Adult Learning Theory:
Implications for Distance Education
Linda Jensen
EMC 598
Arizona State University
Summer 1998

According to Moore and Kearsely, most distance education students are adults between the ages of 25 and 50. In order to effectively design courses meant for adult students, it is necessary to understand how adults learn, and especially how their needs differ from those of children. Most current theories of adult learning are based on the work of Malcolm Knowles, who introduced the term andragogy to describe the art and science of helping adults to learn. Knowles theorized that adults learners have distinct and unique characteristics. Brookfield has argued that chronological age is less defining than are the variables of ethnicity, personality and political character. Certainly the field of adult learning theory warrants further scholarly research, to either refine or disprove Knowles' theory. Sound instructional design in distance education will depend on a clear understanding of the what affects adult learning.

Following are online resources that provide more information about adult learning theory and teaching strategies.

30 Things We Know for Sure about Adult Learning
Ron and Susan Zemke discuss what is known about adult learning and list current knowledge in three categories: motivation, curriculum design,and classroom strategies.

Principles of Adult Learners
Nine principles and their corresponding classroom strategies are listed.

Pedagogy: Learning Styles
Jessica Blackmore gives an overview of theories, including Kolb's Theory of Learning Styles and Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Adult Learning: Styles and Preference for Technology Programs
Richard Birkley and Joseph Rodman assert that learning style research (both quantitative and qualitative) should be used to improve recruitment and instruction. They cite research from Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute and Albuquerque Technical-Vocational Institute as examples.

Andragogy:A Highly Relevant Adult Learning Theory
Reviews the salient points of Malcolm Knowles' Theory of Andragogy.

Seven Characteristics of Highly Effective Adult Learning Programs
Dorothy Billington reports the results of her four year study of adult learning environments. Successful environments exhibited 7 common characteristics, including intellectual challenge and regular feedback.

Guidelines for Working with Adult Learners
Susan Imel presents guidelines and strategies that can be used to actively involve adult learners in their education, such as incorporating group work and providing time for individual conferences.

Teaching Adults: Is it Different?
Susan Imel discusses findings from two studies that examined how teachers structure their classes for adult students. Although teachers self-reported different teaching styles, classroom observations did not support this.

Adult Education: Teaching Methods and Course Structure
Roberta S. Lacefield reviews characteristics of adult learners, and offers suggestions for course design and teaching methods, including a problem solving curriculum and flexible deadlines.

Adult Learning: An Overview
Stephen Brookfield critically assesses four areas of current research in adult education: self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning, and learning to learn. He offers ten issues that warrant further research, including gender and emotional intelligence.