The Definition of Learning in Adult Education

Topics: Adult Education

According to Merriam-webster, learn is a transitive verb defined as “to gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience.” I believe this is often the intended definition in common everyday use of the word. In speaking about adult learning, however, Merriam and Brockett (1997) use a much more specialized definition: “Adult learning is a cognitive process internal to the learner; it is what the learner does in a teaching-learning transaction, as opposed to what the educator does” (p.

6). After providing this definition of learning, these authors go on to offer several definitions of adult education including the one they maintain: “activities intentionally designed
for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults” (Merriam & Brockett, 1997, p. 8). I embrace their definition, which verifies the importance of the activities and techniques we as adult educators provide for our students in order to facilitating their learning. In exploring literature on techniques for teaching adult learners, I have found
that some of the suggested techniques I already employ in my adult class; some I will try with my students when class resumes in the fall; and some I really like but are incompatible with my program.

The adult class I teach is a program to prepare learners ages eighteen and above (sixteen and seventeen year olds are admitted upon providing a signed waiver from the school district they last attended) for the GED Tests. Because our program is funded by the state, many decisions surrounding content and procedure are made for teachers and students, As a result, the learning that takes place is more accurately described as self-regulated than self-directed because, as Brookfield (2013) explains “students have some choice in determining how they will achieve institutionally approved objectives” (90).

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Even though procedure and materials to be used are previously determined, some aspects of both can be loosely implemented, leaving room for some variation. For example, upon enrollment in our program, each student is given the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), an instrument that identifies a student’s grade equivalency in the basic skills of English, reading and math. Then upon attending class for the first time, every student must begin working in the area of his/her lowest grade level. Students can make some decisions about how they go about working on a skill, choosing materials, working independently, in groups, or with teacher assistance, for example, but they must all
demonstrate enough increase in grade equivalency level to qualify as a benchmark (benchmarks are defined by the state) in their weakest content area. Once a student has benchmarked, he/she can decide what subject to work on next. According to procedure, students continue to work on each skill until they reach grade equivalency levels of 12.9, post high-school, in each subject area, at which time they are ready to take practice GED tests.

In reality, however, some students can and have scored well above qualifying on practice GED tests and gone on to pass the official GED tests after scoring at the tenth grade level. These situations occur because of circumstances Mackeracher (2010) identifies as factors that account for the differences in learning characteristics between childhood and adulthood” (p.26). For example, one young man was scheduled to begin a job offshore and knew he would not have time to reach the required 12.9 grade equivalency goal. He wanted to see how he would score on the practice GED before he left for his job. I gave him the practice tests, and his scores were well above minimum for passing and clearly indicative that he could pass the GED, an accomplishment he achieved on his first week off from his new job.

In this situation, as I have done in others, I had established a relationship with the young man that allowed him to feel comfortable telling me about his work situation and his desire to move forward at an accelerated rate, and I was flexible enough to adjust procedure to meet his individual needs. Literature about effective learning in adult education usually includes discussion of both the importance of the relationship between teacher and student and the need for flexibility. For example, regarding relationships, Mackeracher (2010) explains “the learner’s need to establish a sense of belonging within the learning environment by developing connections to other learners and to the facilitator” (p. 151); regarding flexibility, she explains the importance of teachers’ providing learning activities that “include opportunities for testing new behaviours in relative safety, developing mutually trusting relationships, encouraging descriptive feedback, and reducing fear of failure” (pp. 37-38).

In discussing the pragmatism of adult learming, Merriam and Brockett (1997) list principles on which the philosophy of adult education are founded, one of which is “a focus on learners and their needs and experiences rather than on predetermined content” (p.36); they go on to provide a thorough discussion of Malcolm Knowles’ development of andragogy, “a way of thinking about working with adult
learners” (p.135). In talking about andragogy, Ota, DiCarlo, Burts, Laird and Gioe (2006) caution teachers to “be wary of prescribing any standardized approach to facilitating learning” (“Needs of the Adult Learmer,” para. 8). These various writers have given validation to what I consider the foundation of my techniques in working with adult learners.

One of Knowles’ six assumptions underlying the concept of andragogy is that adults want to know why they need to learn something before they will make a commitment to learn it (Merriam & Brockett, 1997, p.136; Ota et al. “Needs of the Adult Learner,” para. 1). I have seen this in many students, especially those struggling with math skills that they believe they will never need. At this point I usually engage the student ina dialogue in which I ask delving questions in an attempt to lead him/her to an area of personal interest or common life experience that might require use of that particular skill. This practice reflects another of Knowles’ assumptions adults are life centered when
it comes to learning (Merriam & Brockett, 1997, p.136; Ota et al. “Needs of the Adult Learner,” para. 6). If the student and I are unable to identify a potential real-life use of the skill, I suggest the value of learning a difficult skill for the sake of leaning to learn, something they will undoubtedly be faced with in life. This technique is consistent with another term common in adult education literature referred to as ‘situated cognition,’ a term Mackeracher (2010) describes as a body of ideas “based on the notion that all knowledge is contextually situated and is fundamentally influenced by the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used” (p. 201).

