

 As we look into different communities around the globe, Vaughn discusses an area with high levels of poverty and unemployment and a low level of education (p. 277).  The research done in this community has shown that an educator will base the motivation of what to teach based off of their past experiences.  Vaughn explains, when the educator has a personal connection with friends and family members being killed because of their political affiliation in a community in South Africa it effects how that person will educate the community (p. 281).  Vaughn explains, when Cosmo, the educator, teaches, he tries to incorporate a curriculum promoting freedom in political views (Vaughn, 2016, p. 281).  The motivation behind Cosmo, becoming an educator is because of his own family history of him feeling abandoned by his father because of certain women’s rights and political views that his family experienced when he was growing up. 

The expectations that adults face in today’s society, motivate them to pursue a higher education.  Whether it be for a promotion, for a new job, or beneficial reasons at their current job, the motivation is higher than ever for adults to learn new ideas and have many different experiences to be the best candidate for the job.  Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) acknowledge that adults are busy, spending at least eight hours at work and an equal eight hours at home tending to family and household needs (p. 61).  It is also noted, that barriers do exist when it comes to adult learning, for example, as technology rapidly advances, the older population has a hard time keeping up with the younger generation.  Therefore, lowering the motivation of older adults to further their education.  Unfortunately, older individuals are also receiving far less training in the workplace than younger workers, which is one of the reasons age can be deterrent in pursing adult learning opportunities. Eaton and Salari’s (2005) research shows that older adults in a nursing home did not want to learn how to use the computers because they were not interested and scared for reasons like fraud (p. 468).  My grandmother, who is 86, would certainly agree.  She writes checks for everything she buys because she is scared of someone stealing her credit card information if she puts it into the “machine” as she calls it.  As adult learners, the motivation to succeed usually outweighs the negatives that the technology barrier creates for some adult learners.  

Relevance and Life Experiences.  Adult learning is an on-going process whether it’s through education or life experiences. The information that adults learn is highly based on the relevancy of information they care about.  Many adult learners want to learn information that is relevant to their current workplace, field of interest, or life experience.  As we age, the relevancy of information changes. When you are a child, for example, you may be closely connected to a movie that you love.  When I was younger, I loved The Little Mermaid.  At that point in my life, I wanted everything to be Ariel themed such as my birthday party, my sheets, and my clothes.  Now, that I am older, The Little Mermaid is not as relevant as it once was.  In this ODL program, I want to take courses that are relevant to my current job and things I am interested in.  Courses that interest me as a coach are leadership and team development, psychology of coaching, coaching and mentoring, and leading teams. As an assistant lacrosse coach, I would like to know how to better run my team, how to get the most out of my players, and how to be a mentor to them.  Choosing my course load for my master’s degree is making me consider relevant topics that I will enjoy, understand, and be able to put into immediate use.

 Different life experiences can shape the adult learner one becomes for many different reasons.  When I lived in Australia for a year, it opened my eyes to a whole new lifestyle and mindset.  It changed my original career path because I wanted to be able to travel and experience new places as much as possible.  When I graduated from college, I planned on taking physics and chemistry at a local university, moving to Australia for six months, applying for physical therapy school and attending in the fall when I returned.  I graduated in May 2011 from the University of Maryland, moved to Australia December 2011, and six months later, June 2012, I decided I was not ready to leave.  I loved the lifestyle, the friends I had made, the city, my job, and just everything about the whole experience.  I did not return until December 2012, a whole year later, without applying to physical therapy (PT) school.  When I was there, I realized I did not want to be in debt for many years after PT school had ended. Everything that has been relevant to me since I was a junior in high school changed just from being in Australia for under six months.  When I left, I had a much better sense of self and a better outlook on life and it shaped me into the person I am today.

 Technology and the Digital Age.  Almost halfway around the world, live some of my closest friends, many I would consider a second family.  It was not an easy decision to leave the United States and move to a foreign place that I had never been.  The hardest part was leaving my family and one-year old nephew.  This is where I realized how much technology had an influence on my life.  Skype was the reason I was able to stay in Australia for such a long time, the ability to call and physically see my parents, siblings, and nephew made the distance bearable.  After teaching my parents how to use skype, I would call every morning just to say hi.  Whether I was running out the door to work, having to skype from my phone on the train, missing a dinner with friends on Friday’s so I could watch my nephew take his first steps and say my name for the first time was a large part of the reason I was able to live in Australia for so long.  How did people ever survive moving to a different country without the advances of the digital age?  

