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3 Adult Learning Theories Every Trainer should Know

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Do you use adult learning theory when you plan out a workshop, class, or training session? Chances are, if you’ve learned about adult learning theories in the past they influence your program design but you might not explicitly think about them. If you don’t have a background in learning theory, you might use common sense to drive your program design. Both of these scenarios are totally acceptable and work for many trainers and educators. But if you want to take your educational interventions a step further, here are 3 foundational adult learning theories that can have a huge positive impact on your program design.

Theory 1: Experiential Learning

First officially documented by “the father of experiential learning theory,” David Kolb (1984), this learning theory is about how people learn by doing. But here’s the most important thing – people don’t just magically learn by doing, there are two other steps that ensure that learning actually happens.

Kolb’s Theory includes 4 steps:

  • Concrete Experience: the doing – a meaningful experience that relates to a concept you want students to learn;
  • Observation & Reflection: processing the experience through discussion, written reflection, and other means for understanding what happened;
  • Abstract Conceptualization: connecting the experience to a concept that the instructor or the individual wants to learn about;
  • Active Experimentation: re-engaging in the experience with new conceptual understanding

The key to experiential learning theory is that engaging individuals in experiences alone is not sufficient to teach them something; you need to also provide time for them to process those experiences, connect them to conceptual understandings, and apply them in new ways.

Whether you are teaching students a literary concept then asking them to find it and apply it in something they read, or you are teaching professionals to use a new web design strategy then having them create something that uses it, this theory applies in almost every learning environment.

Theory 2: Self-Directed Learning

While there are many theorists who have contributed to the idea of self-directed learning (Tough, 1966; Knowles, 1975), one of my favorite thought leaders around this topic is Steven Brookfield. Brookfield is a guru when it comes to adult learning theory, and his 1986 book Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning is a classic resource for anyone who wants to dig further into self-directed learning.

In a true sense, self-directed learning can be (and was) thought of as learning that is guided entirely by the learning the absence of external influences. It evokes an image of a learner taking their own initiative to decide what they want to learn and go about doing it. This is a valuable skill that can increase a learner’s investment in what they want to learn as well as their success.

Brookfield, however offers a nuanced understanding of the concept when it comes to educational settings. He encourages educators to think about how we can facilitate self-directed learning. That is, how can we assist adults “to free themselves from externally imposed direction in their learning” and “encrouage them to become proactive, initiating individuals in reshaping their personal, work, political, and recreational lives?” (1986, p. 60).

The role of the facilitator then becomes serving as a resource for learning rather than as an expert or someone who is bestowing learning up others. This is an essential concept when it comes to creating learning opportunities for adults. To what extent can you facilitate learning rather than deliver it? To what extend can you provide a context in which learners take ownership for their learning with your support?

This is also helpful when it comes to appreciating and recognizing the diversity of adult learners. If you set clear expectations and help people along the way to achieving them, you can then be more flexible in how they achieve them – in terms of timing, approach, etc. This can be essential for adult learners who have diverse stories, learning styles, and even schedules or demands on their time.

Theory 3: Transformational Learning

Transformational learning is, as it sounds, a body of research focused on how individuals transform or change the way they see themselves and the world. While it shares some similarities to experiential learning theory, transformational learning theory is about changing ourselves and our mental constructions rather than learning new information (Meriiam, et. al., 2007, p. 30).

There are a number of researchers who proposed theories of transformational learning including Mezirow (1978) and Daloz and Boyd (1998). Mezirow emphasized frames of reference and habits of mind as ways in which people see the world, and the things that are subject to change when transformation occurs. His theory included 10 steps but they were grouped into four major stages that are similar to experiential learning:

  • Experience
  • Critical Reflection
  • Reflective Discource
  • Action

In this framework, reflection becomes self-reflection – examining our own perspectives and points of view in relation to experiences that we are having and being open to questioning them. We then seek out other perspectives and opinions (reflective discourse) to check our understandings and evolving perspectives. Then, once we have landed on a new perspective, we take action by making a decision or engaging in new activities related to our new understanding.

Daloz and Boyd discuss the role of a mentor in this process – someone who guides the learner, helps them examine their conceptual understandings, asks critical questions, etc. Often this mentor is the person with whom discourse or dialogue can happen.

These theories are especially important to those who are leading workshops around political or social justice concepts. Knowing that transformation requires careful guidance and support will help facilitators to design programs that may be challenging for adult learners. Strategies like role plays, journal writing, critical colleagues, and question-posing become essential when you are designing learning experiences that may challenge adults’ frames of reference.


There are literally hundreds of other theories of learning, adult development, and teaching that can inform the design of your program. These three are presented because they are foundational and can impact almost any educational intervention that you are designing for adults.

For more on adult learning theory, I recommend the following outstanding books:

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