Sample Research Paper on Analysis of Selected Adult Learning Theories

Analysis of Selected Adult Learning Theories

Adult learning theories explore concepts related to change in behavior and experience, and they are organized sets of principles that give insight into the way adults acquire, retain, and recall knowledge. Knowing and understanding the various learning theories help people to understand how learning occurs. Over the years, several adult learning theories have been developed. The theories are categorized into traditional and contemporary adult learning theories. Five traditional adult learning theories explain how education is provided to adults, including behaviorism, humanism, cognitive learning theory, social cognitive theory, and constructivism. Several contemporary adult learning theories also exist, some of which include reflective practice or reflective learning, transformational learning, experiential learning, self-directed learning, project-based learning, action learning, and others. For this paper, two traditional adult learning theories, behaviorism and constructivism, and two contemporary adult learning theories, reflective learning and transformational learning are selected for analysis.

Components of Selected Traditional and Contemporary Adult Learning Theories


Behaviorism is a traditional adult learning theory that draws its arguments from the proposals of Thorndike, Watson, Pavlov, Hull, Guthrie, Skinner, and Tolman with significant contributions to the field of psychology. Its proponents argue that knowledge exists independently and outside people, with a further view of the learner as a blank slate that must be provided with experience. According to behaviorists, adult learning takes place in the event of the acquisition of new behaviors or changes in behavior. The acquisition follows associations between stimuli and responses that ultimately lead to behavioral change (Yarbrough, 2018). Behaviorists mainly argue that the need of individuals is what motivates or drives them to undergo a learning process, and this is evident in adult education where people learn mainly because they need to solve specific problems. The problem to be solved thus acts as the stimulus. The learning process is believed to begin once the stimulus, which in this case is a problem, is presented. The learner then has to react to the stimulus with a certain type of response. The desired behavior is then followed by consequences reinforcing it. A typical example is an expectation that when a person studies for a test, he or she will get a good grade. The good grade attained is attributed to behavioral change which entails studying for a test.

Behaviorism is considered the most practical method through which adult learning occurs. In this theory, a major role of the educator is the enhancement of learning environment conditions with the ultimate objective of obtaining the desired response from the learner. The fact that most adults have the desire to learn means that the educator has a responsibility of availing the necessary environment for them. Despite its consideration as the most practical method for adult learning, there are several criticisms of behaviorism. One of the criticisms is that it hardly accounts for all kinds of learning as it ignores activities of the mind (Yarbrough, 2018). The theory of behaviorism is also criticized based on the fact that it gives no explanation of specific learning types including recognition of new language patterns that do not entail reinforcement mechanisms.


The constructivist theory argues that an individual can construct his or her own perspectives of the world based on aspects such as experience and internal knowledge. The theory further argues that the occurrence of learning is dependent on an individual’s interpretation and the creation of the meaning of his or her experiences. The learner constructs knowledge. Learning happens to be unique and varies among individuals with this based on the fact that people have different sets of perceptions and experiences (Muneja, 2015). According to proponents of the constructive theory, individuals usually generate mental models on which they can rely when it comes to making sense of their experiences. The bottom line, according to constructivism, is that learners must have a significant knowledge base for them to create and interpret ideas. The theory also maintains that outcomes can hardly be predicted since learners construct their own knowledge.

Transformational Learning

This theory was developed in 1978 by Jack Mezirow, and it argues that learners use varied assumptions, beliefs, and expectations when making sense of the world and things around them. It focuses on helping learners to change or transform their existing reference frames through procedural tasks, problem-solving, and self-reflection (Mukhalalati & Taylor, 2019). Learning transformation usually takes place when a person encounters a disorienting dilemma that confronts his/her existing beliefs. Learning transformation also occurs when an individual critically reflects upon something that has taken place. Unlike traditional and other contemporary adult learning theories, transformational learning is regarded as a sticky learning type as it can cause a shift in a person’s perspective on behavior, interaction, and problem-solving. Transformation learning is best for complex analytical processes, personal change, and a growth mindset, as well as situational evaluation and analysis.

