Adult Development & Learning

Learning Objectives

  • [1]Compare and contrast the principles of major theories of learning and cognition and how they relate to adult learners.
  • [2]Explain the development of cognitive processes throughout adulthood.

Key Takeaways

  • Students will gain a general understanding of the various developmental theories
  • Students will use this understanding to define their own thoughts on development

The 4 Adult Development Theories

  • The Behavioral / Mechanistic Approach
    • Instruction created to prompt a certain behavior
    • Behavior in response to stimuli (positive reinforcement)
    • Teachers provide opportunity for practice and give grades, prizes, or praise for reinforcement

  • The Psychological / Cognitive Approach
    • Focuses on an individual’s “internal developmental processes” [1]
    • Learning is based on life experiences, so development is different for each individual
    • Gould’s Stage/Phase model – Gould identifies four false assumptions that must be overcome in order to move through life:
      • Age 16 – 22:   “I will always live and believe in my parents world”
      • Age 22 – 28:  “Doing things my parents’ way will bring results and if it becomes to difficult my parents will step in and show me the way”
      • Age 28 – 34:  “Life is simple and controllable”
      • Age 34 – 45:  “There is no evil or death in the world. The sinister has been destroyed” [2]
    • Instruction should encourage thoughtful reflection & discussion, and students should be receptive to new ideas and be open to learning through others’ perspectives

Click here to review Perry’s Developmental Scheme 

Erikson’s Psycho-Social Development model

For more information on Erikson’s theory read chapter 8 in Educational Learning Theories

Levinson’s Age-Graded Model

For more information on Levinson’s model click here.

Piaget’s Stages of Development Model

For more information on Piaget’s model read chapter 2 in Educational Learning Theories

  • The Contextual / Sociocultural Approach
    • Learning is influenced by society and culture
    • Sociocultural development can be affected by race, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and norms within society
    • Educators need to encourage cultural awareness and respect in the classroom

Vygotsky’s Social Cultural Learning

For more information on Vygotsky’s theory read chapter 4 in Educational Learning Theories

  • Integrated Approach
    • Holistic approach to teaching and learning
    • Encompasses social, cultural, life experience

  1. Baumgartner, Lisa M. (2007). Four Adult Development Theories and Their Implications for Practice
  2. Baumgartner, Lisa M. (2007). Four Adult Development Theories and Their Implications for Practice


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Teaching and Learning in Adulthood by Tracy Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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