Adult Learning and Development Theory

Identify, describe, and interpret theories of adult learning and development, applying relevant theories to the design, implementation, and evaluation of effective learning experiences for adult learners in higher education and continuing education.

In January 2009, I participated in a CCE 577 (Learning in Adulthood) group project that sought to collect data on inclusion, attitude, meaning, and competence, which are described by Wlodkowski (1999) as “motivational conditions that substantially enhance adult motivation to learn.” (Wilder, 2009).

Inclusion can be defined as “the awareness of learner that they are part of an environment in which they and their instructor are respected by and connected to one another.” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 69). To accomplish this as an instructor, I like to apply the brain-based learning theory approach described by McGinty et al., (2013), and spend time building a learning community, including through introductions (p. 52) that ask about learner interests and goals. This approach “invites adults to access experience, to reflect, to engage in dialogue” and “allow their histories to give meaning to particular academic or professional knowledge,” which according to Wlodkowski (1999), can “enhance motivation to learn.” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 70).

Attitude can be defined as “a combination of concepts, information and emotions that results in a predisposition to respond favorably or unfavorably toward particular people, groups, ideas, events, or objects (Johnson, 1980).” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 71). Similar to brain-based theories of education asserting “the brain adapts and adjusts when it encounters new information,” (McGinty, 2013, p. 49), Wlodkowski suggests that attitudes are “for the most part, learned” and therefore can be “modified and changed.” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, pp. 72, 73). As an educator, I like to support positive attitudes by applying guidance from McGinty et al., (2013) to “acknowledge that all questions are good and all perspectives are valid” (p.56, citing Mezirow, 1991), while insisting on critical evaluation of information sources.

Meaning can be defined as the connection made by learners between theirgoals, interests, and perspectives” and the learning experience. (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 76). The brain-based learning theory approach advocated by McGinty et al., (2013) insists that it is crucial to “let students tell their own story” and that the instructor role includes the support of learners as they “make meaning of their learning and apply it to their work, life, or community settings.” (p. 56). As an instructor, I often developed assignments that asked students to select topics relevant to their career goals and interests, which seems to support learner motivation in the brain-friendly manner described by Wlodkowski (1999), who writes that “for the process of learning … to be desirable and genuinely enjoyable, adults must see themselves as personally endorsing their own learning.” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 75). Wlodkowski also suggests that this use of “relevant learning goals” to “ask learners to choose something they want to research” can help support a positive attitude towards the learning experience (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 85).

Competence can be defined as “feelings of efficacy” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 77). McGinty et al., (2013) note that “[l]earning related stressors are often perceived as noncaring or nonresponsive educators, homework deadlines, peer pressure, the potential for humiliation or embarrassment, feelings of inferiority, and lack of self-efficacy,” (p. 53) and quote Bandura (2001) for the warning that “learners can become inhibited if they perceive that they will not be successful at a given task” (pp. 53-54). In project-based and problem-based assignments tailored to student interests, my educator role as an editor and provider of constructive feedback on research and writing appears to fit within the motivational framework described by Wlodkowski (1999), and the assertion that “adults experience feelings of efficacy because they are competently performing an activity that leads to a valued goal.” (Wilder, 2009, quoting Wlodkowski, 1999, p. 78).  McGinty et al., (2013) note that “creating an atmosphere of acceptance, encouragement, and support is crucial” (p. 53), and this appears to be an important part of promoting feelings of efficacy and competence in learners.



McGinty, J., Radin, J., & Kaminski, K. (Spring 2013). Brain-Friendly Teaching Supports Learning Transfer. New Directions For Adult and Continuing Education, 137: 49-60

Wilder, R. (2009, January). “Motivation.” CCE577. Learning Document. Retrieved from:

Wlodkowski, R.J. (1999). Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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