Adult Learning

Research Question

What do we know about adult learning that can be applied to the design and delivery of professional development for staff and administrators regarding equal access of students with disabilities to student services?

Overview of Research

Knowles (1980) used the term "andragogy" instead of "pedagogy" to clarify differences between meeting the learning needs of adults and meeting those of children, respectively. He identified the need for adults to be motivated to learn, to be active in the learning process, and to have their past experiences respected and valued in the learning environment (Millis & Cottell, 1998). Much of the current knowledge in this field is based on Knowles' work.

Transformative Learning

When adults participate in learning activities, they bring many years of experiences with them. They view new material through the lens of these experiences (Baird, Schneier, & Laird, 1983). As adults continue to acquire new knowledge and skills, they must integrate new learning with prior learning. When contradictions or dilemmas result, perceptions based on prior learning must be reexamined. Individuals can choose to reject the contradictory new information or revise their previous views. Transformative learning occurs when adjustments to prior learning are made (Cranton, 1996; Pilling-Cormick, 1997).

Self-Directed Learning

Adults often prefer to engage in self-directed learning, in which the learner has some control over content, materials, and methods. Self-directed learning can provide a foundation for transformative learning, in which individuals use critical thinking to challenge previous assumptions.

The Self-Directed Learning Process Model (Pilling-Cormick, 1997) consists of three components: control factors, interactions between educator and student, and influences on those interactions. Four factors affect the amount of control participants can exercise in the learning process: social constraints, environmental characteristics, learner characteristics, and educator characteristics. Environmental characteristics include both physical and affective components of teaching and learning situations (Heimlich & Norland, 1994).

In Pilling-Cormick's model of transformative learning, the adult learner and the educator influence each other as they interact. Learners may modify the educator's facilitation style. Similarly, a presenter who supports self-directedness influences participants' perspectives about their own learning (Pilling-Cormick, 1997). An important part of this process for both the presenter and the participants is reflection. What do participants want to learn? How will they go about learning it? Why is it important to learn it in the first place? Reflection becomes critical when it leads to questioning the validity of the learning.

One approach to teaching adults in a self-directed format is to address problems together in a collaborative manner, where uncertainty and differences of opinion are welcome. In this type of learning environment, the presenter and the participants are open to ideas that will support learning from both mistakes and successes (Schon, 1987).

Relevant Learning

Learning is greatest when content can be applied to situations of interest to learners and when there is an immediate benefit. If adults see the usefulness of the material presented, their motivation to learn increases. When adults are forced to learn against their own inclinations and desires, the resulting resentment may become a barrier to meaningful learning (Brookfield, 1993). To maximize learning, the instructor must convince the audience that the material presented is important and useful to them.

Active Learning

Adults tend to prefer active learning that is related to their real-life situations (Mezirow, 1983). Retention of information for adult learners can be maximized through activity (Thomas, 1991). Presentation strategies that encourage active engagement include role playing, discussions of issues and cases, and hands-on activities.

Photo of students in a science lab.

Implications for Practice

Some administrators and support staff have had little or no contact with people who have disabilities. Others have already worked with students with disabilities. Expect that your audience members will hold a wide range of beliefs and attitudes about working with students who have disabilities. Additionally, when training is voluntary, you can assume that your audience is motivated to learn. However, if your presentation is mandatory or a part of a program for a group gathered for another purpose, expect that some participants will be reluctant learners.

Consider the following suggestions as you prepare your presentation.

Transformative Learning

Present clear, situation-relevant learning objectives. Avoid abstractions, rhetoric, and theory with little immediate application. Include concrete examples of universal design, accommodations, legal requirements, and resources on your campus.