The digital age has changed everything; from the way we learn to the way we communicate on a daily basis.  Davidson discusses many things about the digital age in her book, “Now You See It”.  The book touches on many different topics such as seeing ourselves as others see us, how our schools and workplaces are organized, global consciousness and digital divides, and learning, unlearning, and relearning to name a few.  In most first world countries, we have technology and different ways of learning at our fingertips.  Google is one click away, where we can access information about anything from all over the world.  A friend is a text away, which is sent in seconds across the globe.  The rapidly changing digital age allows for the world to learn like never before, although there are still many places in the world that do not have the world wide web access, like we are lucky to have.  Fortunately, many countries now have more and more access to computers, videoconferences, online modules, and different ways to learn through technology and advances in the digital age. This allows us to close the digital divide in many places of the world, gives us a better understanding of each other’s culture and provides an opportunity for people to get an education no matter where they are from. 

Environment.  Furthermore, with the continuous development of technology, the digital age allows people from all over the world to learn in many different environments.  From online classes, modules, to podcasts, the environment for learning is developing and changing every day.  As a lacrosse coach, the environment in which I teach and coach greatly effects how the student-athletes react and learn.  The environment can be effected by many different things, the weather, one on one versus team setting, the size of team, and the amount of repetition each individual gets.  When it comes to a classroom setting, different environments can change how a student learns in online versus an in class setting, group meetings and projects, class size, teacher, and where you sit in the classroom.  A video I saw allowed for students to sit in desks that move.  Which allowed for the students to be more active and create an overall better learning environment.  The one size fits all model is becoming a thing of the past because each individual learner, regardless of age, has a unique style to best fit their needs.

Another form of environment is the virtual world.  Davidson explains that we need to see ourselves as others see us, and the virtual world allows us to do so.  In Davidson’s book, she looks into Chuck Hamilton’s work, a virtual learning strategy leader.  He uses a virtual world, called Second Life, to ensure an environment that is relaxing, friendly and happy (p. 248).  In second life, we are able to see a perspective of ourselves from which the world views you in real life.  A person, such as an executive, is able to make themselves an “avatar” and they can design the avatar to look how ever they would like.  It creates a safe space for an executive to view themselves in a different light and how they interact with others without actually seeing themselves.  Technology and advances in the digital age create successful adult learners because of the different learning styles, access to different information from the world wide web, and the knowledge we gain from a constantly changing programs that steer our brains in directions we did not know were possible.  

Conclusion.  In the early twentieth century, adult learning was vastly different in comparison to today.  Mainly because of technology, which has changed the digital age significantly.  With the advances to the digital age, we are given resources to make an impact locally and globally.  In 2016, it is old news that there was a man to walk on the moon versus 1969 where people were in awe of this.  Now, we have been able to explore outer space like never before because of the advances in technology.  Educators are able to provide classes to students all over the country and world just using the internet, which is something we have never been able to do.

Therefore, as the digital age advances so does the opportunities for adult learners. Adults have to be motivated to be successful and be cognizant of the ever-changing digital age.  The information adult learners are expected to know, is higher than ever which makes the job market as competitive as ever.  The relevancy of information adults learn is very important because if we as adults are interested in a certain topic, we will be more likely to succeed in that area. As Cathy Davidson states “there is tension between the old and the new, a tension that exposes us to our own patterns of attention, patterns that are usually hidden behind closed eyelids” (281).  This tension will never go away because of the constantly changing digital age, but adults in today’s society are luckier than ever to have such great information with the click of a button. Adult learning is hands on, creating different and changing environments, making us the smartest, most dependable generation yet. 





Chaffin, A., & Harlow, S. (2005). Cognitive learning applied to older adult learners and technology. Educational Gerontology, 31(4), 301-329.

Davidson, C. (2011). Now you see it: how technology and brain science will transform                                                                                                       schools and business for the 21st century. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Eaton, J., & Salari, S. (2005). Environments for lifelong learning in senior centers. Educational Gerontology, 31(6), 461-480.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Vaughn, J. (2016). Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator’s story. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 56 (2), 268-288


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