The concept of “adult learning” is largely accredited to Malcolm Shepherd Knowles as the pioneer of research into this area of study. Many theories have since then been proposed and advanced with regard to adult learning. Major researches in this field have been done by Albert Bandura, Marriam and Caffarella (1999), Collins (1991), Gruber (1973), Gordon Ross (2002), Brookfield (1980s), the list goes on. The research findings are characterized by conflict of views and emergence of new ideas focusing on adult learning, also commonly referred to as andragogy. In most cases, the processes involved in studying adragogy are extensively compared and contrasted with those observed in child education, or otherwise known as pedagogy. This paper focuses on the theoretical perspectives of adult learning proposed by the various scholars including Albert Bandura. Key Words: Andragogy (Adult learning); Pedagogy (Child learning):


Researches into learning process have been one of the most paramount scholastic researches that have been conducted in different fields of study. One of the commonly referred to of such research was that which was conducted by Albert Bandura back in the 1970s.Bandura investigated into the effects of the theory of learning on individuated exposed to different sources of knowledge (Bandura, 1973). In his “social learning theory”, Bandura posited that “individuals can learn or borrow knowledge and ideas from each other by mere observations, imitations and modeling”. 

For instance, characters who serve as models for aggressive behavior may be attended to by viewers and depending upon whether the behaviors are rewarded or punished, would either inhibit or encourage imitation of the behaviors” (Bandura, 1973).

According to Bandera’s theory of social learning, children are more vulnerable to new and influential ideas which may contribute significantly in cultivating their behaviors as they grow into the adulthood age bracket (Bandura, 1973). 

Theories of adult learning are characterized by common basic concepts acting as variables and providing the basis on which arguments have been built. Experience and behavioral change are perhaps the most utilized variables in this research. Merriam and Caffarella (1999) observed that commencing 1950s, “the very basic definitions of learning were established around ideas of change and behavior”. According to these researchers, this initial conception triggered the emergence of new ideologies and theoretical frameworks. The question of whether performance was based on learning or learning had no impact on shaping human behaviors remained a question of debate (Bandura, 1973).

Subsequent to the complexity that was already arising in understanding the learning process, Jean Piaget proposed cognitive development stages. Piaget contended there were “four invariant phases of cognitive development in relation to age”. Formal operations was his final stage in cognitive development, a stage between the age of twelve and fifteen. The argument under this stage was that “normal children reached the final development stage of development between the age of twelve and fifteen” (Bandura, 1973). This phase was later renamed “the problem solving stage” by Brookfield (1986). Arlin posited formal thought was not a one stage process as Piaget believed, but a stage composed of other two distinctive stages (Bandura, 1973). Arlin`s hypothesis, however, generated more debate, escalating into more questions than answers, “opening doors to understanding of the adult learning” and drawing the attentions of many intellectual thinkers. This paper pays attention on the various views raised by different thinkers on this issue, and to what extent this may have redefined the general understanding of adrogogy.

Literature Review

Gordon Ross did an extensive review on adult learning and came up with a set of what he referred to as “the important facets and perspectives of adult learning theory” (Brookfield, 1984). These were inclusive of behaviorism, constructivism, humanism, critical perspectives and “personal responsibility orientation”. Authors like Albert Bandura (1973) had a rather different view of the entire process. In his school of though, “adult learning was an interactive relationship of both theory and practice (Bandura, 1973).His research was build upon “quantitative studies, quantitative measures and leaning projects”. The general conception of this research study was that “adult learners studied a particular theory and then put the theoretical knowledge into practice” (Bandura, 1973).

The finding father of the concept of adult leaning is commonly believed to be Malcolm Knowles. Knowles’s work paved way for the study and research on adult learning which was to become an exceptional field of study for many scholars from different fields. Knowles began by giving his precise definition of what he thought about adult learning. According to him, “adult learning was the art and science of helping adults to learn” (Knowles, 1968). He went ahead to compare and contrast between adult learning and child learning. Child learning, as he defined it, “was the art and science of helping children to learn” (Knowles, 1968). Knowles’s studies “were based on the assumptions that there existed substantial identifiable differences between adult learners and learners below the age of eighteen years” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).To Knowles, adult learning was a more self directing process facilitated by experience, internal motivations and high level of the anxiety to apply what has been learnt. Adult learners were mostly attracted to development oriented tasks (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

The works of Malcolm Knowles became popular between 1960s and 1980s, more so after he concocted and popularized the concept andragogy to mean “the art and science of helping adult learners” and pedagogy to mean “the art and science of helping children to learn” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).He emphasized andragogy was a newly emerging technology which would “facilitate the development and implementation of learning activities in adulthood” (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).Andragogy as it has been understood  was a technology built on five key presumptions. The five building assumptions included experience, self concept, orientation, readiness and motivation (Merriam and Caffarella, 1999).

