In order to learn through life, it’s helpful to understand something about how you learn. The following backgrounder will introduce you to the most significant things we know about how adults learn.

  • Overview of adult learning theory
  • Books about how adults learn
  • Links to other websites about how adults learn
  • More resource about adult learning

Overview of Adult Learning Theory

Learning can be defined formally as the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skills. In contrast, memory can define the capacity of storing, retrieving, and acting on that knowledge. Learning helps us move from novices to experts and allows us to gain new knowledge and abilities.

Learning strengthens the brain by building new pathways and increasing connections that we can rely on when we want to learn more. Definitions that are more complex add words such as comprehension and mastery through experience or study.

Physiologically, learning is the formation of cell assemblies and phase sequences. Children learn by building these assemblies and sequences. Adults spend more time making new arrangements than forming new sequences. Our experience and background allow us to learn new concepts.

At the neurological level, any established knowledge (from experience and background) appears to be made up of exceedingly intricate arrangements of cell materials, electrical charges, and chemical elements. Learning requires energy; re-learning and un-learning requires even more. We must access higher brain functions to generate the much-needed energy and unbind the old.[1]

Our discussion here assumes learning, from the most fundamental to complex, to be (1.) any increase in knowledge, (2.) memorizing information, (3.) acquiring knowledge for practical use, (4.) abstracting meaning from what we do, and (5.) a process that allows us to understand.[2]

Remarkably, people can learn from the moment of birth. Learning can and should be a lifelong process. Learning shouldn’t be defined by what happened early in life, only at school.[3] We constantly make sense of our experiences and consistently search for meaning. In essence, we continue to learn.

Though humans like the familiar and are often uncomfortable with change, the brain searches for and responds to novelty. “Ah-ha!” you may think. “That’s why I hated freshman English. No novelty!”

Rote learning frustrates us because the brain resists meaningless stimuli. When we invoke the brain’s natural capacity to integrate information, however, we can assimilate boundless amounts.

Another “Ah-ha!”? This may explain why sometimes a tough class, one you never thought you would get through, was one of your all-time favorites.

Western society once believed adults didn’t learn. Even today, if you ask a group why adults cannot learn, it may surprise you how many begin answering the question without challenging the premise. Unfortunately, many adults deny themselves what should be one of the most enriching parts of life because they assume they can’t learn.

We can learn from everything the mind perceives (at any age). Our brains build and strengthen neural pathways no matter where we are, no matter what the subject or the context.

In today’s business environment, finding better ways to learn will propel organizations forward. Strong minds fuel strong organizations. We must capitalize on our natural styles and then build systems to satisfy needs. Only through an individual learning process can we re-create our environments and ourselves.

Some of this text was originally published in a whitepaper Marcia wrote in 1995 for Wave Technologies entitled “Learning: The Critical Technology.” You can download the full whitepaper in Adobe Acrobat format (280K). The excerpt here is used with permission.

Harold D. Lasswell. The changing nature of human nature. American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 26 (2), p. 164. Quoted in Alvin Toffler (1970), Future Shock.
Robert M. Smith (1991, April). How people become effective learners. Adult Learning, p. 11.
Robert L. Steinbach (1993). The Adult Learner: Strategies for Success. (Menlo Park, CA: Crisp Publications.)

Books about how adults learn

With hundreds of books in print about how adults learn, we offer our favorites.

The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (5th edition). Malcolm S. Knowles (Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing, 1998). This book takes you through all of the major educational theories in a clear and no-nonsense style. This book is by no means easy-reading but very thorough and a terrific primer for anyone interested in learning more about adult and traditional education.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. John D. Bransford, M. Suzanne Donovan, and James W. Pellegrino, editors. (National Academy Press, 2000) This heavy book bridges the research and practice on how children and adults learn and includes information on the role that technology can play in helping people learn.

Experience and Education. John Dewey (Touchstone Books, reprint 1997). I reread this tiny book at least once a year, every year, to reground myself in how people learn and the importance of experience. Also see Art As Experience by John Dewey.

Would you like us to review your book about adult learning? Send us a note, telling us about your book.

If you’re interested in the more academic aspects of adult learning, you might want to visit a local college or the publisher’s website to learn more about the books and magazines listed below.

Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide (2nd edition). Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998) An excellent textbook that combines the most important contributions to adult learning in the last decade. The text examines the context of adult learning, the nature of adult learners, aspects of the learning process, and theory in adult education.

Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning: A Comprehensive Analysis of Principles and Effective Practices. Stephen D. Brookfield. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, reprint 1991) This classic covers adult motives and learning processes, self-directedness, andragogy, the facilitator’s role, learning in informal settings, learning in formal settings, program development, and evaluation.

Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. K. Patricia Cross (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982)

The New Update on Adult Learning Theory: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education #89. Sharan B. Merriam

Adult Education Quarterly [$36/4] American Association for Adult & Continuing Education (AAACE)
1200 19th Street NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20036-2401
202-429-5131 tel, 202-223-4579 fax

Adult Learning [$27/6] American Association for Adult & Continuing Education (AAACE)
1200 19th Street NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20036-2401
202-429-5131 tel, 202-223-4579 fax
Website: does a terrific job of linking to all sorts of Adult Learning and Continuing Education related information thanks to the help of moderator Kimeiko Hotta Dover.

A reference guide to Theoretical Sources on Education and Learning Theory is provided by the University of Colorado at Denver, School of Education.

New Views of Adult Learning examines recent trends in adult learning literature, including transformative learning, adult learning related to technology, and collaborative/group learning.

In Popular Education, Peter Reardon defines popular education and reflects on his experiences as a teacher of native people in the Canadian arctic.

Principles of Adult Learning is a practical and brief article by Stephen Lieb.

Teaching Adults: Is it different? This 1995 article by Susan Imel considers the question of whether teaching adults is different from teaching children.

Explorations in Learning & Instruction: The Theory Into Practice Database. TIP is a tool intended to make learning and instructional theory more accessible to educators. The database contains brief summaries of 50 major theories of learning and instruction. These theories can also be accessed by learning domains and concepts. Greg Kearsley

30 Things About Adult Learning This 1984 article may seem too old to be useful, but it’s surprisingly accurate and current. It considers adult learners and motivation, designing curriculum for adults, and working with adults in the classroom.

Funderstanding’s About Learning materials explore constructivism, behaviorism, Piaget’s developmental theory, neuroscience, brain-based learning, learning styles, multiple intelligences, right brain/left brain thinking, communities of practice, control theory , observational learning, and Vygotsky’s social cognition theory.

Susan Imel surveyed trends related to changing conceptions of adult development, highlighting connections to adult education in the terrific ERIC report (#22) on Adult Development.

The October 2001 Focus on Basics issue examined adult development, examining how the developmental levels of learners shape their experiences in their literacy programs.

Tammy Dewar reflects on the advantages and disadvantages of online learning, and presents some definitions and perspectives on adult learning.

More about adult learning on this site

This is a brief list of other key adult learning resources on this site.

Andragogy and Pedagogy: Pedagogy (pèd-e-go´jê) literally means the art and science of educating children and often is used as a synonym for teaching. More accurately, pedagogy embodies teacher-focused education. Andragogy, initially defined as “the art and science of helping adults learn,” has taken on a broader meaning and refers to learner-focused education for people of all ages.

Learning Style Assessment will help you identify your dominant learning style.

Learning Styles Introduction puts learning styles information into easy to understand language and provides sources where you can learn more.

Motivation Style Assessment will help you identify what motivates you to learn.

A Primer on Educational Psychology introduces you to the different ways schools and formal learning programs approach learners and materials to learn.