Adult Learning

Overview of Research

Knowles (1980) used the term "andragogy" instead of "pedagogy" to clarify differences between the curriculum development needs of adults and those of children. 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 in the learning environment (Millis & Cottell, 1998). Much of the current knowledge in this field is based on Knowles' ideas.

Transformative Learning

When adults participate in learning activities, they bring many years of experience with them. They view new material through the lens of this experience (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 re-examined. Individuals can choose to reject the contradictory new information or revise their previous views. Transformative learning occurs when positive adjustments to prior learning is made (Pilling-Cormick, 1997; Cranton, 1996).

Self-Directed Learning

Adults often prefer to engage in self-directed learning, where the learner has some control over setting priorities and choosing content, materials, and methods. Self-directed learning can provide a foundation for transformative learning. During the process, 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, both the adult learner and the educator influence each other's interactions. Learners may modify the educator's facilitation style. Similarly, a presenter who supports self-directedness influences participant 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 this in the first place? Reflection becomes critical when it leads to the questioning of the validity of the learning itself. The ways in which learners reflect vary depending on the nature of the subject matter and the facilitation strategies used.

One approach to teaching adults in a self-directed format is to address problems together in a collaborative manner, "in which no one need apologize for being uncertain about the material, because uncertainty is understood to be an element of all human knowing" (Roth, Cracolice, Goldstein, & Snyder, 2001, p. 51). In this type of learning environment, the presenter and the participants are open to ideas that will support learning from both mistakes and successes (Schön, 1987).

Relevant Learning

Learning is greatest when it can be applied to situations of interest to the learner and when there is an immediate benefit. If adults see the relevance of the material presented to their own situations, their motivation to learn increases and the instructor will have a more attentive audience. Motivation to learn originates from the adult learner's expectations of the usefulness of the content (Svinicki, 1996). 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 where instructional experiences are related to their real-life situations (Mezirow, 1981). Retention of information for adult learners can be maximized through activity (Thomas, 1991).

Presentation strategies that can assist in communicating necessary information about academic accommodations and faculty concerns include offering faculty practical strategies and meaningful discussion about disability issues and topics.

Implications for Practice

Some faculty members have had little or no contact with people who have disabilities. Others have taught students with disabilities in their classes. For some, accommodating students with disabilities is consistent with their sense of justice and pedagogical beliefs; for others, providing special accommodations to some students implies unfairness to others. Some faculty members welcome new ideas; others reject change. Expect that your faculty audience will hold a range of such beliefs and attitudes.

When training is voluntary, you can assume that your audience is motivated. 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. Adult learners may be impatient with hearing general information and find little use for isolated facts. Include concrete examples of accommodations, legal requirements, and campus resources.

To promote transformative learning, consider sharing myths or misconceptions related to disabilities and refute them with factual information. For example:

  • Students with learning disabilities have a lower than average IQ. [Actually, people with learning disabilities generally have an average or higher than average IQ (LD Online, n.d.)].
  • All students with hearing impairments use sign-language interpreters. (Actually, the number of people with hearing impairments who use sign language is not known (Mitchell, Young, Bachelda, & Karchmer, 2006). However, in a small study, it was found that only 26% of people use sign language (Bain, Scott, & Steinberg, 2004).)
  • Students who are deaf are good lip or speech readers. (Current research indicates that individuals have varying levels of accuracy in their speechreading abilities whether or not they are deaf (Bernstein, Auer, & Tucker, 2001).)
  • People who use wheelchairs cannot drive automobiles. (Actually, hand controls and other assistive technology allow operation of vehicles without using standard foot pedals.)
  • Providing academic accommodations is always difficult, time consuming, and expensive. (Actually, most accommodations are simple and inexpensive.)
  • Students who are blind read Braille. (According to the National Federation of the Blind, only 10% of individuals who are blind read Braille (National Federation of the Blind, 2009).)
  • People who are blind cannot use computers. (Actually, speech and Braille output and output systems provide blind computer users with full access to all content on a screen.)

Address each item in the list, correcting misconceptions and discussing experiences, resources, and procedures on your campus.

Respect audience members' expertise in their fields while at the same time, recognize that they may lack background and experience on the topic you are presenting. 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 accommodate a specific student with a disability. Be sure to balance the description of challenges that result from fully including students with disabilities in classes and programs with the positive outcomes that result from doing so. With a straightforward approach, resistant or defensive audience members are more likely to trust you and the information you present.

Relevant Learning

Make the content relevant to the work of the participants. Postsecondary educators have a wealth of knowledge and multiple responsibilities, all of which draw upon their time and energy. As with most adult learners, postsecondary educators are goal-oriented, generally appreciate outcomes more than process, have set habits and strong feelings, and have little time to waste.

When providing training for faculty and administrators, it is important to be sensitive to the different needs of participants. For example, faculty need information in order to provide academic accommodations in their specific classes. Administrators (e.g., departmental heads, deans) need information in order to make policy decisions. Some participants may have a personal interest in the subject matter or enjoy learning the information simply for the sake of knowledge; many will prefer to receive only information that is relevant to their position.

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 faculty meeting, a brief introduction delivered by the dean or chair of the department 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 life and work experiences of those in the session to develop examples and to answer questions.

Active Learning

Audience participation can help keep your participants engaged as well as provide opportunities for you to reinforce key points. Ask your audience if they have taught students with disabilities, and encourage participants to share their experiences and concerns. Incorporate information the participants wish to learn into the training section. 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 the training is a safe place to discuss personal ideas without criticism. Invite faculty members who have worked with students who have disabilities to share their experiences and field questions from the audience. Let participants discuss challenges they currently face, or have faced in the past, and help lead them to solutions.


Keep the key concepts of adult learning theory in mind as you prepare and present professional development programs for faculty members and administrators to make them more effective. Actively engage participants in the learning process, make the content relevant to their jobs, and work to transform inaccurate assumptions into accurate perceptions. Ultimately, increased skills of faculty and administrators can result in more positive academic and career outcomes for students with disabilities.