I have related some of my practices to my adult education philosophy and ideas because, as Mackeracher (2010) says, “we can improve our facilitating strategies and styles by becoming more aware of our beliefs” (p. 206). One of the strategies she discusses that is typical of the techniques I use is the “Enabling Strategy.” Among the roles of the facilitator in her description of this strategy is the facilitator acting as a catalyst in the learning process, providling content and resources, and providing support, guidance and encouragement (Mackeracher, 2010, p. 208). I see myself in these roles during nearly every class session as I interact with students and monitor their progress. The final driving force behind the techniques I employ in class is one of my greatest strengths as a teacher, encouragement. Brooktield (2013) validates the importance of encouragement in adult education when he explains the importance of convincing students, especially when they become
discouraged, that “contrary to what they might believe, they are actually making small incremental gains” (p. 103). I believe everyone needs to be encouraged, especially when working diligently on a difficult task that is part of an important, personal goal. Encouragement defines my approach to teaching my adult learmers; by the very structure of our program, I take the role of “guide on the side” (Lacefield, 2005, “Active Learning,” para. 1; Mackeracher, 2010, p. 140) there to assist and encourage my students as needed.

Even though most of what we do in our class could be accurately described as self-regulated learning, I do believe many of the techniques I use are moving my students toward self-directed learning. Brookfield (2013) says, “The nuts and bolts of any self-directed learning project are the daily microdecisions learners make about what to do next” (p.114), and I witness examples of these decisions regularly. When a student decides to work independently or design his own work plan, when a student decides to ask a classmate for help and knows which one to ask, when a student makes choices about which subjects to practice in order to stay focused on what he needs most right up to the test date, and when a student creates his own time and task schedule in order to accomplish a goal, he/she is moving toward self-directed learning (Brookfield, 2013, p.115).

In addition to finding validation of the techniques I use regularly in adult education, I have also found some ideas of things I will try when class resumes in the fall. Sullivan (2010) emphasizes the need for an increase in effective learning and suggests more activity in the post-secondary classroom as a solution. From her suggestions, I plan to use some new techniques at the beginning of the year and when new students arrive, especially activities that involves the students and do not allow them a chance to become passive. She says, “If we want our classroom to be an active classroom, we must begin to engage our students in a direct and meaningful way from the first day of class” (Sullivan, 2010, p. 69). The question of suitability of some activities for adult learners has been a recurring topic in our class this semester, but I argue Flores-Isom’s (2007) point that human beings do not develop in exactly the same way or at the same rate.

“If there are disadvantaged adults who are physiologically at the same level of development as middle school children or high school students, some of the methods for teaching such individuals would not differ at all” (Flores-Isom, 2007, “The Myth Regarding Teaching Methods for Adults vs. Children,” para. 2). Therefore, depending on the developmental levels of my adult learners, I will consider some of Sullivan’s suggested techniques for active learning, such as “Getting-to-Know-You Bingo,” a traditional game bingo game that requires physical movement of the players; “popcorn reading,” an approach to reading aloud that involves spontaneous starting and stopping by student readers; and “What Are You Doing?” an interactive questioning session between two or more students who are reading fiction. Like Sullivan, Lacefield (2005) offers an active technique I plan to use with my adult learners. “Scaffolding” is the repetitious practice of identifying a task to be accomplished and, once it is accomplished, building on it to achieve another task. This technique will fit nicely into our program; in fact, we already do this, but the students may not realize we are doing it. I think if students can see the scaffolds, they will eventually begin to create them independently and “become increasingly in control of their own learning” (Lacefield, 2005, “Teaching Methods,” para 3).

Naturally, I read about many techniques that are not compatible with our GED preparatory program. However, one technique surprised and impressed me, and if ever given the opportunity to utilize it in a class, I would like to. Whitton (2012) writes about the learning potential of digital games. Although many people might think of children and teenagers playing digital games, adults too, especially young adults, are quite at home in the electronic world in which we live. I was surprised by the validity of Whitton’s argument and the potential for learning through digital games. Whitton identifies various benefits of playing games: specific and valuable skills– problem solving, communicating in groups, learning through failure– learners acquire while playing these games; techniques -progressing levels of difficulty, feedback that supports learning, motivators such as challenges and rewards, competition, and suspense-utilized in games; and the safe environment for exploring and experimenting created in games (p. 249).

Her suggestions for capitalizing on these benefits without the expense of purchasing actual digital games is impressive The two alternatives I Iike best are providing students with tools and techniques for creating simple, low-cost games and learning from the games and applying the characteristics of the games to traditional teaching (Whitton, 2010, p. 252). When it comes to techniques to facilitate adult learning, Mackeracher (2010) says, “There is no one best facilitating style’ for use with adult learners. Each style is appropriate for some learners, in some setting, and for some content” (p.227). If we as the facilitators practice what we preach by engaging in our own self-directed learning and continuing to seek ideas for new techniques to use, our classrooms will become the embodiment of Merriam and Brockett’s (1997) definition of adult education; ours will be classrooms brimming with activities that bring about learning among adults.

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The Definition of Learning in Adult Education. (2023, Mar 10). Retrieved from

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