The Adult Learner in Higher Education: A Critical Review of Theories and Applications

The Adult Learner in Higher Education: A Critical Review of Theories and Applications

Sumitra Balakrishnan
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2783-2.ch013
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Researchers and practitioners have come to understand adult learners as unique and different from child learners, and have developed different theoretical approaches, methodologies, and strategies attuned to their educational needs and life circumstances. This chapter examines the factors that impact the effectiveness of adult learning programs and classroom environments by using perspectives of education theorists. The needs of the adult learner, advantages of teaching adults, and principles that can be followed are explored with the help of Knowles' andragogy model. The importance of the classroom's eco-behavioral features—their physical and emotional environments—along with other factors that effectively facilitate the process of adult education are discussed. In this context, an adaptation of Astin's I-E-O's model is proposed to deepen the understanding of adult learning programs.
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Researchers have defined adult learners in overlapping but somewhat different ways. Merriam (2008) describes adult learners as those whose age, social roles, and self-perception define them as adults. Other scholars employ a demographic description which includes chronological age and additional factors such as part-time attendance, full-time work while enrolled, financial independence, and single parenthood (Bourke, 2014; Strange & Banning, 2001). Similarly, (MacDonald, 2018) indicates that specific criteria for an adult learner include: being at least 25 years old; waiting at least one year after high school before entering college; having a GED (General Education Diploma) instead of a high school diploma; being a first‐generation student (FGS), or have re-entered a college program.

Adult learning theory arose from many theories by foundational scholars in related fields such as psychology and sociology, including Piaget, Maslow, Rogers, Bandura, Durkheim, Kolb, Tinto, and Bean and Metzner. Theories of behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, constructivism, and connectivism illuminate different learner types and their disposition towards the process of education. The main ideas, approaches, and contributions of these theories have been summarized in the figure below (Table 1). The denotation of the theory or approach is indicated as per the theorists in their major works; the application is derived from the critical analysis of theories, scholarly examinations of relevance of theories, and meta-analyses of social theories of various scholars.

Table 1.
Summary of chief theories of learning
Theorist/ ThinkerApproach/ PremiseApplication
Emile DurkheimSociology of EducationEducation as a social process
Skinner BehaviorismResultant change or modification in behavior, largely overt behavior
PiagetCognitivismImportance of observation, attention and personal involvement by the teacher along with practice aimed at bringing out individual capabilities
MaslowHumanisticImportance to the human capacity for choice and growth, and inner emotions, linked to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Carl RogersHumanisticLearning needs to be student-centered and personalized
PiagetConstructivismLearning is facilitated by providing an environment that promotes discovery and assimilation/accommodation
Lev Vygotsky Social constructivismCollaborative learning in the presence of facilitation and guidance. Group-work is encouraged.
George SiemensConnectivismUses behaviorism, cognitivism and constructivism together. It is about knowledge is distributed across an information network, storage, connectivity and new forms of learning communities.
KolbExperiential learningEasy acquisition of abstract concepts based on practice
TintoInteractionalistPersistence and departure from learning programs as a result of individual and environmental factors
Astin(Student) Involvement Change and development as an output of curricular and co-curricular factors
Bean & MetznerPersistence (model)Retention, attrition and persistence with special focus on non-traditional students
KnowlesAndragogyAutonomy in learning and self-directed learning programs
BanduraSocial LearningLearning from peers through methods like observation, modelling and imitation. This is of importance where there is low to no contact with an instructor.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Heutagogy: The study of self-determined learning.

Self-Directed Learning: Independent learning, with or without the presence of an instructor.

I-E-O Model: Used to effectively explain the relationship between student motivation and needs, environmental factors, and student outputs.

Andragogy: Learning theory specifically aimed at adult learners.

Experiential Learning: Examples of experiential types of learning include projects, simulation, and case method.

Adult Learners: Various defined, but generally indicates students beyond secondary education.

Pedagogy: Learning theory aimed at children.

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