Reflective Learning

Reflective learning, also known as experiential learning, is all about the enhancement of student learning by providing opportunities through reflective practice for learners to develop and apply theory in practice. The theory stems from the ideas of John Dewey, Donald Schon, and David Kolb (Roland, 2017). Dewey argues that reflection is a fundamental precursor to action, implying that learners must think and mull over what they encounter and read in order to apply the knowledge better. Schon emphasized two types of reflection, including reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection-on-action is an unconscious event dealing with the knowledge people use in solving problems and carrying out actions, whereas reflection-in-action occurs as the action happens. In the latter, the learner reflects on what he or she is doing while doing it. Reflective learning follows a cyclical route that entails four critical steps or stages as identified by Koln.

Comparison of Traditional and Contemporary Adult Learning Theories

Traditional and contemporary adult learning theories help to understand how adult learning occurs. However, the two categories of adult learning theories differ in terms of applicability to teaching styles and adult learning. Traditional adult learning theories focus on various aspects of adult learning, including observable and measurable behaviors signifying that learning has occurred, how people learn, as well as the learners’ role in their own learning (Mukhalalati & Taylor, 2019). Concerning applicability to teaching styles and adult learning, traditional adult learning theories emphasize the memorization of tasks and summer reading reward systems, problem-solving tasks, and mind mapping activities, as well as social learning and connected learning. Based on traditional adult learning theories, adult learning is best achieved through repetitive practice, provision of incentives to learners, verbal reinforcement, the establishment of rules, classification of information, using real-world examples, problem-solving, brainstorming, collaborative learning, discovery learning, and simulations, among others.

Contemporary adult learning theories shift from the argument that learning is all about observable and measurable behaviors. One of the major arguments of this category is that how adults and children learn is different. Contemporary theories are unlike traditional theories that hold that the observation of behaviors applies to children and adults alike. Thus, contemporary adult learning theories are based on different principles. Regarding applicability to teaching styles and adult learning, these principles are that adults learn better from experience, adults favor and apply to learn to solve a problem, adults learn things with immediate relevance, learning must help learners to transform or change, active participation in the learning process is key, as well as reflection upon practice (Mukhalalati & Taylor, 2019). Moreover, contemporary adult learning theories demand the learner to be able to select appropriate learning, exercise control over learning decisions, uses diverse skills of collaboration and communication, and that peers, coaches, or teachers must be involved in the learning process.

Adult learning theories revolve around basic concepts of behavioral change and experience. These theories are categorized into traditional and contemporary adult learning theories. The traditional adult learning theories explored above are behaviorism and constructivism. Behaviorism argues that adult learning occurs when one acquires new behavior or changes behavior. Constructivism asserts that learning entails an individual’s interpretation and creation of meaning from own experiences. The contemporary adult learning theories explored are reflective learning and transformational learning. Transformational learning argues that learners use varied assumptions, beliefs, and expectations when making sense of the world and things around them. Reflective learning is about the enhancement of student learning by providing opportunities through reflective practice for learners to develop and apply theory in practice. Traditional and contemporary adult learning theories vary greatly regarding applicability to teaching styles and adult learning


Mukhalalati, B. A., & Taylor, A. (2019). Adult Learning Theories in Context: A Quick Guide for Healthcare Professional Educators. Journal of Medical Education And Curricular Development6, 2382120519840332. Retrieved from

Muneja, M. S. (2015). A theoretical basis for adult learning facilitation: Review of selected articles. Journal of Education and Practice6(31), 54-61. Retrieved from

Roland, K. (2017). Experiential learning: learning through reflective practice. International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education8(1), 2982-2989. Retrieved from

Yarbrough, J. R. (2018). Adapting Adult Learning Theory to Support Innovative, Advanced, Online Learning–WVMD Model. Research in Higher Education Journal35. Retrieved from