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Adult Learning Principles (LLG2)

Adult Learning Principles (LLG2)

Adult Learning Principles – ODL 600 Adult Learning Theory

Saint Joseph’s University

Author’s Note

Work Group LLG 2 - Jacqueline Hall, Matthew Sturgis, Tim Spady, Sara Stesis, Trisha Nash, and Jennifer Silverberg, Department of Organizational Development and Leadership, Saint Joseph’s University. Correspondence concerning this paper should be addressed to Jennifer Silverberg. Email:

There is a saying that goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. This phrase insinuates that it may be difficult or impossible for an adult to learn new skills or change habits. However,research over the years has revealed that you can, indeed, “teach an old dog new tricks”.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, more than one-third of college students are over age 25.  Another relevant trend to note is the impact of technology on adult learning. Public Higher Education Institutions reported that 72.7% of undergraduate learners attend courses online (Allen & Seaman, 2016). It is clear that an increasing number of adults are seeking new learning opportunities.

So then the question is posed, what underlying principles must be present in adult learning experiences to effectively “teach an old dog new tricks” in this digital age? There are many different thoughts on how adults learn. The most well-known is Malcolm Knowles’ theory of Andragogy. Our investigation has revealed five common themes for successful adult learning experiences:  

It must possess a growth mindset
Content presented must be relevant to the adult’s personal and/or professional life
It must consider the past experience of the learner
It must incorporate active application, and
It must create an appropriate learning environment

Discussed in further detail, these learning principles create the ideal learning experience for adults in the digital age.

Growth Mindset

The first of these principles, mindset, is a theory that seeks to explain differences in the way that people see themselves as learners and respond to opportunities to learn.  The concept of mindset is credited to Dr. Carol Dweck, (2010, 2015) who presents two types of mindsets: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. Dweck (2015) argues that a growth mindset is founded on the belief that “intelligence” and “intellectual abilities” can be developed or increased through dedication and hard work (p.1). Alternatively, in a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, such as their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits (Dweck, 2010). They believe that talent alone creates success without effort.

According to Heath (2010), individuals with a growth mindset tend to take more risks and stretch themselves in the face of new learning opportunities. They also tend to accept more challenges despite the risk of failure. A growth mindset approach helps individuals thrive on challenges and setbacks (Dweck, 2015). Individuals with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges, feel threatened by feedback, and avoid the experiences of failure often associated with learning something new. They do not like the type of failure that is necessary when trying or learning something (Heath, 2010). 

 Adopting a growth mindset can be transformative for adult learners, particularly for those who went through much of their youth with a fixed mindset. Adopting a growth mindset is ideal for adult learners because it allows them to see failure as an inevitable aspect of the learning process. Instead of feeling threatened or fearing failure, adults who have a growth mindset will understand that abilities, like muscles, can be built with practice and are more likely to be open to learning new and more complex subjects.


Like adopting a growth mindset, demonstrating the relevancy of a topic is critical to learning success. The concept of relevancy in adult learning is best described as the degree to which a learner will be able to apply learning to a present or future situation. The concept of relevancy takes root in Knowles’ (1980) assumption on andragogy, that adult learners are problem- centered, preferring to focus on the immediacy of application rather than its future potential application. Therefore, it is important for an educator to establish topics that are relevant to the learners early in the learning experience, in order to create a productive learning environment.

Central to the issue of relevancy is a learner’s motivation. Knowles’ theory rests upon the assumption that the learner is ready and willing to learn about a topic. However, this may not apply in a situation where a learner is compelled to participate in learning by an external source, such as his/her employer. In these situations, the learner may see “…little or no relevance to what they are doing in the workplace, will feel that what is being discussed in class is not going to help them perform better in the workplace. Therefore these students often attend courses with little or no motivation” (McGrath, 2009). By demonstrating the relevance of the topic, the instructor is far more likely to get and hold the attention of the audience.

Introducing the relevance of a topic also helps students focus and apply previous experience towards the topic being discussed. “by making connections to an existing broad-based knowledge schema, older students are more likely to integrate new learning with various life roles in a more multidimensional way…” (Bye, Pushkar, and Conway, 2007). The relevance of the topic to the learner ultimately dictates how engaged they will be with the material from a cognitive, as well as, a motivational standpoint.

Past Experience

The key to engaging learners through relevancy is connecting with their prior experience. Due to longer lifespans and the abundance and ease of accessibility of information, there are more adult learners in the marketplace than ever before (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). As such, facilitators and educators have to learn to accommodate the differences in adult learners to ensure that their students are receiving a stellar learning experience. Adult learners bring life and job experience with them into the classroom. Malcom Knowles said, “as people grow and develop they accumulate an increasing reservoir of experience that becomes an increasingly rich resource for learning-for themselves and for others” (Knowles, 1970, p. 44).

