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How to Apply the Adult Learning Theory to Learn Faster

Written by Leon Ho
Founder & CEO of Lifehack
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Each day provides us with an opportunity to learn. However, as we grow and transition from a child to an adult, our ability to grasp things and absorb concepts goes through a radical shift. This is because we, as adults, get inspired by our previous experiences, surroundings, company, and other factors, which in turn, play an important role in the entire adult learning process.

In this article, you will learn about the Adult Learning Theory, and how you can apply it to learn faster.

What Is Adult Learning Theory?

Adult Learning Theory is a field of research that studies various reasons behind the differences between the way adults and kids learn. It suggests ways through which adult learning could be made more effective.

According to the US Department of Education, there are various adult learning theories in the research literature, including:[1]


Andragogy is a theory related to educating adult learners. This theory was developed by educator Malcolm Knowles in the 1950s.

It is based on five assumptions and four principles of adult learning that work in harmony to promote self-directed learning.


The five assumptions include:

  • Self-concept
  • Adult learner experience
  • Readiness to learn
  • Orientation to learning
  • Motivation to learn

And the four principles of Andragogy are:

  • Adults should take part in the planning and evaluation of their learning instructions.
  • Experience serves as the foundation of learning.
  • Adults are inclined towards learning subjects that have an immediate impact on their job and career.
  • Adult learning is not content-centered, but problem-centered.

The Adult Learning Theory - Andragogy principles

    This theory emphasizes the importance of adults’ experiences[2]. These experiences will serve as the foundation for future learning experiences. The theory also focuses on the importance of problem-centered learning, which is relevant to the adult learners as much of their work often involves problem solving.

    Transformational Learning

    Developed by socialist and professor, Jack Mezirow, Transformational Learning is a theory that focuses on the meaning of the learning experiences.[3] The theory consists of 10 steps, and each step reflects on the experiences of an adult learner at various levels:

    1. Experiencing a disorienting dilemma
    2. Undergoing self-examination
    3. Critically assessing assumptions
    4. Recognizing a connection between one’s discontent and the process of transformation
    5. Exploring options for new roles, relationships, and actions
    6. Planning a course of action
    7. Acquiring knowledge or skills for implementing one’s plans
    8. Trying new roles on a provisional basis
    9. Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
    10. Integrating the changes into one’s life

    Experiential Learning

    Experiential learning theory was developed by David Kolb. It focuses on learning through reflection and experience. This theory states that adults can learn through their experiences without needing a teacher.

    How Do Adults and Children Learn Differently?

    Adults learn differently when compared to children. There are various factors that play an important role in adult learning, including:

    Adults Get Inspired From Their Wealth of Experience

    We, as adults, have seen the world and find internal motivation though that life experience. We have a network of friends, relatives, colleagues, neighbors, and each of these individuals leave an impact on the learning experience of adults. As a result, we are able to relate our learning to our past experiences.

    Adults Need Better Opportunities to Self-Reflect on Their Learning

    When compared to children who behave socially in classroom settings, adults are not as vocal about their learning experience. Therefore, we need to seek better learning opportunities so that we can interact, self-reflect, and retain the information.

    Adults Are Not Good at Taking Directions Without Knowing the Motive

    Teaching children is easy, as they tend to follow instructions and learn things related to their distant future without questioning why.

    However, this is not the case with adults. We won’t retain the information provided until and unless we find it suitable and relevant to our end-goals.

    Adults Have a Predetermined Idea About Learning Styles

    Although children are open to exploring new styles of learning, adults have stringent requirements. As adults, we prefer learning in a certain way irrespective of how conducive it might be for our needs.

    To overcome our learning behavior and retain the information learned, it is necessary to try varied learning styles and analyze what works best for ourselves.


    Adults Are Sensitive Toward Failures

    Most of the time, adults are not receptive to failures, and this restricts them more. Unlike children, they are not willing to experiment due to social filters.

    To stay interested in the learning process, try to build the information on small pieces and gradually support it with extra learning.

    Adult Learning Habits Are Inspired by Their Immediate Relevance

    Children engage in education with the sole motive of learning things, and the implementation comes after. A fifth-grader who has not decided their career path won’t know that their biology lessons will play an important role in his career as a doctor.

    On the other hand, adults have a defined career path, and more often than not, our learning is inspired by its immediate, real world impact on our career, daily life, and so on.

    How to Benefit from the Adult Learning Theory to Learn Effectively

    As is evident, the ways in which adults learn is entirely different from the ways in which children learn. However, you can leverage your needs to connect with experience to learn effectively and effortlessly. Here is how you can do that:

    1. Make the Best Use of Technology

    Adults like learning on their own. Thus, making the right use of technology could be your best bet here. Choose to learn in a format that is easy to navigate, doesn’t provide redundant information, and encourages you to learn more.

    YouTube, for instance, keeps you hooked for hours, as it allows you to browse various topics and provides you with relevant suggestions based on your likings. This keeps your interest alive.


    2. Choose Visual-Based Learning

    A study conducted by UC Santa Barbara revealed that adding complementary visuals to text provides an 89 percent advantage of learning outcomes.[4] This works particularly well when you have limited information on the topic and are learning it from scratch.

    However, striking the right balance is the key here. Too many visuals can prove to be overwhelming and might also hamper your learning experience.

    3. Use Audio

    If you have encountered a complex issue and are finding it tough to learn and grasp its concepts, making use of audio descriptions can help.

    Audio clips explain the concept better, help in segregating the two related topics, and are also convenient in highlighting important points.


    4. Get Actively Involved in the Learning

    Although theoretical exercises can be interesting, adults learn best when they are involved in the learning.

    Instead of simply memorizing facts and figures, you can learn effectively by getting involved in role-playing activities. Look for opportunities where you can implement your learning. This will help you in bridging the gap between the theoretical and practical concepts.

    Practicing and doing practical experiments not only helps you in learning better, but it also helps you in retaining your knowledge.

    5. Exercise a Bit of Ownership

    What makes adult learning significantly different to the way kids absorb information is the fact that kids like to follow the instructions provided. However, this is not the case with adults, who like to exercise a bit of control over their educational experience.

    This is perhaps why you will feel more comfortable while learning from online courses, as they allow you to learn at your own pace and in the comfort of your home.

    6. Make Use of Supplementary Materials

    It is essential to judge your requirements well. While some people might find learning by listening highly effective, there are others who like to take notes and review the written material afterward.

    Our learning needs vary greatly based on our personal preferences and learning habits, and this must be taken into account.


    Final Thoughts

    Although all the factors that we mentioned above might not be applicable to everyone, it will not be wrong to say that a large spectrum of people encounters similar experiences when it comes to adult learning.

    To make your learning experience all the more pleasurable and unforgettable, understand your requirements, analyze what works for you and what doesn’t, and take the right steps!

    More Tips on Learning

    Featured photo credit: Avel Chuklanov via unsplash.com


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