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«European Journal of Business and Social Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 6, pp 150 – 168, September 2012. URL: ISSN: 2235 ...»

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PP. 150 – 168

European Journal of Business and Social Sciences, Vol. 1, No. 6, pp 150 – 168, September 2012.

URL: http://www.ejbss.com/recent.aspx

ISSN: 2235 -767X

Factors Affecting Adult Learning And Their Persistence:

A Theoretical Approach.

Awal Mohammed Alhassan.

Adult Education Unit,

Ski, Norway.


his article reviews the literature on the concept of adult learning T and systems theories and provides factors influencing their persistence in schooling. The review discusses adult learning experiences and factors influencing their persistence. It is argued that though adults are self directed and basing their learning on experiences, they need institutional and environmental support to persist to graduation.

Keywords: Adult Learning, Systems, Persistence


PP. 150 – 168 Introduction Adults learn by connecting experience with reflection (Gillen 2005, p.208). Learning in adulthood is different than learning in childhood (Knowles, 1984). To understand adult undergraduates, one must fully understand how adults learn. This is well known by educators specializing in adult education (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

This review of adult learning theory provides the foundation to explore what role institutional policies, services and the classroom environment have in persistence.

How well institutions design curricula and services that are consistent with adult learning may well have an affect on whether an adult undergraduate persists to graduation.

“Understanding learning in adulthood is like piecing together a puzzle; there are many parts that must be fitted together before the total picture emerges” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 193). The individual learner, the context in which the learning takes place, and the learning process are all parts of this puzzle. “Indeed, adult learning is the ‘glue’ holding together a field [adult education] that is diverse in content, clientele, and delivery systems” (Merriam, 1993, p. 5).

Much of the early work in adult learning focused on intelligence, and whether intelligence declined with age (Merriam, 1993). Studies regarding adult intelligence in the early part of the century were a function of both flawed methodology and flawed conclusions about the loss of intelligence later in life (Merriam, 1993). Typically, such studies were conducted in an artificial setting, and timed educational tests were used to compare young learners with older learners. We know now that intelligence is not reduced through the aging process. In fact, a significant finding in the brain research of the 1990s indicates that the more the brain is used, the less likely cognitive function will be lost (Ratey, 2001). And, supplementing the “use it or lose it” concept, intelligence can actually increase with increased intellectual exercise.

The physical and psycho-social conditions of adults certainly impact how adults learn (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Some biological changes, such as loss of hearing and sight or disease, can seriously affect the learning process. From a psycho-social perspective, life stages or events can have an impact not only on whether or not adults choose to participate, but on how they participate, in learning. Erikson’s stages of development were influential in the development of adult learning theory (Erikson, 1963;

Tweedell, 2000).

Adult learning theory and origin Adult learning theory can trace its philosophical roots back to the experiential learning philosophy of John Dewey (Tweedell, 2000). Dewey’s (1948) philosophy of newer education stressed the importance of experience in the learning process, the participation of the learner in the learning process, and the importance of perceiving learning as a


PP. 150 – 168 lifelong process. “There is… no point in the philosophy of education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process” (Dewey, 1948, p. 77).

The idea that education was related to the whole of life’s experiences, and that the educational experience required active participation of the learner, was quite radical for the time (Dewey, 1948; Tweedell, 2000). While the adult learning community has utilized these concepts as theoretical underpinnings of its pedagogy, it’s interesting, reading his work, to note resurgence in these educational concepts in education in the recent movement toward learner-centred teaching (Weimer, 2002).

The concepts of self directed learning, andragogy, and perspective transformation, have been critical to the development of adult learning theory (Merriam, 1993). Two educational theorists were products of Dewey’s laboratory school for the Department of Education: Cyril Houle and Malcolm Knowles, and the ideas of both have framed the discussion around adult educational theory (Tweedell, 2000). Houle’s research, which was a qualitative study of individuals participating in various types of learning, resulted in a typology of the adult learner. Houle identified three subgroups of learners: adults who are goal oriented, adults who are activity oriented, and adults who are learning oriented (Houle, 1961). Goal oriented learners are out to accomplish some identifiable objective, such as a degree or certification. Activity oriented learners are those who participate in learning for another reason unrelated to knowledge acquisition: to socialize, to find a spouse, to escape an unpleasant home life. Learning oriented learners are those who seek knowledge for its own sake. Houle’s research was significant to the development of the concept of self directed learning, a concept that has helped define learning in adulthood (Houle, 1961; Merriam, 1993; Tweedell, 2000). It was also significant to the development of the idea that all persons had a desire to learn, a rather radical thought for its time (Griffith, 1987).

