How Adults Learn


Key Points:

  • There a number of adult learning theories to guide educators; andragogy, self-directed learning and transformative learning are the 3 most commonly referenced.
  • Malcolm Knowles is widely known as the father of Andragogy (the art and science of helping adults learn) and posits the following assumptions regarding adult learners:
    • They prefer to be engaged in their learning...not passive receivers of information
    • They want to know "why" they are learning something and are relevancy-oriented
    • They are problem-centered and want to apply new learning immediately
    • They are self-directed in their learning and readily draw on prior experiences and knowledge to enhance learning
  • Self-directed learning theory, provided by Tough and Houle expands on the characteristics and motivations of adult learners and propose that adult learners:
    • Want to be involved in defining their own learning needs, objectives and expected outcomes
    • Seek out instructional strategies and resources which they perceive will best assist them in their learning
    • Choose subject matters that will have an immediate impact on their job or personal life
    • Prefer facilitators who act as guides through the learning process and foster critical inquiry and learner autonomy, rather than traditional lecturers
  • Transformative learning theory introduced by Jack Mezirow stresses the importance of critical reflection and discourse by learners and the provision of constructive feedback by educators as a means of increasing learning
    • Feedback should challenge learner's assumptions and facilitate critical thinking
    • Education should be designed to promote collaborative problem-solving and learner engagement



  • Define essential characteristics and assumptions of an adult learner
  • Describe motivating factors for adult learners
  • Incorporate adult learning strategies into your instructional design, delivery and assessment


Recommended Resources: 

Brief review


Andragogy (Adult Learning). PC3 - Janet Finlay. 8 minutes.

The revolution of self-directed learning. Sean Bengry. TEDx Talks. 9 minutes.

The six adult learning principles. Cason Smith. 4 minutes.


Kaufman DM. Applying educational theory in practice. BMJ : British Medical Journal 2003;326(7382):213-216

Teaching Adults: Is It Different? ERIC Digest No. 82. Imel, Susan

Stagnaro-Green A. Applying adult learning principles to medical education in the United States. Med Teach. 2004 Feb;26 (1):79-85.


Pettit J. Picturing the Art of Teaching: A Faculty Development Workshop. MedEdPORTAL Publications; 2015. 

Pettit J, Rosenbaum M. Strengthening Your Teaching Toolbox. MedEdPORTAL Publications; 2014.


In-Depth Review


Principles of Adult Learning in Surgical Training. JA Greenberg. UW Surgery. 41 minutes.

Teaching Adult Learners with Herbert Puchta. Cambridge University. 61 minutes.

Adult Learning Techniques. Brain Mass. First of six video series is free. 9 minutes.

Transformative Learning for the Lifelong Learner. UC Berkeley. 1 hour and 56 minutes.


New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education Special Issue: The New Update on Adult Learning Theory Issue 89, pages 3–14, Spring 2001

Effective Adult Learning, A Toolkit for Teaching Adults, University of Washington School of Public Health

Bertha C, Craft D. How People Learn: A Cognitive Science Handbook for Beginning and Experienced Teachers. 22 pages. Free on iTunes Bookstore.


Ray D. iTEACH! Workshops for Teaching Physicians. MedEdPORTAL Publications; 2015.

Teaching Adult Learners. Open 2 Study. Free course with 31 video lectures plus quizzes and assessments.

Foundations of Teaching for Learning. Commonwealth Education Trust. Free 9-course series on Coursera.