Critique of Adult Learning Written by Conlan, Grabowski, and Smith

Lorene Payne
University of Houston

Brief Overview

Some aspects of teaching are appropriate when applied with either adult learners or children. The authors of this chapter express the belief that traditional learning styles are seen in both groups. Yet planning and implementing adult education requires some considerations specific to that group. This chapter discusses the needs of the adult learner and teaching implications for practical application when working with adults in the educational field.

Key Points

  • Androgogy, or adult teaching, was described first by Malcolm Knowles. He recognized 5 principles applicable to adults that need to be considered when planning and implementing adult education: (1) self-directive in learning, (2) previous life experience is a reservoir for learning, (3) learning needs are related to changing social roles, (4) wants immediate application of knowledge, problem based and (5) internal motivation to learn.
  • Previous work by Merriam (1999) is referenced which emphasizes the need to recognize the “briefcase” of previous experiences and factors which affect adult learning. Among these are things such as life experiences, work, aging and time since previous learning experiences.
  • Suggestions are made for those involved in teaching adults, collectively referred to as a “Toolkit” for adult educators. Among the suggestions to include in this toolkit are that the adult educator needs: to understand thoroughly principles of instructional design, understanding of learning styles, cultivate learning communities, ability to coordinate programs, capability in multiple delivery including on-line, the use of learner centered and self-directed learning.
  • Various learning theories are effective with adult learners. Examples of those presented in this chapter are: Action Learning, Experiential Learning, Project Based Learning and Self Directed Learning.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Chapter


  • The title of the chapter is clear. There is a logical progression to the content presentation, beginning with background theory and expanding to principles and applications.
  • The authors have themselves actually applied teaching techniques they promote in the presentation of their information. For instance, there is effective use of technology through inclusion of Power Point and videos. They also used links to other pertinent chapters from the same WikiBook, i.e. for information on Constructivism, learning by design and Project based learning.
  • Inclusion of a summarizing table is well done. This table brings together succinctly all of the major points covered in the chapter and can be a quick reference for the reader.
  • The use of case studies was excellent in clearly demonstrating the ideas presented. Examples were “real-life” and appropriate to the content.


  • The authors did not clearly differentiate between project based learning and experiential learning. Both approaches meet the adult learners’ need to draw on previous experience and work with practical learning. However, descriptions of both seemed almost identical. In fact, there is admission of comparability between the two.
  • Each section of the different approaches used in adult education includes a brief bulleted list of advantages and disadvantages with each type. However, these lists could be more reflective. For instance, experiential learning should note that there is a danger of students not reaching beyond the familiar, striving for more than is already known. The example of the cancer nurses seems to limit their learning to information already collectively understood and then shared in the group.
  • There is no discussion of evaluation of adult learning. What is the research showing about alternate assessment for instance portfolio, etc? This is an important aspect of both corporate training and university course work, yet was omitted from the chapter.
  • The chapter could also be improved with inclusion of the differences in adult learners by generation, and ideas of how this affects the adult classroom. The term “adult learners” was used in the chapter as if this is a homogenous group. In reality, the largest group are baby boomers (born between 1943 – 1960), followed by Generation Xers (born 1961 – 1981) and then Generation Y (1981 – 2001). Each of these adult groups, as products of their times, are different in their learning needs and approaches. Below are some examples of basic differences:
    • Strauss and Howe (1991) define a generation as possessing certain characteristics, shared values and beliefs
    • Baby boomers are the largest group and expect long work hours, rigid classroom structure and did not grow up with technology. Seventy-three percent of college teachers belong to this group. http://nces.ed.govhttp://nces.ed.gov
    • Gen Xers value their free time, play and work hard, do not automatically respect a teacher, look for competence, are comfortable with technology.
    • Gen Y are the first generation of true “digital natives” and expect technology throughout their curriculum, expect immediate communication and feedback from teachers.


This is a welcome chapter for me as an adult educator myself. So often, discussions of teaching, learning and curriculum are centered on K – 12 education. Many ideas are transferable to adults in the classroom, but there are differences in teaching adult learners. This chapter did a credible job of discussing those aspects unique to adult learners. It could be improved through inclusion of extra topic areas, such as evaluation in adult education and generational considerations in adult education.