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  • Writer's pictureIrina Ketkin

A Comprehensive Guide to Adult Learning Theories

Ever wondered why learning theories are the VIPs of the L&D world? Curious about how to mix and match them like a top chef crafting the perfect dish? Ready to level-up your training game? You've come to the right place!

In this must-read article, we're diving deep into the magical world of learning theories. Yep, we're covering everything from the seasoned classic Andragogy to the spicy newcomer, Connectivism, and a whole lot more in between.

Buckle up, folks; it's going to be a tasty ride through the flavors of learning and development!

Table of Contents:

The Importance of Learning Theories in L&D

Learning theories in L&D are like the secret sauce that takes a training program from "meh" to "marvelous!"

So, why are they so important? Well, for starters, they help you understand how people learn, almost like a user manual for the human brain. Forget one-size-fits-all; these theories help you tailor your training programs so they fit like a glove on each learner's unique hand (or brain, in this case).

Imagine you're a chef. Would you throw random ingredients into a pot and hope for the best? Nope, you'd follow a recipe! Similarly, learning theories give you a tried-and-true formula for cooking up educational experiences that people will not only enjoy but also remember.

And let’s not forget motivation—knowing why and how learners are motivated can be the difference between a snooze-fest and an edge-of-your-seat thriller. For instance, adult learners aren't going to be thrilled by a gold star sticker; they want skills they can apply now, not when they grow up—they're already there!

Finally, these theories aren't just about making learning more effective; they also make it more efficient. Why waste time with methods that don't stick when you can employ strategies that have the 'stickiness' factor of a Post-it note?

In short, if L&D is the ship, learning theories are your North Star, guiding you toward more impactful and engaging training programs.

1. Andragogy

Author: Malcolm Knowles

Year: 1968

Definition: Developed by M. Knowles, andragogy is the study of adult learning, as opposed to pedagogy, which focuses on educating children. Andragogy addresses the specific needs and characteristics of adult learners:

  • They want to have freedom and direct their own learning. Therefore, they should be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instructions

  • All of their previous experiences become foundations for new knowledge and skills. Therefore, experience and mistakes should be at the heart of all learning activities.

  • They want to know how what they are learning is going to help them solve their challenges or problems. Therefore, they would be most interested in topics that have immediate relevance and impact on their personal or professional lives.

  • As a person matures, their motivation to learn becomes internal (i.e., seeking self-actualization) rather than external (i.e., rewards and punishments)

Picture this as the "gardening" of adult learning. You're not sprinkling water on young sprouts but tending to fully grown plants. It's about nurturing growth where the roots are already deep.

Practical application: Imagine you're conducting a workshop for senior managers on leadership strategies. Instead of giving a one-size-fits-all lecture, you'd first conduct a needs assessment, asking participants about their specific challenges and what they hope to gain from the workshop (addressing their desire for relevance and self-direction). Incorporate case studies or scenarios that mirror their real-world experiences, allowing them to reflect, share past mistakes, and brainstorm solutions (acknowledging their foundation of experiences). As you introduce new concepts, always tie them back to their current roles, showing them the immediate applications of the knowledge. Finally, rather than just dangling external rewards like certificates or badges, emphasize the intrinsic value of becoming a more effective leader and how it contributes to their personal growth and self-actualization. In essence, using andragogy in practice means treating your adult learners as co-creators of the learning experience, leveraging their rich backgrounds while addressing their current needs and future aspirations.



  • Tailored for adults

  • Respects learner's experience

  • Focuses on immediate applicability

  • May not be suitable for all learners

  • Assumes high level of self-direction

  • May overlook foundational knowledge

2. Experiential Learning

Author: David Kolb

Year: 1970’s


Experiential Learning claims that the experience is at the center of the learning process. Adults can absorb new skills, as well as retain and apply their knowledge when they are engaged in activities and reflection. The 4 distinct stages of the learning cycle are:

  1. Concrete experience – learning something new or experiencing something familiar in a new way

  2. Reflective observation – thinking about what happened and reflecting on it

  3. Abstract conceptualization – making sense of their experience and reflections: thinking about the next steps and coming up with a plan.

  4. Active experimentation – acting on previous reflections, thoughts and plans and noticing any changes from the first experience(s).

This is the "learn by doing" or the "trial by fire" approach. You’re not just sitting and listening; you're in the trenches, getting your hands dirty to really understand the task at hand. It's the culinary school of learning theories—taste as you go!