It behooves educators to both acknowledge that their students come with a wealth of experience and should facilitate this within the learning experience by encouraging the adult learners to wrestle with the material within the context of their own and others’ experiences. Modalities such as reflection, case studies, and simulations help learners unpack their ideas in a way that forces them to bring their experience and come away with real world application as a result (Knowles, 1970).

This utilization of experiences can be a valuable tool for the learner to continue their education and push further.  David Kolb expresses this in his Learning Cycle, which shifts the learner from a Concrete Experience through the process of Reflective Observation, to Abstract Conceptualization, and then to Active Experimentation (Kolb, 2015). This articulation of adult learning acknowledges that a learner can begin with their personal experience but then use a process of thinking and consideration to evaluate the experience and put it into context. As a result, the learner has new ideas; and therefore should try something in order to put those new concepts into practice (Kolb, 2015). Taking a learner through this process is just one example of how an educator could incorporate the understanding that an adult learner brings from previous experiences in order to help them advance and help the learner self-direct their own learning.

Active Application

Active application or experimentation is a principle in the learning process that must be present in order for prolonged retention of information, processes, and procedures. The learner primarily participates in active experimentation through practice of a skill (application), or self-reflection, but there are infinite ways for learners to be active in the classroom.

One straightforward example of the need for active experimentation in learning would be the process of learning how to drive a car. One can study the laws of driving, the different components of the car such as the wheel, breaks, and gas pedal, and the physical gestures necessary to make the car stop and go, but without the learner physically driving the car, (applying what was learned), the theory learned is meaningless and most likely will not be retained.

Another useful example of why active experimentation is a key learning principle that positively affects retention in learning is self-reflection. An example of self-reflection could occur when learners are asked to answer specific open-ended questions. A study conducted by Stewart, Myers, and Culley, (2010), observed students who wrote answers in class to “microthemes—short in-class writing assignments designed to facilitate active learning” (Stewart, Myers, & Culley 2010, p. 46). After receiving feedback from the instructors on what they wrote, the learners were more likely to retain the information and score higher on tests regarding the subject matter compared to students who were not given the microthemes writing assignments in class. The structure of the questions presented in the microtheme pushed the learners to self-reflect by evaluating their past life experiences in relation to the subject matter.

Learning Environment

For centuries, the learning environment was seen as the physical space in which learning occurred; typically in a classroom setting where an educator stood in front of the classroom lecturing.  As we have come to better understand how individuals learn and have experienced great advancements in technology, we see that the learning environment has totally changed.

The core of the learning environment are the learning goals. The learning goals set the foundation for what change in behavior will occur as a result of the learning experience. Many of the early learning classifications frame the learning goals as central to the learning environment (deKock, 2004).  Whether the learning is formal or informal, there is always a reason for participating in a learning experience (Merriam, 2007).

The learning environment consists of many factors that influence the learning process, including the people involved. The people that comprise the learning environment are the teacher, the learner, and classmates (deKock, 2004). While the roles of the teacher and the learner have remained relatively fixed, technology has empowered learners with new resources that are redefining the teacher-learner roles (Wagner, 2009).  Learners are taking a more self-directed approach causing the teacher to act as more of a facilitator, who guides learners and encourages self-reflection (Simons et al., 2000).

The teacher’s method of instruction is another element that makes up the learning environment (deKock, 2004).  No longer confined to the four walls of a classroom, the space in which we learn has shifted from a physical location to an online format.  More institutions are offering online classes or a hybrid blend mixing in-person and online classes to meet the need of the learners (Wagner, 2009). This has changed the method of instruction normally used to deliver learning experiences.

The learning environment is also comprised of the teacher’s method of instruction and tasks to be performed by the students (deKock, 2004). As the digital age has progressed, many adult learning authorities have reconsidered how learning experiences are created (Wagner, 2009). Teachers have taken a more laissez-faire approach to learning, allowing for more project-based work that encourages self-discovery and reflection (Davidson, 2011). 

While not all of these characteristics need to be present in all learning experiences, it is important to be aware of the traits of adult learners. For anyone seeking to create an experience that will appeal to adult learners, these key principles should be taken into consideration. Should these principles be incorporated in a learning experience, educators will find increased motivation, engagement, and retention of information among adult learners.


Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2016) Online Report Card: Tracking Online Learning in the United States. Retrieved from:

Bye, D., Pushkar, D., & Conway, M. (2007). Motivation, Interest, and Positive Affect in Traditional and Non-Traditional Undergraduate Students. Adult Education Quarterly, 57(2), 141-158.

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.

de Kock, A., Sleegers, P., & Marinus J. M., V. (2004). New Learning and the Classification of Learning Environments in Secondary Education. Review of Educational Research, (2). 141.

Dweck, C. (2015, September 22). Carol Dweck Revisits the 'Growth Mindset'. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. (2010). What is Mindset? Retrieved from

Heath, Chip, & Heath, Dan. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Knowles, M. S. (1970). The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Cambridge Adult Education.

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. New York, NY: Cambridge, The Adult Education.

Kolb, D. A. (2015). Experiential Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

McGrath, V. (n.d.). ERIC - Reviewing the Evidence on How Adult Students Learn: An Examination of Knowles' Model of Andragogy. Adult Learner: The Irish Journal of Adult and Community Education, 2009. Retrieved February 19, 2016, from

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

Simons, R. J., Van der Linden, J., & Duffy, T. (Eds.). (2000). New learning. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Stewart, T. L., Myers, A. C., & Culley, M. R. (2010). Enhanced Learning and Retention through "Writing to Learn" in the Psychology Classroom. Teaching Of Psychology, 37(1), 46-49.

Wagner T. & Dobbin, G. (2009) Learning Environments: Where Space, Technology, and Culture Converge. Retrieved from

Appendix A

A Brief Breakdown of Each Team Member’s Personally Held Learning Principles

Jacqueline Hall - In addition to the learning principles included in the paper, I believe that learning experiences must be reinforced beyond the learning event. As discussed, adults enter into learning with experiences and habits. In many instances, the learning experience is designed to change behavior towards a more desirable action. These behaviors will not be changed simply due to one learning experience; the change must be reinforced over time for change to occur permanently. 

Matthew Sturgis - For me, relevancy is the learning concept held most closely. Demonstrating relevance is a way of engaging interest and demonstrating value. Relevance does not always have to be practical in the sense that the knowledge must apply directly to an occupation or daily responsibility. Relevance can be an appeal to the interest or emotion of the learner. For example, people seldom engage in new hobbies, learn details about their favorite movie characters, or enjoy visits to historical sites because there is practical value. Introducing relevancy, aside from its other practical functions, is a sales pitch to the learners. It shows how new knowledge will make life better. Even if the purpose of that learning is more personal than practical.

Tim Spady - The learning principle that I personally hold is that adults bring a wealth of life experiences to the table that should be utilized. Whether it be from work, family, previous schooling or just living life day to day, adults have accumulated a number skills and information from their lives that can be applied to their learning. I think that teachers should draw upon adults' previous experiences to connect to what they're being taught. Also, I believe if instructors can connect adults' experiences to what they are learning, it may make the learning a bit more meaningful and personal. 

Sara Stesis – If I were to offer an individual point of view, I would say that adult learning needs to be engaging. In addition to being relevant and incorporating active experimentation, I believe the learning itself and the modalities utilized must be interactive in some way which allows the student to grapple with the concepts. I think it also helps when the facilitator is engaging. They must be authentic, but how does he or she captivate the learner? With humor? With knowledge? With graphics? Whatever way he or she keeps the space, learning is most effective when it is engaging. 

Trisha Nash – My personally held key learning principle is self-direction. As a “textbook” example of an adult learner myself, I truly value a learning experience that allows me to choose when to engage in my learning. Due to work and lifestyle, my time is too limited to engage in a traditional “brick and mortar” experience. I have found that the technological advancements, devices and platforms allow me to learn at times convenient to me without sacrificing quality. Self-direction allows me to weave the learning into my life giving me opportunity to participate when it might otherwise, be impossible.

Jennifer Silverberg - I believe that the principal of incorporating different teaching methods to match many different learning styles should be present in the classroom, whether it is online or formal. For me, this is my number one learning principal because many times I have felt displaced and not welcomed in a learning environment because it was designed to only match one type of learning style.  If there is only one teaching method being used in a classroom, such as lecture, this will not help the individuals who have a difficult time retaining information when presented in this manner. The teaching methods in the classroom should be structured around a few different learning styles so everyone in the class is given the opportunity to learn at the same pace.



1 comment

Informative information. Teaching adult learners can be tricky, but as pointed out very clearly in this report, mind set and relevancy are important components for adults to learn. I enjoyed the reading and structure of the information. This made it easy to follow.