Knowles held that as an individual became more mature, he or she gradually moved from being dependent to being self-directness. The experience that came with adulthood played an important role in adult learning and “the learning readiness of adult individuals was closely related to the conception of new social roles”. Adult learners had greater level of orientation, desire to apply what has been learnt, and lastly, motivation for learning increased in maturity and were influenced by internal factors (Knowles, 1968 & Bandura, 1973).

The prevailing theories on adult learning have been based on the five assumptions proposed by Knowles. Collins (1991), delved into the aspect of experience which they pointed out as the most conspicuous in “a person’s ability to create, retain and transfer knowledge” (Collins, 1991).

The theories of adult learning have also had very little consensus, with continued debates going on and many theories being developed to help understand the learning process taking place in adulthood. Broad range of theories available has made the study even more complex, with theorists attempting to actualize their theoretical perspectives. Because of the many theories, some researchers have labeled them into groups. For instance, “the stimulus-response and cognitive theories” advanced by Bower and Higard (1966) and “the organismic and mechanistic theories” proposed by Merriam and Caffarella (1999) are different groups of theories on adult learning.

Knowles` views on learning have, however, not escaped the trap of criticism. Merriam and Caffarella (1999) in their literature reviews questioned whether the idea in Knowles` work was to develop a theory on teaching or a theory on adult learning. These researchers emphasized it’s not apparent as to whether what Knowles presented in his work was “a theory on adult learning or a theory of teaching” (Merriam & Caffarella 1999, & Bandura, 1973). This stand was backed up by Brookfield (1986) who contended Knowles must have failed to accentuate or even prove his theory far from his preliminary work coupled with well grounded principles of good teaching and learning practice.

Some other researchers, the caliber of Starbuck and Hedberg (2003), suggested the art and science of learning was a process influenced by both situational and environmental factors. These group of researchers held that environmental and situational circumstances could either promote or make learning impossible to certain individuals. They added some circumstances were established by “the structure of organizations, time constraints and either negative or positive environmental conditions” (Brookfield, 1986).

Arguing on the basis of “Multiple Intelligences”, Howard Gardner presents a group of “theorists who discarded the idea of one type of intelligence measured by modern psychometric instruments” (Brookfield, 1986).Gardner believed not only one type of intelligence exists, but seven. Constituting his list are “linguistic intelligence, logical arithmetic intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence” (Bandura 1973 & Brookfield, 1986). He argues further both the linguistic and the logical arithmetic intelligence are measured by the Intelligence Quotient test shorted as IQ test. Naturalist intelligence became Gardner`s eighth intelligence factor which he described as “the ability to recognize classify the living species, flora and fauna” (Brookfield, 1986).

With regard to internalization of new information, Collins (1991) discussed three basic categories of theorists. First, the dualistic thinkers, those who believe in absolute truth. They spend their time knowing only one truth for every aspect, and have difficulty in internalizing the truths found in the “shades of grey”, that is, the truths that do not come in black and white as clear cut. The second category was that of multiplistic thinkers, those who are programmed to learn by analyzing multiple truths to find one right answer. They differed from the former group since they believed that there could be several solutions, but only one is applicable. Then the dualistic thinkers who tended to believe there was only one solution. The final category was the relativists` thinkers. This group of thinkers believed the truth or solution to a problem was relative and situational. They were more capable of dealing with situations that are neither presented in black or white (Bandura, et al, 1973).

Research Findings

To exhaustively understand the patterns of self directed learning, it is crucial to discuss the differences in how people obtain and internalize new information. This is important because as people develop and familiarize with a pattern of acquiring and internalizing new information, it forms the basis of knowing the unique needs of adult learners and how to meet the needs (Merriam & Caffarella 1999 & Bandura, 1973).

Considering the above scenario, adult learners can perform exceptionally well when other circumstances are put in place. This will involve putting the learners in an environment where they are respected for who they are. According to the research findings of (Knowles, 1968), the learners will also be motivated if they are placed in learning groups with their peers). Most learners will be motivated if they share past learning experiences, work related or career experiences and if they are age mates. 

Adult learners are mature people still under the instructions of a tutor to expand their knowledge. They are considered non-traditional students since they differ from school going students with respect to their age, experiences and dependence. This is because most of them are well advanced in age and instead of depending on someone, they actually have people who depend on them. These people can be spouses or children and other dependants or relatives. School going children are considered traditional students since they fall in the right category of age and experience level to be under the care of an instructor (Merriam & Caffarella 1999, & (Knowles, 1968).

The traditional students fall in the group of leaning called k-12 learners. This is basically a summary of ‘kindergarten to grade 12’ learning that reaches a minimum of 16 year of age. This is usually the basic leaning requirements for an individual to acquire skills such as reading, writing and even critical thinking in the advanced levels of learning. Anybody undergoing the k-12 system and is above 18 years of age can be considered as an adult learner or in this case, a non- traditional student (Knowles, 1968 & Collins, 1991).

Adults are different from children in many ways. The basic characteristics of an adult can promote or hinder their learning capability. Most adults are independent and may have people who depend on them. This factor can be considered in different ways depending on the adult in question. Due to the state of independence, some adults are capable of learning without being given a lot of attention by the educators. Others may require special attention despite their independence in order to learn and understand (Collins, 1991). 