Practical application: Imagine you're training a team on effective communication skills. Instead of merely giving them a lecture, you'd first immerse them in a real-world scenario—perhaps a role-playing exercise where they navigate a challenging communication breakdown (Concrete Experience). After the exercise, you'd facilitate a discussion, allowing participants to share their observations and feelings about how things unfolded (Reflective Observation). Next, you'd provide them with frameworks or theories on communication, helping them understand the underlying principles and strategies for effective dialogue (Abstract Conceptualization). Armed with this new knowledge, they'd then practice these strategies in another role-playing scenario, applying what they've learned and seeing the difference in outcomes (Active Experimentation). Over time, as they cycle through these stages, their communication skills would refine and improve, ensuring that the learning isn't just theoretical but truly applied and internalized. So, experiential learning isn't just about knowing; it's about doing and evolving.



  • Engaging and interactive

  • Encourages reflection

  • Real-world applicability

  • Time-consuming

  • Potentially costly

  • May require specialized facilitators

3. Transformational Learning

Author: Jack Mezirow

Year: 1978


As the name might suggest, transformational learning is about changing how the learner perceives and interacts with the world around them. This involves a deep, structural shift in the way the learner thinks, feels and acts, not just learning new facts.

This is the ultimate "makeover show" for your mind. You go in as one person and come out fundamentally different. It's the "Marie Kondo" of learning—does this belief spark joy?

Practical application: In practice, you'd design a program that doesn't just impart knowledge but challenges the participants to critically reflect on their deeply held beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions. For instance, when conducting a diversity and inclusion workshop, rather than just teaching about various cultures or workplace statistics, you would engage participants in activities that confront their biases. This could involve immersive experiences, such as role-playing exercises where they step into the shoes of someone from a marginalized group, or deep introspective discussions that urge them to reflect on times they may have acted based on prejudice. Such exercises, paired with thoughtful guidance and a safe space for open dialogue, can provoke transformative 'aha' moments, leading to lasting changes in attitude and behavior. The goal here isn't just to add a new layer of understanding but to reframe the participant's entire viewpoint, fostering more inclusive and empathetic perspectives.



  • Deep, impactful learning

  • Increases self-awareness

  • Promotes personal growth

  • May be emotionally taxing

  • Not suitable for all topics

  • Requires skilled facilitation

4. Action learning

Author: Reg Revans

Year: 1982


This approach to learning emphasizes solving real problems through a cycle of planning, taking action, and then reflecting on the results. At its heart lies solving real organizational problems away from the classroom, continuous improvement and practical learning.

You can think of this as the “speed-dating” of problem-solving: quick rounds, immediate feedback, and the clock is ticking. It’s about tackling problems in real-time and learning on the go.

Practical application: Imagine a company facing a sudden decline in sales. Instead of hiring a consultant, they form an Action Learning group comprising of sales reps, marketing team members, a product manager, and even a few customers. Through critical questioning, they might uncover unmet customer needs, market shifts, or internal challenges. They then devise a plan, implement it, and reflect on the results, adjusting their strategy as needed.



  • Practical and hands-on

  • Encourages teamwork

  • Focuses on real-world problems

  • May lead to scope creep (when the project's requirements seem to increase over time)

  • Requires commitment from all members

  • May neglect theoretical understanding

5. Self-directed learning

Author: D.R. Garrison

Year: 1997


In this model, the learner takes the initiative in identifying their own needs, goals, and resources and sets on a learning journey, taking an active role in seeking and applying knowledge.

Consider this the "solo backpacking trip" of education. You set the destination (goals), map out the path (resources), and lace up your boots (take action). No tour guide needed, you're steering this ship.

Practical application: Imagine rolling out a self-paced e-learning module to the entire company. Instead of giving employees a strict curriculum, you provide them with a repository of resources - videos, readings, podcasts, and exercises. They are then given the freedom to choose what they want to explore based on their job roles, interests, and learning goals. For instance, a marketing professional might dive deeper into topics related to digital advertising, while someone in sales might focus on negotiation techniques. Regular check-ins or reflective journals can be introduced, where learners share their insights, challenges, and progress. This approach not only makes learning more personalized and relevant but also empowers individuals to take ownership of their professional growth.



  • Learner-centered

  • Flexible scheduling

  • Personalized learning paths

  • Requires high self-motivation

  • Lacks structured guidance

  • Risks of incomplete or biased learning

6. Project-based learning

Author: John Dewey

Year: 1897


Coming up with new products and services or working on real-world challenges in the form of a project is at the heart of this learning theory. This allows learners to acquire a deeper understanding due to the interactive and outcome-focused methodology used. The final result is tangible projects and solutions.

