Adult Learning: What Really Differentiates Adult Learners?

Several decades ago, Malcolm Knowles instituted adult learning theory by making the distinction between how children learn (pedagogy) and how adults learn (andragogy). Specifically, he highlighted how adults draw from past experience while learning. On the contrary, children are only just forming their experiences. Furthermore, he believed adults need practical reasons to learn concepts through problem solving. Additionally, he theorized that adults are more internally motivated (than children) to learn (Knowles, 1980). We often hear this motivation referred to as “they need to know – what’s in for me?” Finally, adults want to take a part in their own learning.


Other Relevant Theories

Other broader learning theories apply to the concept of adult learning. For example, Vygotsky’s theory on constructivism states that knowledge is constructed based on personal experiences and hypotheses of the environment (Vygotsky, 1978). In other words, the learner is not a clean slate. Additionally, Sandra Marshall’s schema-based learning theory postulates that individuals organize their experiences when identifying and solving problems. Specifically, an individual accesses a framework of similar experiences, draws inferences, plans, and solves similar problems (Marshall, 1995).  Both of these theories are similar to discovery learning. In discovery learning, learners solve problems by drawing from prior experience or constructs and apply acquired skills to new contexts. Constructivism, schema-based learning, and discovery learning support the notion that adults learn best through problem solving. Additionally, adults benefit from instructional strategies that draw out their prior experiences.


Adult learning environment, child learning, discovery learning, corporate training and problem solving.


Corporate Training & Adult Learning

Knowledge of adult learning theory became a staple competency for corporate training professionals (and adult educators). As instructional designers in organizations, we must create training that engages the adult learner. How do we do this? On a simple level, we tend to include more hands-on exercises with a focus on problem solving. Additionally, we provide opportunities for the learner to apply his or her own prior experience. Finally, we use learner-centric approaches, with more facilitation and less instruction. In other words, learners take control of their own learning.


Discovery Learning and Problem Solving – A Shift in Pedagogy

However, it is important to point out that research in the field of learning science and in the area of college and career readiness has led to a shift in how students are learning in elementary and secondary education environments. Specifically, these changes are the practice of discovery learning and the implementation of common core standards, both which focus on problem solving (Castronova, 2002). This shift begs the question: Are children learning like adults now? Perhaps, we can conclude that children do indeed have experiences they can draw upon. More importantly, we could hypothesize that discovery learning practices are more effective in preparing children for their future. Finally, in this Digital Age, children are using devices to easily locate information or access YouTube videos to learn. With all of this said, is it possible that, soon enough, there may be less distinction between adult learning and child learning?

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Castronova, J. (2002). “Discovery Learning for the 21st Century: What is it and How Does it Compare to Traditional Learning in Effectiveness in the 21st Century?” Action Research Exchange 1 (1).

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Chicago: Follett.

Marshall, Sandra P. (1995). Schemas in Problem Solving. Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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