IDL Student Article: Instructional Design—Adult Learning Theories Impact Today’s Culture of Lifelong Learning

By Emily Smith

Learning new things can be both fun and frightening. It invites change into one’s life on many levels; even the adventuresome among us often resist it. The popular job-finding website Workopolis reports that Canadians could have as many as 15 different jobs in their working lifetimes (2014); each job change comes with the opportunity and challenge to learn new skills and content knowledge. In addition to on-the-job learning, researcher Philippe Carré says that adults are equally choosing to learn new things in their personal lives (2015). It seems that adults today are changing a lot and often.

What kind of culture supports adults’ frequent and diverse learning? This article describes where adult learning theories originated, how employers can leverage adult learning theories to teach new employees more effectively, and how adult learners are now popularly considered lifelong learners.

Adult learning theory: History and terms

Some people might think that teaching children (pedagogy) and teaching adults are the same process but Malcolm Knowles (1968) asserted that teaching adults is distinct from pedagogy.

According to Svein Loeng, American Malcolm Knowles popularized the term andragogy in the United States. Knowles says it means “the art and science of helping adults learn” (1968). Loeng describes Knowles’ ideas as “…a set of assumptions about adult learners …[that includes] some recommendations concerning planning, directing, and evaluating adults’ learning” (2018).

Knowles’ ideas are summarized below:

  • Adults are independent learners.
  • Adults pull lessons from their own life experiences.
  • Adults prefer to learn in specific social contexts.
  • Adults focus on learning things they can use right away.
  • Adults are motivated by themselves.

For example, adults who choose something to study based on their own needs or interests (professional or personal) would do better than adults who are told to take a course in something they have no prior connection to.

Phillipe Carré takes this idea a step further to assert that adult learning theory is actually facilitation pedagogy [my translation]. Carré says that for learning to happen, adults need a facilitator, a teacher, or an interface to guide them to do the learning themselves.

For example, when adults who are studying a foreign language learn about professions, they learn more by using the new language to describe a favorite job they have held to others. Then learning deepens when they compare information from others’ descriptions to find similarities and differences. The instructor or interface (book, website, app) provides some support for the process without providing all the content. Students learn the content through social activity.

New hires: Training vs. Coaching

New employees face a steep learning curve. Professional teachers in a school environment lead children through the learning process. Adults needing to acquire new skills or knowledge also benefit from specific support.

Carré says the training provided for a new employee does not always result in good job performance; he points out that training does not guarantee learning (2015).

Similarly, Chris A. Woodward (2007) concluded that using Knowles’ ideas in designing training for new employees increased the training’s effectiveness compared to previous training that did not use Knowles’ ideas. Applying adult learning theory to workplace training helps new employees better prepare for their new jobs.

These examples of training activities do not use Knowles’ ideas:

  • Watching a series of public service announcement-style videos on company policies.
  • Listening to lecture-style presentations about employee responsibilities.
  • Reading an employee handbook.

Elaine Cox (2015) argues that coaching and Knowles’ andragogy are similar.

According to Cox, coaching through conversation helps the learner get the most out of a learning opportunity in a variety of ways:

  • Helps the learner make sense of the material.
  • Helps the learner understand the learning process.
  • Helps the learner relate to the material and learning process.

Both coaching and facilitation pedagogy provide the adult learner with support to increase learner receptivity to the content.

These examples of coaching and training activities use Knowles’ ideas:

  • A group of pre-service teachers have the opportunity to reflect on their own successful and not-successful learning experiences with an experienced teacher-trainer that highlights the value of their own experiences for their future as teachers.
  • A new employee poses questions to an experienced employee, gathering information about the challenges and tricks to mastering the new skills.
  • During the onboarding process at a company, a new employee completes some tasks related to the new role and then undergoes a workshop process with a trainer to improve their performance.

Today’s adults: lifelong learners

Lifelong learning has become a popular catchphrase. Lifelong learners believe learning is always possible and it never has to stop, even as adults. Is this very different from Knowles’ ideas?  No, the term simply helps frame the adult learning process as an ongoing venture rather than one or a series of isolated events.

According to Julia Gross (2012), “lifelong learning has elements of adult education, continuing education, self-directed learning, and the ideal of the individual reaching his/her full potential”.

Carré (2015) and Loeng (2018) both reference ‘lifelong learning’ in their work about adult learners. Similarly, researchers Maurice Taylor, David Trurnpower, and Ivana Pavic (2013) use "lifelong learners" to describe adult learners acquiring new skills throughout their article.

Osark Nowik (2020) says, “lifelong learners recognize the importance and joy of growth so they never settle for what they currently know and always seek for improvement.”

Nowik (2020) provides a list of 12 habits lifelong learners have in common:

  • Read on a daily basis.
  • Attend various courses.
  • Actively seek opportunities to grow.
  • Take care of their bodies.
  • Have diverse passions.
  • Love making progress.
  • Challenge themselves with specific goals.
  • Embrace change.
  • Believe it is never too late to start something new.
  • Have a contagious attitude towards getting better.
  • Leave their comfort zone.
  • Never settle down.

Ultimately, adult learning theory is not a new concept but one that impacts the way businesses can manage new employees and professional development opportunities, and the way adults relate to learning new skills and knowledge today. Consider adult learning theory and lifelong learning habits whenever teaching or learning something new to ensure success.


Carré, Phillipe. "De l'apprentissage à la formation. Pour une nouvelle psychopédagogie des adultes." Revue francaise de pédagogie (Recherches en éducation), no. 190 (March 2015): 29-40.

Cox, Elaine. "Coaching and Adult Learning: Theory and Practice." New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 148 (2015): 27-38.

Gross, Julia. Building Your Library Career with Web 2.0. Oxford: Chandos Publishing, 2012.

Knowles, Malcolm. Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1984.

—. The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy. New York, New York: Association Press, 1968.

Loeng, Svein. "Various ways of understanding the concept of andragogy." Edited by Edith Omwami. Cogent Education 5, no. 1 (January 2018): 1-15.

Nowik, Osark. Lifehack. 02 17, 2020. (accessed 02 21, 2020).

Taylor, Maurice, Davic Trurnpower, and Ivana Pavic. "Unravelling the Lifelong Learning Process for Canadian Workers and Adult Learners Acquiring Higher Skills." Journal of Research & Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary & Basic Education 2, no. 2 (2013): 101-113.

Woodward, Chris A. "Using Adult Learning Theory for New-Hire Training." MPAEA Journal of Adult Education 36, no. 1 (2007): 44-47.

Workopolis. Workopolis. 04 12, 2014. (accessed 02 08, 2020).

Emily Smith is enrolled in the online Technical Communication Certificate program at Simon Fraser University, Canada. She currently teaches Grade 4 at an American curriculum international school in Qatar. Her passion for learning and teaching gives her lots of opportunities for fun and adventure in many far-off places. She is hoping a career in technical communication will help her continue to push the traditional boundaries.

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