What is Adult Learning Theory?

Learn about adult learning theory, including the four main principles, how to apply them to your own learning process, and the benefits and limitations of the theory.

Table of Contents

Adult learning theory is a scientific field that studies how adults learn, grow, and develop. It explores the various factors that influence adult learning and provides a framework for understanding the learning process of adults. The theories of adult learning help educators, trainers, and coaches design educational programs suitable for adult learners.

Adult Learning Theory

Principles of adult learning theory

The four main principles of adult learning theory are:

  • Readiness to learn: This principle suggests that adults are motivated to learn when they perceive a need or a problem that can be solved through learning. They are ready to learn when they feel the information they receive will be relevant and useful.
  • Experience: This principle highlights that adult learners bring a wealth of experiences to the learning process. They use their prior knowledge and experience as a starting point for new learning. This allows them to connect their prior knowledge and new information, which deepens their understanding of the subject.
  • Autonomy: This principle recognizes that adult learners want to be in control of their learning process. They prefer to take an active role in their learning and make decisions about what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and when they want to learn it.
  • Purpose: This principle acknowledges that adult learners have a clear reason for wanting to learn. They have a specific goal or objective in mind. They are more motivated to learn when they see a direct connection between the information they receive and their personal or professional goals.

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How can you apply these principles?

Following are the ways to apply adult learning theory to your learning process:

  • Assess your readiness to learn: Before you start learning, consider what problem you want to solve or what new knowledge or skill you want to gain. This will help you determine if you are ready to learn.
  • Use your prior knowledge: Use your prior experiences, knowledge, and skills as a starting point for new learning. This will help you make connections between your prior knowledge and new information.
  • Take control of your learning: Make decisions about what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, and when you want to learn it. You may prefer self-directed learning or prefer work with a coach or teacher.
  • Set clear goals: Determine what you want to achieve through your learning. This will help you stay focused and motivated throughout the learning process.

Adult learning theory benefits

The benefits of applying adult Learning theory to your studies or work life:

  • Relevance: When you apply adult learning theory to your studies or work life, you are more likely to learn relevant information to your personal or professional goals. This also makes the learning process more meaningful and engaging.
  • Autonomy: By taking control of your learning process, you can learn what you want, how you want, and when you want. This can also increase your motivation and engagement, leading to a more profound and effective learning experience.
  • Increased motivation: When you have a clear purpose and goal for your learning, you are more likely to be motivated to continue learning. This can lead to a more positive learning experience and help you achieve your goals faster.
  • Improved retention: When you use your prior knowledge and experience as a starting point for new learning, you are more likely to retain the information. This is because you connect new information and what you already know, which helps you remember the information better.
  • Career advancement: By acquiring new skills and knowledge, you can also improve your job performance and increase your chances for career advancement.


Adult learning theory provides a valuable framework for understanding the learning process of adults. Applying the four principles of adult learning theory to your learning process can increase your motivation, engagement, and effectiveness as a learner. However, it is important to remember that adult learning theory does not apply to all adult learners and may not always lead to the best learning outcomes. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to determine what approach to learning works best for them.

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