We can equate this to assembling an IKEA dresser. You start with an end goal (a piece of furniture or a work-related project), you follow a plan, and in the end, you’ve built something you can actually use. Allen wrench not included.

Practical application: Let's say your company wants to boost its social media presence. Rather than providing lectures on social media strategy, teams can be assigned to design and launch a social media campaign. Along the way, they'll research best practices, draft content, design visuals, and monitor metrics, all while collaborating and problem-solving. By the end of the project, not only had employees learned about social media marketing, but the company also benefited from the tangible outcomes of their efforts, be it increased followers, engagement, or even sales.



  • Encourages collaboration

  • Engaging and motivating

  • Produces tangible outcomes

  • Can be time-consuming

  • Requires clear objectives and planning

  • Risk of unequal participation

7. Behaviorism

Author: B. F. Skinner

Year: 1938


This early model of how humans learn posits that learning is a change in behavior and that these changes are the result of an individual’s response to positive and negative stimuli in the environment.

It's the "carrot and stick" of learning theories. Good behavior gets a treat, bad behavior gets nada. It’s the "slot machine" psychology—rewarding enough to keep you pulling the lever.

Practical application: In a corporate environment, employees might be rewarded for completing training modules with bonuses or other incentives. On the other hand, they might face deductions or miss out on perks if they don't adhere to company policies learned during training. In a classroom, teachers might implement a token system: learners earn tokens for positive behavior, which they can later exchange for rewards. This system encourages desired behaviors by consistently reinforcing them with positive outcomes and discouraging undesired behaviors with negative consequences. Having said that, however, I would urge you to stay away from rewarding people for learning – gaining new skills and knowledge should be a reward in and of itself. If you start providing external rewards, people might begin to learn purely for those incentives, undermining their intrinsic motivation and potentially reducing the genuine interest and engagement they have in the learning process itself.



  • Easy to measure and evaluate

  • Effective for skill repetition

  • Encourages desired behavior

  • Ignores cognitive processes

  • Reliant on external rewards

  • May lead to rote learning (memorizing information through repetition)

8. Cognitivism

Author: Jean Piaget

Year: 1960's


Unlike behaviorism, which focuses solely on observable behaviors, cognitivism focuses on the mental processes involved in learning, like memory, problem-solving, and thinking. Jean Piaget’s work was a massive contribution to developmental psychology and the theory of cognitive behavior. Here, the learner is an active participant in their own learning process.

Imagine your brain as a computer, storing and processing information. Cognitivism is all about how we understand, diagnose, and solve problems. It's like playing a strategic board game but inside your head.

Practical application: Leveraging cognitivism would mean creating learning experiences that cater to the internal cognitive processes of learners. For example:

  • Prior Knowledge Activation: Begin sessions by connecting new information to what learners already know. This can be achieved by asking questions or providing prompts that tap into their existing knowledge.

  • Problem-Solving Activities: Integrate scenarios or case studies that require learners to apply critical thinking and reasoning to arrive at a solution.

  • Structured Thinking: Provide learners with frameworks or models to organize and categorize information, aiding in better retention and retrieval.

  • Reflective Exercises: After presenting information, give learners time to reflect on what they've learned and how it connects to their existing knowledge.

  • Interactive Discussions: Foster discussions where learners can share their insights, ask questions, and debate points of view. This not only encourages active learning but also helps in deepening their understanding.

  • Metacognitive Strategies: Encourage learners to think about their own thinking. This could involve self-assessments or journaling about their learning processes, strategies they found effective, and areas of challenge.



  • Addresses mental processes

  • Encourages deep understanding

  • Structured and organized

  • May overlook social factors

  • Focuses primarily on mental activities

  • Can be complex to implement

9. Constructivism

Author: Lev Vygotsky


This theory suggests that learners construct their own understanding and knowledge through close-to-real-life experiences and active engagement with the material, followed by reflection on those experiences.

You’re like a master chef in your own cognitive kitchen. You mix ingredients (experiences) and techniques (thinking skills) to cook up your own understanding. Think of it as learning through a series of "Eureka!" moments.

Practical application: For instance, imagine teaching a group of employees how to use a new software. Instead of just lecturing them, you'd start by letting them explore the software on their own, giving them basic tasks to perform. As they experiment, they'll encounter challenges. This is where guided support comes in. Pair novices with more experienced peers or provide mentors to help guide them through difficult tasks. The mentor provides hints, scaffolding, and encouragement, gradually stepping back as the learner becomes more competent. Over time, the novice becomes the expert and can then mentor others. This creates a cycle of continuous learning and support, allowing for deeper understanding and mastery of skills.