It is also a common belief that maturity increases with advancement in age. However, this assumption may be a factor that is still under dispute because some people show more maturity at tender ages than their seniors (Bandura,1973, Merriam & Caffarella 1999,  & Knowles, 1968). 

Motivators are important factors in improving the experience of learning. The motivators for learning can be external, like awarding good performance and punishing poor performance. These motivators can also be internal. This is seen in the personal drive to acquire knowledge and the satisfaction derived from this, whether it is physically rewarded or not. Whether internal or external, motivators are useful in adult education to increase interest. Most adults, however, find internal motivation very effective as it encourages them to acquire various skills and knowledge (Collins, 1991)

The adult learners or non-traditional students are all mature people. This means that over the course of their lives they probably acquired skills, interests and various experiences. Learning becomes more meaningful when it relates to their field of knowledge. This impacts significantly into their interests since most learners grasp the contents when they are taken from the known to the unknown (Knowles, 1968 & Bandura).

In order to fully participate in the learning process and enjoy the experience, adult learners may require some aspects of learning. All learners, traditional or non-traditional students come into the learning arena with their unique backgrounds, experiences and personalities. Non-traditional students who are considered mature are more aware of their uniqueness and individuality. Taking this into account will greatly motivate them to learn by feeling appreciated and noticed as individuals (Collins, 1991 & Gardner, 1993).

Apart from their uniqueness, these adults have differing status and abilities. Recognition in terms of status and effort to utilize some of the abilities they posses will also motivate learning. This is possible because they will have a sense of meaning and direction (Collins, 1991).


To encourage adult learning, the learning process should be tailored to relate to the experiences in life. This will motivate the learners, as they endeavor to apply the new knowledge. It’s also apparent that adults are visionary learners, and therefore being able to see the end product right from the time they begin the process of learning is one of their desires. The ability to visualize the end product of their learning experience is a major factor in motivating the learning process. The learner should be able to see the knowledge they acquire playing a vital role in their future to motivate them.

Simply put, adult learners are more focused on their goals and ambitions, and they will do all it takes to achieve their dreams. If we have to put this into a better theoretical perspective, then we may be obliged to consider the stand of Collins (1991). As per the argument of this thinker, “adult learning is an interactive relationship of both theory and practice” (Collins, 1991).


The concept of “adult learning” has largely been accredited to Malcolm Knowles who is also believed to be founder of the concept adrogogy, “the art and science of adult learning”. Many theorists like Bundara (1973), Marriam and Caffarella (1999), and Collins (1991) borrowed significantly from Knowles’s work. The research findings have been characterized by conflict of views and emergence of new ideas. In conclusion therefore, it can be noted that the many researches have helped shape up the understanding of adult education.

Annotated Bibliography

Bandura, Albert. Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice- Hall, 1973.43-60.

Albert Bandura is renowned for his theory of social learning, in which he Argued “individuals can learn from one another through observation, imitation, and modeling”.Bandura was a behavior list theorist who strongly believed in 

behavior change, “modeling and reciprocal determinism”. In addition to his theory  On social learning, Bandura has published works on “social foundation of  Knowledge and action, Self efficacy, principles of behavior modification” among Others.

Bandura, A. “Social Foundations of Thought and Action”. Englewood  Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 1986 Bandura, A. (1997). “Self-efficacy: The exercise of control”. New York: W.H. 

Freeman Bandura, A. (1969). “Principles of Behavior Modification”. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Brookfield, S. “Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning”. Jossey-Bass. San  Francisco.1986.

In this work, Brookfield Stephen investigates into the factors that facilitate learning in adulthood stages.

Collins, M. “Self-directed learning and the emancipatory practice of adult education, 

Re-thinking the role of the adult educator”. “Proceedings of the 29th Annual Adult 

Education Research Conference”. Calgary University. 1991.

Collins, M is a senior researcher at the University of Calgary

In this report, Collins compiled research findings of the 29th Annual adult  Conference. The emphasis in the report was that adult learning was a process 

Characterized by both theory and practice. 

Knowles, M. “The Modern Practice of Adult Education”: “Andragogy versus pedagogy”. 

Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall- Cambridge.1984.

Malcolm Knowles was an Educational researcher at the State University, North  Carolina. He is accredited as the finding father of adrogogy, “the art and science 

of adult education”. In this work, Knowles has discussed elaborately on the  distinctive factors influencing adult learning. Knowles worked for over  30 years in adult education and clinical psychology fields. He studies leaning 

Process as an art and science.

Merriam, S. B. & Caffarella, R.S. “Learning in adulthood”: A comprehensive guide. 

San Francisco, CA. Jossey- Bass Inc. 1999. Merriam and Caffarella are Educational researchers whose works have greatly Contributed in the study of adult learning. In addition to their work titled “Learning  in adulthood published in 1999, they have also conducted a research on  Androgogy and self-directed learning”, investigating into “the pillars of adult  Learning theory” in 2001.