Heavily influenced by Houle, Knowles’ (1968) concept of andragogy versus pedagogy, ie. adult learning versus child learning, is widely accepted as a seminal work in the field. Knowles was first introduced to the concept of andragogy by Yugoslavian adult educator, Dusan Savicevic. The concept of andragogy had been evolving in Europe for some time, and was further refined by Knowles (1984). Andragogy, the art and science of teaching adults, is contrasted with pedagogy, the art and science of teaching children (Knowles, 1984). In the former, the learning experience is driven by the learner; in the latter, the learning experience is driven by the teacher. Andragogy is based upon five assumptions of adult learning: maturity moves one to more self direction, experience is a rich resource for learning, learning readiness is closely related to the developmental tasks of the adult’s social role, adults are more problem centred than subject centred in their learning, and adults are motivated by internal rather than external factors (Knowles, 1968;

Merriam & Caffarella, 1999; Gillen 2005).


PP. 150 – 168 The assumptions posited by Knowles have been the subject of much debate, a frequent criticism being that Knowles was more descriptive than analytical in presenting his ideas and that andragogy is perhaps “his own ideological exposition” (Jarvis, 1987, p.

184). In spite of widespread acceptance for the assumptions of andragogy, there has been little empirical research to test the validity of the assumptions, or to predict adult learning (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999; Merriam, 1993). Although first published as a learning theory (1968), Knowles later acknowledged the andragogical model was based on a set of assumptions, rather than on a theory (Knowles, 1984). Knowles also later recognized that “pedagogy-andragogy represents a continuum ranging from teacher-directed to student directed learning, and that both approaches are appropriate with children and adults, depending on the situation” (Merriam, 1993, p. 8). While Knowles’ concept of andragogy was perhaps not a comprehensive theory, “he has provided a foundation upon which theory might eventually be erected” (Jarvis, 1987, p.


The concept of perspective transformation is informed largely by the field of cognitive

psychology. Two major themes in cognitive development are particularly informative:

dialectical thinking and contextual thinking. Dialectical thinking “allows for the acceptance of alternative truths or ways of thinking about the many contradictions and paradoxes that we face in everyday life” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 167). Adult students also think within the contextual frames of social, cultural, political, and economic forces. Mezirow’s (1990) theory of perspective transformation was significant in informing adult cognitive process. Attaching critical reflection and an awareness of why we attach meaning to reality is a hallmark of adult learning. “Uncritically assimilated meaning perspectives, which determine what, how, and why we learn, may be transformed through critical reflection. Reflection on one’s own premises can lead to transformational learning [italics original] (Mezirow, 1990, p. 18). Transformational learning means reassessing one’s perspectives or correcting distorted assumptions.

Three perspectives widening the lens through which we define adult education include sociology, critical theory, and the feminist perspective (Merriam, 1993; Tweedle, 2000). The psychological perspective has been predominant in the past. More recently, however, we are beginning to develop a more holistic perspective of adults within the context of their culture and society. Significant information from this perspective reveals who has access to what learning opportunities (Merriam, 1993; Merriam & Cafferella, 1999). We know that higher education, for example, is still predominantly white and middle class (Merriam & Cafferella, 1999). The feminist perspective, with particular attention to societal power structure, has also been directly relevant to issues of oppression and disenfranchisement. A major thrust of critical theory has been to take


PP. 150 – 168 adult learning to a macro perspective with the goal for social change and to “uncover oppressive forces that hinder individuals from developing their full potential” (Merriam, 1993, p. 11). Thus transformational learning, as discussed above, eventually leads to emancipatory learning, which leads to social action (Merriam & Cafferella, 1999). All three are systematically intertwined. As discussed above, we know that cognitive functioning does not necessarily decrease with age. We do know, however, from the work of cognitive scientists, that there are apparent losses in both short and long term memory as we age (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). We also know that older adults take a longer time to process complex information. These cognitive challenges need to be considered for the adult learner. Learning style inventories, such as Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, have proven effective in assisting the adult learner. Learning results from stimulation of the senses (Lieb, 1991). When adult students are informed about their learning styles, they are better prepared to negotiate through the learning process. “Despite the lack of uniform agreement about which elements constitute a learning style, it seems apparent that learning style inventories, unlike most cognitive style instruments, have proved useful in helping both learners and instructors alike become aware of their personal learning styles and their strengths and weaknesses as learners and teachers” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 210).

Learning from experience is certainly something the adult learner brings to the table. Adults, as indicated in the above narrative, tend to connect what they are learning to previous experiences and possible future situations (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

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