What Adjuncts Need to Know About Adult Learning Theories


BruceBy Bruce A. Johnson, Ph.D., MBA

Adjunct instructors are often hired because of their subject matter expertise and related work experience. There are also educational requirements, which may or may not have included coursework related to adult learning theories. For example, are you familiar with the foundational adult education theories of andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning?

Most adjuncts understand that facilitating the process of learning involves more than giving students their course materials and providing them with feedback. Students have academic and professional needs and through their classroom interactions they can acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to meet those needs. While theory alone will not guarantee that effective facilitation will occur; that knowledge can inform the process of classroom facilitation and provide insight necessary to develop tools and techniques that address the students’ needs.

Adult Learners

An adult learning theory that can help adjuncts better understand the process of learning in any classroom environment, including the online classroom, is andragogy. This theory addresses how adults learn, with an emphasis on their developmental needs, and serves as a distinction from teaching children (which is based upon a theory called pedagogy). Andragogy is a student-centered approach to learning; whereas, pedagogy is instructor-centered. Children are viewed as passive participants in the process of learning, which means that they rely on their instructor to provide them with knowledge. In contrast, adults are not dependent upon their instructor for knowledge and they want to be responsible for and involved in the process of learning. The adult learner also comes to the classroom with needs and expectations, along with prior knowledge and experiences.

The Self-Directed Learner

An adult education theory that builds upon andragogy is self-directed learning. In addition to taking responsibility for their learning a self-directed learner wants to make decisions about the process of learning and be given choices that promote a sense of autonomy. The theory of self-directed learning as a teaching strategy involves offering options about learning activities and projects, while providing tools and techniques that support the students’ progress.

By understanding the nature of adult learners an adjunct can implement instructional strategies that help to create a collaborative learning environment. Students may be given choices about certain aspects of their written assignments or the discussion questions they can answer, as examples of how flexibility may be incorporated. The addition of real-world examples can add relevance to the class and the inclusion of problems or issues that students must address and resolve can encourage them to be involved in the process of learning.

When Learning is Transformational

Another adult education theory that addresses how adults learn in a classroom environment is transformational learning. The focus of this theory is on the cognitive process of reflective thought as a means of learning and knowledge creation. It occurs when instructors implement learning activities that prompt critical reflection and thinking. When utilized as a facilitation strategy the adult learner is asked to reflect on their belief systems and then they are challenged to consider alternate views through discussions, self-assessments, and other problem-solving activities. As students begin to consider diverse perspectives and adapt their thinking they become transformed and learning is likely to occur, along with the acquisition of new knowledge.

Putting Theory to Use

Once you have a better understanding of adult learning theories, how do you put that knowledge to work for you? Often as an adjunct you are assigned to facilitate a course and you are provided with a standardized syllabus that has assignments already developed for you. You may not have a lot of flexibility with the content of the syllabus and you may be unable to modify or adapt any of the learning activities. Having knowledge of these theories will inform your facilitation practice and your approach to interacting with adult learners. Andragogy and self-directed learning theories remind instructors that adults want active involvement in the process of learning and they look for opportunities to make choices about their level of involvement or participation in the class. The theory of transformational learning provides information about the role of cognitive development in the process of adult education. All of these theories recognize the unique nature of an adult’s developmental needs and the co-creative process of adult learning, which is directly influenced by interactions with the instructor, other students, and the classroom environment.

About the Mentor: Dr. Bruce Johnson has had a life-long love of learning and throughout his entire career he has been involved in many forms of adult education; including teaching, training, human resource development, coaching, and mentoring. Dr. J has completed a master’s in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in the field of adult education, with an emphasis in adult learning within an online classroom environment. Presently Dr. J works as an online adjunct instructor, faculty developmental workshop facilitator, and faculty mentor.

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