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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 way. 

    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





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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