Adult Learning Theories

Andragogy is the best known adult learning theory because it was the first. Developed my educator Malcolm Knowles in the 1950s, andragogy is the basis for all the adult learning theories that have followed.

Adult learning theories give instructional designers a framework or guidelines for developing content for adult learners in different contexts. Below is an overview of three of the top adult learning theories all instructional designers should be familiar with.


Andragogy is the theory and practice of educating adult learners. Andragogy (also known as Adult Learning Theory) is based on five assumptions, four principles, and a five step model that aims to promote self-directed learning. Andragogy highlights the importance of adult learners’ experiences as foundations for future learning experiences. It also informs that a focus should be placed on learning that is relevant to adult learners at the time of the course. Learning should be problem-centered instead of content-oriented.

Transformational Learning

The Transformational Learning theory was developed by sociologist and professor Jack Mezirow. Transformational learning is a description of how learners make meaning of their experiences. Mezirow’s theory has 10 steps beginning with a “disorienting dilemma,” or a major life crisis or life transition. From there, learners reflect on the experience at different levels and perspectives all leading up to experimenting with new roles and reintegration.  These are the steps explained in the Transformational Learning theory:

  1. Disorienting dilemma
  2. Self-examination
  3. Sense of alienation
  4. Relating discontent to others
  5. Explaining options of new behavior
  6. Building confidence in new ways
  7. Planning a course of action
  8. Knowledge to implement plans
  9. Experimenting with new roles
  10. Reintegration

Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is a theory developed by David Kolb that refers to the process of learning through experience and reflection. Experiential Learning is based on concept that knowledge can be gain through experiences without a teacher present. The learner can make meaning of his or her experiences on their own.

For a learner to successfully acquire knowledge through experiential learning they must:

  1. Be willing to be actively involved in the learning experience. For example, someone who wants to learn to cook, must be okay with going in the kitchen and getting their hands dirty. The learner needs to be willing to perform whatever actions are required of the experience.
  2. Be able to reflect on the experience. Everyone reflects on their experiences in different ways, whether it is verbally, written, or even just through quiet meditation. However, a learner cannot expect that they will just walk into a classroom, perform a task, and know the information. They must be willing to spend time outside of the experience reflecting on it and what they have learned.
  3. Possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience. Learners need to be able to think about ways the experience could have been better, worse, or just different. Reflecting at this level will give learners the opportunity to think about problems they may have encountered and how to solve them in the future.
  4. Possess decision making and problem solving skills. Once the learner has conceptualized the problems and solutions, they must be willing to act on those thoughts.

The key element of all three of these theories is that the learner’s previous experiences are important and essential to future learning. One way to provide learners with a great online learning experience is to deliver your content on an online learning platform. Mindflash is a learning management system that gives instructional designers the flexibility to design interactive learning content to optimize the learner’s experience. Sign up for a free trial of Mindflash to find out how you can begin using it to deliver your training.

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