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Adult Learning Theories: A Tale of Two Courses

Evidence of Adult Learning Theories via Shared Virtual Learning Experience

Written by: Theresa Leahy, Sherisse Peterson and Candice Avila


For this team project, we were tasked with attending and evaluating two online training

programs with the purpose of furthering our understanding of adult learning theories. In this essay we

will discuss our approach to the assignment, a description of each module, and reasons for choosing

the modules. We will include our individual learning styles and how they impacted the ways each of

us experienced the modules. In addition to sharing our learning experience as a group, we will

discuss the adult learning theories we discovered within these experiences.  

The first of the modules chosen was a creative writing course through Coursera titled Creative

Writing: The Craft Plot - Plotting the Course.  The second course we virtually attended was offered

through MOOC, “Massive Open Online Courses,” and it pertained to health and nutrition specific to

food safety. The name of this course was WageningenX: NUTR103x Nutrition and Health: Food

Risks.  Each virtual course was approximately an hour long, and we were able to attend our own

pace since they were pre-recorded.  Each course was part of a larger program, where, upon

completion, students could opt to receive a certificate.  The creative writing course consisted of one

main instructor, who invited a guest speaker to talk about the creative writing process, while the other

course was offered through a university and had multiple instructors involved throughout the course.

 The instructors for both courses used English to communicate, although it was clear that the

instructors for the food safety course spoke English as a second language and included a transcript

of their lecture, which scrolled on the right side of the screen while they were speaking.  

Group Learning Participants

As a group, LLG4 decided to use a broad approach to this assignment with the intention of

stretching past business-related topics and into subjects that sparked our personal interests. Our

group is made up of three women from varying professional backgrounds including management, art,

and human services. Of the three, there are two of us who have a concrete learning styles, and one

who has a balanced learning style.  These learning styles complimented each other very well during

the assignment and the impact of our learning styles on the learning experiences, as previously

stated, will be discussed shortly.  

MOOC: NUTR103x Nutrition and Health: Food Risks

The nutritional segment was made up of a variety of short videos. At the end of each module

there were quick review tests, which provided a second medium for learning. The overall instructional

design was a combination of information sharing via knowledge clips, animations, interviews,

quizzes, and course transcripts for review.  In one video in particular, the instructor incorporated

interviews with consumers about their thoughts on food risks. Although the material focuses on

microbiology and toxicology, the material is designed for all levels of adult learners.

Coursera:  Creative Writing: The Craft Plot

This module provides instruction on what story structure is and how understanding structure can

assist creative writers in making the most of their plots. The instructor uses classic, well-known works

of literature such as Harry Potter, to provide the learner with a basis for learning sequence of events

and plot. There are no additional learning tools incorporated in this module other than peer-reviewed

writing assignments. The basis for this system is to create a collaborated learning experience, in

which the participant’s writing abilities are strengthened via sharing and receiving feedback.

Evidence of Adult Learning Theories

Learning is described as a process that encompasses cognitive, emotional, and environmental

influences. (Merriam, et al., 2007, p.277). When it comes to a topic such as nutrition, we think the

emotional and environmental aspects are heightened because food is rich in culture, brings us

together, comforts us, and sustains our livelihood. With that being said, nutritional information should

not be introduced in a frightening way, but rather in an intriguing/informative way. When first hearing

words like “toxicological risks” and “biological safety hazards,” it is easy to assume that the material is

likely to be some sort of public service announcement telling listeners to throw away everything in

their refrigerators. Instead, the entire purpose of this MOOC course is a message simply to be

mindful and informed about food as we go through our day-to-day lives. This approach relates to two

adult learning theories: constructivism and humanism. According to Merriam, Caffarella and

Baumgartner (2007), constructivism argues that “Becoming knowledgeable involves acquiring the

symbolic meaning structures appropriate to one’s society…” (p.293) (as cited in Candy, 1991, p.

275). Food itself is a social entity, especially for adults, and nutritional education is dependent upon

pre-existing socially constructed beliefs about food. There is also evidence of humanism orientation

in the nutritional module, which relates to studies of human behavior (Merriam, et al., 2007, p.283).

One of the greatest powers of human behaviors is that of choice, and humanism argues that human

choice aids or inhibits one’s ability to reach their full potential. In the instructional modules on food

safety, the learner is faced with new information that is only beneficial dependent upon choice. The

key to food safety is to make informed decisions about food intake, and realize that through

knowledge and human choice, we have the innate ability to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

In contrast to informed decision-making, the second course is all about developing a craft. It can

be noted that creative writing is an art, in which skills must build upon one another. Learning such

skills requires cognition from the learner and the ability to process layers of information (Merriam, et

al., 2007, p.284). This works almost as if teaching a recipe; one must give the learner all the tools

and ingredients to eventually develop the larger picture. For this reason, the plot-writing course aligns

perfectly with the cognitive learning theory, particularly cognitive orientation. When it comes to

cognitive information processing, prior knowledge adds great value to the learning experience. In this

Coursera course, the instructor relied heavily on examples from the well-known Harry Potter series in

an effort to aid the learner by bringing together new information with prior knowledge. This

methodology works quite well, assuming that most individuals are familiar with Harry Potter.

Course Effectiveness and The Impact of Personal Learning Styles

In both online modules, the information was clear, concise, and effective. The nutritional module

was designed for the average learner, because all terminology was introduced as if the participant

knew nothing on the subject. The creative writing course, on the other hand, was taught with the

assumption that participants were already writers, simply looking to enhance their writing abilities. It

was also assumed that participants were already familiar with the Harry Potter series, as the series

served as the basis for a great portion of the lectures. When working with adult learners, it is

important to consider all levels of the audience, and the nutritional video did a stellar job with that.

Nonetheless, both courses were equally intriguing and educational. The learning environments were

both virtual, but the speakers were all well spoken, and the backgrounds were not distracting in any

In terms of learner engagement, each of the group members had different takeaways dependent

upon our individual learning styles. One group member had a balanced learning style, and was easily

able to adapt to the different training modules. The other two group members had concrete

experience learning styles, and were not as flexible when it came to learning preference. The

concrete experience learning style works best when participants are able to actively engage in

hands-on training. There was more opportunity to do so through quizzes and other material provided

in the nutritional module, whereas the creative writing module was less engaging.


Although some of the modules catered to group members in different ways, it was agreed upon

that the shared learning experience was a positive one. We also felt that the shared learning

experience itself contributed to the collaborative component of our learning styles which enhanced

the learning. The experiences of the online courses showed that various adult learning theories can

be applied based on the intended outcome of the course and what may work for some learners does

not work for all. The courses that provided a more varied approach to engagement with the multiple

mediums, different videos styles and different instructors seemed to reach multiple learning styles

and reinforced the idea of creating a course with aspects for all learners.

Candy, P. C. (1991). Self-direction for lifelong learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A
Comprehensive Guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass


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