Traditional Adult Learning Theory & Models

Learning Objectives

  • [1]Compare and contrast the principles of major theories of learning and cognition and how they relate to adult learners.
  • [3]Provide a rationale for instructional strategies based on specific cognitive and/or learning principles.

Key Takeaways

  • Biographies and background information on key contributors to adult learning
  • Traditional adult learning theories and their key components and applications


Malcolm Knowles & Adult Learning Theory

Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997)

  • Born August 24, 1913  – Died November 27, 1997
  • Credential – Ph.D.
  • Alma mater –  University of Chicago
  • Last Occupation – Associate Professor of Adult Education at University of Arkansas

Andragogy is the close cousin of pedagogy. Pedagogy refers to teaching as a whole and andragogy, a term coined by Malcolm Knowles, is the practice of teaching adult learners. Below is the Wikipedia breakdown of the two words.

Greek Word Meaning Theory/Practice
agogos “leader of”
pedo- “children” pedagogy
andr- “man” andragogy

It makes sense to equate adult learning and teaching with the learning and teaching of children. Adults learn in a few different ways: problem-centered, relevance and impact on their own life, involvement, and using their own experience. The difference is evident. Children, who do not have much of their own experience rely on teacher’s experience to enhance their learning.

Knowles made four assumptions (and added a fifth later) of the characteristics of adult learners which differ from assumptions that can be made about child learners.

  1. Self-concept – as adults, learning takes place in a more personal way and, with maturity, can be done best in a self-directed way.
  2. Adult learner experience – plays an enormous role in adult learning. Adults harbor an immense amount of experience that they can connect learning to- for themselves or for their classmates.
  3. Readiness to learn – adult learners are ready to learn.  Readiness to learn is typically associated with a need to learn in order to increase their role and contributions to society, family, work, etc (Pappas, 2017).
  4. Orientation to learning – As adults, learning becomes less of subject learning and more of problem centered learning. Adults are often faced with difficult tasks or situations that call for an immediate need to learn/discover a solution. Therefore, adults are positioned differently than children who only require the acquisition of knowledge rather than solving problems.
  5. Motivation to learn (added in 1984) – adult learners have a vested interest in their education. Adults are most likely learning because (s)he wants to learn. According to Knowles’ assumption, adult motivation increases with age and is internal (Pappas, 2017)[1]Adult Learning Theory - Knowles' Four Principles of Andragogy

Watch the following video regarding Andragogy (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.)

Find more education infographics on e-Learning Infographics

Experiential Learning Theory or Cycle Learning Theory

David Kolb (1939-1997) Bio:

  • Born 1939
  • Credentials – Ph.D.
  • Alta mater – Harvard University

Kolb’s experiential learning theory or cycle learning theory was developed with a holistic approach to learning in adults. Experiential learning theory depends on experience for the learning process. The experience can be experiences of self or experiences of others.

Experiential learning theory defines learning as: [2]

  • the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience.4)

The theory is based on six propositions summarized by the following three statements:

  1. Learning is best described as a holistic process of creating knowledge and adapting to the world.
  2. Learning is actually relearning, since it is greatly dependent on already learned material.
  3. Learning is driven by conflict, differences, and disagreement, and results in assimilation and accommodation.

More information on Kolb will be found in Chapter 4 – Experiential Learning

Mezirow’s Transformative Learning Theory

Jack Mezirow (1923-2014)

  • Born March 7, 1923  – Died September 24, 2014
  • Credential – Ed.D.
  • Alma mater –  University of California
  • Last Occupation – Emeritus Professor of Adult and Continuing Education at Teachers College, Columbia University

Jack Mezirow introduced Transformative Learning Theory in the late 1900’s and described the theory as, “learning that transforms problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, reflective, open, and emotionally able to change”. Transformative learning takes place when a person is faced with a “disorienting dilemma” that requires the person to look at their beliefs in a new way. Through dialog with others and ‘critical reflection’, one considers their original beliefs.

Different authors suggest different roles for students and teachers during transformative learning. The role of the students is mostly to take responsibility for their learning and creating a pleasant environment. Suggestions for teachers generally refer to7) :

  • creating a safe environment
  • facilitating relationships characterized by trust and care
  • understanding why they want to encourage a change in students and (not only how and what to change)
  • assisting in the development of the critical reflection in students
  • taking into consideration and talking about students’ feelings
  • enabling students to apply new insights outside the classroom
  • helping others by sharing his experiences
  • modelling a willingness to change and learn

McClusky’s Theory of Margin

Howard McClusky (1900-1982)

  • Born February 20, 1900  – Died August 15, 1982
  • Credential – Ph.D.
  • Alma mater –  University of Chicago
  • Last Occupation – Visiting Professor of Adult Education at University of Nebraska

McClusky’s most important contribution to adult education was his Theory of Margin. He describes how adults need to possess a large margin in order to successfully engage and learn. Margin (M) comes from the Load (L) / Power (P). The load can be described as how much the adult has on their plate (figuratively speaking) and power is the resources one has in possession in order to satisfy the load. According to McClusky (1970, p. 27, as cited in Caruso, 2016), load is “the self and social demands required by a person to maintain a minimal level of autonomy…. [Power is] the resources, i.e. [sic] abilities, possessions, position, allies, etc. [sic], which a person can command in coping with load [sic].”Margin = Load/Power (M=L/P) can be visualized in the following diagram (click link below).

McClusky Theory of Margin.docx

What happens when you have a great supportive family, tons of knowledge and experience but then face an unforeseen situation such as a death of a family member or a job loss thrown onto the load? You experience a severely decreased margin which makes learning difficult. The ability to focus and succeed is hindered by the load because there is not enough power to compensate. When there is a balance of power and load, or an abundance of power or limited load, there is opportunity for exponential learning and growth.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom (1913-1999) [3]

  • Born February 21, 1913 in PA – Died September 13, 1999
  • Credential – Ph.D. in Education
  • Alma mater – Pennsylvania State University and University of Chicago
  • Last Occupation – Educational Psychologist at American Educational Research Association

Bloom’s Taxonomy begins at the bottom where rudimentary learning begins. As you move up the chart you are building upon the last. Young children start at the bottom with learning through memorization, defining, and repeating information. As a person grows (s)he acquires the ability to move up the chart to be able to use critical thinking and other skills to reach the top. When building courses and objectives it is important to use the verbs that apply to the level of thinking at the right level of education.

Illeris’s Three Dimensions of Learning Model

Knud Illeris (1939-)

  • Born March 7, 1939
  • Occupation – Author, Scientist and Professor of Lifelong Learning at Teachers College, Columbia University
Illeris's Model

3 Dimensions of Learning

Illeris’s 3 Dimensions of Learning describes how an individual acquires information, knowledge, content, and combines it with emotions and feelings to interact, grow, collaborate, and share in society. Illeris’s model was introduced in 1999 by Knud Illeris who was a professor at the Danish University of Education in Copenhagen (Caruso, n.d.). Learning begins with, what Illeris refers to as ‘raw materials’: [4]

  1. Pappas, C. (2017, December 21). The Adult Learning Theory - Andragogy - of Malcolm Knowles. Retrieved from
  2. Contributions to are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License. Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License ↵
  4. Caruso, S. J. (n.d.). Illeris's Three Dimensions of Learning Model. Retrieved from HRDI HR Development Info:


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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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