To promote transformative learning, consider sharing myths or misconceptions related to disabilities and refute them with factual information. Here are some examples:

  • Students with learning disabilities see things backwards. (Actually, there are many types of learning disabilities; "seeing things backwards" is a symptom of one type.)
  • All students with hearing impairments use sign language interpreters. (Actually, only 25% of individuals with a hearing loss use sign language.)
  • Deaf students are good lip-readers. (Actually, not all deaf students lip-read. Those who do are guessing much of the time, since only about 30% of speech can be read on the lips.)
  • People who use wheelchairs cannot drive automobiles. (Actually, hand controls and other assistive technology allow the operation of vehicles without the use of standard foot pedals.)
  • Providing accommodations is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. (Actually, most accommodations are simple and inexpensive.)
  • Blind students read Braille. (Actually, only a small fraction of individuals who are blind read Braille.)
  • People who are blind cannot use computers. (Actually, speech and Braille output systems provide blind computer users with full access to text that appears on a screen.)
  • Students with learning disabilities are not very smart. (Actually, a diagnosis of a learning disability requires average or above average intelligence.)

In a professional development presentation, consider addressing each item in the list, correcting misconceptions, and discussing relevant experiences, resources, and procedures on your campus.

Respect audience members' expertise in their fields, and at the same time recognize that they may lack background and experience in the topic you are presenting. Ask them to explain circumstances in their position or office instead of assuming that you already know. When asking and responding to questions in presentations, be careful not to make participants feel wrong or ignorant if they are poorly informed (McLagan, 1978).

Openly acknowledge the difficulties that change can create and the extra time that might be required to implement universal design and/or accommodate a specific student with a disability. Be sure to balance the description of challenges in making student services accessible to everyone with the positive outcomes that result from doing so. With a straightforward approach, resistant or defensive participants are more likely to trust you and the information you present.

Relevant Learning

Make the content relevant to the work of the participants. Postsecondary administrators and support staff have multiple responsibilities that draw upon their time and energy. As with most adult learners, as a group they are goal-oriented, have set habits and strong opinions, and have little time to waste.

When providing training for administrators and support staff, it is important to be sensitive to the different needs of participants. For example, staff need information in order to provide accessible student services in their specific campus units. Administrators need enough information to make informed policy decisions. Although some participants may enjoy learning content simply for the sake of knowledge, many will prefer to receive only information that is relevant to their positions.

Tap into the positive motivations of the audience to help them want to learn. Consider why your audience is attending your presentation. If your presentation is part of a regularly scheduled staff meeting, a brief introduction delivered by the dean or department administrator can help emphasize the importance of the material you will present. To determine audience interests, consider making brief phone calls or conducting a survey prior to a presentation to gain information, or ask participants to share their interests at the beginning of the presentation. Use the experiences of those in the session to develop examples and answer questions.

Active Learning

Audience participation can help keep your participants engaged and provide opportunities for you to reinforce key points. Ask your audience if they have worked with students with disabilities, and encourage participants to share their experiences and concerns. Incorporate information the participants wish to learn into the training session. Allow participants to discuss examples and case studies to explore how the information presented can be applied. Videos or panels of students with disabilities can provide real-life examples to promote discussion; the visual images can help participants assimilate the content.

Approach each presentation with an attitude that everyone can contribute to the learning process. Develop an environment of trust and respect by ensuring that the training is a safe place to discuss personal ideas without criticism. Let participants discuss challenges they currently face or have faced in the past, and help lead them to solutions.

Presentation Strategies

Successful presenters employ a variety of teaching strategies in response to the diverse set of learning styles found within most groups. They also consider diversity in age, experience, intellect, and background. This is particularly important when teaching new material. Successful instructional techniques include the following:

  • Teach theory and general concepts by providing practical examples that relate to the theory.
  • Use a variety of sketches, plots, schematics, computer graphics, and physical demonstrations, in addition to oral and written explanations in lectures and handouts.
  • Provide adequate time for learners to think about the material being presented, organize their thoughts, reflect, and interact.
  • Promote active participation and respond to individual questions. (Felder, 1996; Goad, 1997)


Keep concepts of adult learning theory in mind as you prepare and present professional development programs for staff members and administrators. Actively engage participants in the learning process, make the content relevant to their jobs, and work to transform inaccurate assumptions into accurate perceptions. Also, provide publications and web resources to complement presentations and address the needs of those who prefer to be self-directed in their learning. This notebook and The Student Services Conference Room at can be used for these purposes. Ultimately, increased knowledge and skills of staff and administrators can result in more positive academic and career outcomes for students with disabilities.