As part of the discovery in effective teaching, a review of some of the adult learning theories is presented.  Consider how each theory addresses the needs f adult learners.  When designing lessons for adults it is important for artists to consider that research can assist one in planning more effective lessons and using enhanced instructional strategies.


American educator, Malcolm Shepherd Knowles, is best known for his writings about andragogy, a theory of adult learning.  Knowles posited that adults have several characteristics:

  •             Adults require learning that develops their self-concept.
  •             Adults have a wealth of stored information and experiences that is a resource for learning.
  •             Adults are ready to learn if the tasks apply directly to their social roles.
  •             Adults are problem solvers rather than subject-oriented.
  •             Adults are motivated to learn internally vs. externally. 

He described the four principles of adult learning:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for the learning activities.
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance and impact to their job or personal life.
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented. (Kearsley, 2010)

Constructivism Theory

Constructivism is a learning theory that posits learners construct knowledge rather than simply absorb information.  Personal experience and interest drive the desire to learn new information.  Adults incorporate new information into their existing knowledge and schemas. 

Critical Thinking Theory

Critical thinking theory depicts adult learners as thinkers rather than receivers of information.  It suggests that the application of new skills to real life experiences is the essence of adult learning. 

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theory relies on the learning using “metacognition” or the awareness of one’s thoughts and thought processes.  Knowing how you think is integral to learning.  Adults are better aware of how they process new information.

Inquiry Based Learning Theory

Inquiry based learning is an approach that engages learners to make real-world connections to information and to explore high level processes.  Problem solving and experiential strategies are part of the instructional process. 

Application to the Instructional Process:

  • Make meaningful connections to the lives and experiences of the learners.
  • Help the learner discover prior knowledge and use that to make sense of new information.
  • Create an experiential and hands-on environment for adults.
  • Design lessons in shorter segments and connect to meaningful experiences.