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Adult Learning Principles - Amanda Benincasa

Adult Learning Principles to Survive and Succeed in the Digital Age

Amanda R. Benincasa

Saint Joseph’s University

             As society continues to evolve and change, adult learners and teachers are called to adapt effortlessly to the world.  To succeed is to address the endless possibilities and opportunities that the world has to offer, one of the focal advantages being communication/interconnections and the ability to develop and nurture relationships in the digital age.  As Davidson suggests, the internet and web are metaphors for the world we live in and whether we like it or not we are all inextricably interwoven (Davidson, 2011).  Adult learning principles serve as a foundation to guide individuals to survive and succeed in this interconnected world.   The key adult learning principles are: relatability and/or personal connection to learning, trust and collaboration, a willingness to explore and authenticity.

             In comparison with younger learners, adult learners tend to bring greater experience to learning.  There is no such thing as a blank learning slate.  Individuals are often influenced and directly assisted by their past life experiences and learnings, including formal, informal and experiential (Boshier, 2006).  The learning slate is home to all of these experiences and is a bountiful resource to tap into when needed.  All people have an innate ability to learn, but having a personal connection or being able to relate to the experience, book, lecture, whatever it may be is key to adult learning.  When there is a personal connection to learning, there is sense of great investment. Adult learners, as discussed in class, are choosing to pursue in education.  This voluntary choice to continue/invest in education, whether it is formal or informal, sets an adult learner up for success.  

              Relatability and/or a personal connection to learning are key principles because they break down barriers that adult learners face today.  Through class discussion in the ODL program, it can be determined that time is one of the biggest challenges.  Most adults work full-time or have a family or both.  It is difficult to manage all of these responsibilities and also be motivated to learn and succeed.  When learners relate to their course content or feel personally invested in their education, it can make juggling all of these tasks a little easier.  Relating to course content and being able to share new learnings with our colleagues, our families, and the world is the bigger picture that makes sacrificing time (and money!) worth it. 

            Collaboration is another key principle. Digital tools and technology make collaborating with others more convenient and certainly instantaneous.  What really makes collaborating with others possible?  What is at the heart of this principle?  The answer to these questions is trust.  It would be very difficult to work in LLG’s and discuss personal experiences without developing a certain level of trust.  Without it, we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open.  The willingness to expose ideas, values and beliefs facilitates conversation and makes collaboration authentic and real.  This is how we challenge those with whom we work, study, and live amongst. 

            The digital age and learning online may make the process of trusting and collaborating with others more difficult.  There was still a lack of trust in the most recent skype session, and as a result, class collaboration suffered.  Learning in the digital age requires a deeper sense of trust than traditional learning because of the virtual environment.  We cannot pick up on the social cues and body language that are present in a traditional classroom.  There is nothing tangible and this is what makes adult learners feel more vulnerable. 

          Recent findings in a study on trust suggest that group members transported issues around academic ability, gender, unresolved conflict with others and diversity to assess whether they could trust that the group was sufficiently safe enough to share aspects about themselves (Smith, 2011).  All of these fears caused the individuals in the study to hold back from the collaborative process.  The study highlighted that the participants did not think they could trust the group based primarily on past trust issues that manifest themselves during current group work.  Knowing this, and building off of the adult learning principles, these potential fears need and should be discussed at the beginning of any collaborative process.  Discussing these issues with the group can eliminate the likelihood of operating on the fears which cause defensive behavior and psychological withdrawal. 

          Exploration, whether it is self-exploration or a willingness to be exploratory in a group, is a key principle to survive and succeed in the digital age.  This is not an easy task and many times requires shifting preconceived notions.  It also means that individuals need to be courageous and bold enough to go against the grain.  Davidson’s vignette about the i-Pod experiment is a perfect example of how exploration and ambition can transform the classroom, people’s assumptions and learning in the digital age.  By spearheading the i-Pod experiment at Duke, Davidson proved a great lesson.  It is okay to break our patterns and try something new.  “The i-Pod experiment was not an investment in technology.  It was an investment in a new form of attention, one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed” (Davidson, 2011, p. 69).  The adaptation of the i-Pod heightened creativity, developed students in their ability to explore and create apps and showed the conservative, higher education world the beauty of exploration.  This is a key principle in adult learning and is a great challenge for all individuals who want to create something. 

          Integrating exploration in the classroom promotes success in this era.  This can be done by advocating the use of academic apps and bringing them to the forefront of the “classroom.”  Also, this can be done by allowing learners to choose what it is they want to focus on.  Let’s go back to the personal connection piece that was discussed previously.  If a teacher or a learner can establish a creative environment that harnesses relatability and personal connections to content, there is a greater chance that individuals will be willing to share their experiences, which consequently means that he/she will be able to collaborate and demonstrate a certain level of trust to do so - hopefully.  All of these principles are interconnected, just as we are in this interwoven world. 

          The last principle is authenticity.  This is a personal principle that can be utilized in all aspects of life, and in learning as well.  It encompass many of the characteristics that have already been discussed so far - trust, vulnerability, and exploration.  The me vs. them, the teacher vs. student mentality, and importance based on the hierarchy of educational degrees are just some of the notions that can hinder the learning environment.  An authentic person recognizes that all people bring something unique to the world. 

          When the collective “we” are real, or authentic, we stray away from the me vs. them and come together to relish in the beauty of our differences and experiences.  This is how “real” learning takes place.  One sentence from Learning in Adulthood resonates strongly; “learning does not occur in a vacuum” (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007, p. 25).  This could never be truer.  In the digital world, individuals are challenged to utilize technological tools and the unending wealth of information that is consistently at our fingertips.  The traditional “vacuum style” classroom has given way to a changing virtual environment, which sometimes makes it difficult to be authentic because everything can be cropped and filtered.  When thinking of key adult learning principles, always consider that authentic individuals understand the deeper meaning and motivation for learning.  This allows students to engage deeply with subject matter and to relate to real-world situations.  This is what neutralizes learners.  After all, we are all in this together.

          This paper discusses various adult learning principles that can help individuals succeed.  Most of the key principles are applicable to all realms of learning, especially learning in the digital age.  Relatability and/or a personal connection to learning, trust and collaboration, a willingness to explore, and authenticity can help support a learner’s journey to success.















Boshier, P. (2006). Perspectives of Quality in Adult Learning. London: Continuum.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive  Guide

Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, Cathy N. Davidson, Penguin Books, New York, NY. 2012.

Smith, Regina. (2011). Trust in Online Collaborative Groups: A Constructivist Psychodynamic View.




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