  • Promotes critical thinking

  • Encourages active engagement

  • Allows for multiple perspectives

  • May lack structure

  • Requires skilled facilitation

  • May result in misconceptions

10. Social learning theory

Author: Albert Bandura

Year: 1970’s


Social learning is just that – learning by observing, modeling, and imitating the behaviors and emotional reactions of others.

It's like learning the guitar by jamming with friends. You pick up new chords by watching and mimicking others. It’s the "YouTube tutorial" approach to learning—see it, then do it.

Practical application: A company might facilitate social learning by creating mentorship programs where new employees are paired with seasoned veterans. For example, in a sales role, a novice could shadow a top-performing salesperson during client meetings. By observing the experienced salesperson's techniques, body language, and communication style, the newcomer learns effective selling strategies firsthand. Over time, through this observational approach, the new employee starts to adopt and internalize the successful behaviors and strategies demonstrated by their mentor.



  • Leverages social context

  • Encourages observational learning

  • Adaptable to various settings

  • Dependent on quality of role models

  • May encourage unwanted behaviors

  • Difficult to measure and evaluate

11. Humanism

Author: Carl Rogers


Carl Rogers emphasizes that the ultimate goal of learning is the importance of personal growth and self-actualization. Humanism is a learning theory that emphasizes personal freedom, choice, self-determination, and striving for personal growth. It centers on the belief that each person has an innate drive to achieve their full potential or self-actualize. Here, we need to focus not just on the cognitive skills of the learners but also their emotional or affective needs. One of the cornerstone principles of humanism is that learners take responsibility for their own learning and are driven by internal rewards, such as personal satisfaction and growth, rather than external rewards or punishments.

Envision this as the "yoga" of learning theories. It's not just about flexing your mental muscles but also achieving a holistic sense of well-being. This one’s the personal trainer of learning theories, focusing on your holistic development. Mind, body, and spirit.

Practical application: You might organize self-paced learning modules where employees choose topics aligned with their career goals. Instead of a standardized test at the end, they could reflect on their learnings in a journal or a group discussion, sharing how the new knowledge aligns with their personal and professional aspirations.



  • Focuses on the whole person

  • Encourages self-actualization

  • Prioritizes emotional well-being

  • Difficult to measure outcomes

  • May neglect practical skills

  • Requires highly empathetic facilitators

12. Connectivism

Author: George Siemens

Year: 2005


The majority of the previous theories were developed before technology became such a predominant force in our lives. However, in the age of information overload, to remain uneducated is a personal choice. Connectivism posits that learning resides in a variety of digital sources. Therefore, our ability to learn and update our skills is more important than what we currently know.

Consider this the "social media feed" for your brain. Information isn’t just stored in your head; it's also in the links, shares, and connections you make online. Your network is your net worth.

Practical application: For a company training program, you might create a collaborative online platform where employees can share, discuss, and annotate resources, articles, and tutorials relevant to their roles. Instead of a traditional classroom session, learners could be tasked with following industry influencers, joining specialized webinars, or participating in online forums. Over time, they curate their personal learning network, continuously updating and refreshing their knowledge through dynamic digital interactions.



  • Highly relevant in digital age

  • Encourages networking

  • Dynamic and adaptable

  • May be overwhelming

  • Requires digital literacy

  • Lacks structured curriculum

13. Gagné’s Conditions of Learning and Taxonomy

Author: Robert Mills Gagné


Robert Mills Gagné‘s groundbreaking work on the "conditions of learning" outlines specific factors that optimize the learning process. He believed that different levels of learning require different types of instruction, laying the groundwork for educators to design more effective and tailored teaching strategies.

Gagné’s 5 Conditions of Learning:

  1. Intellectual skills (Cognitive domain) – learner knows how to solve a problem using the taught knowledge

  2. Verbal information (Cognitive domain) – the learner can state, recite, tell and declare the taught new knowledge

  3. Cognitive strategies (Cognitive domain) – the learner develops thinking techniques and strategies to analyze the problem or other similar situations

  4. Motor skills (Psycho-Motor domain) – the learner can physically perform the taught actions to solve a problem

  5. Attitudes (Affective domain) – the learner has the mental state(s) required to influence their choice of personal actions

Gagné’s 9 Levels of Learning:

  1. Gain attention.

  2. Inform students of the objective.

  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning.

  4. Present the content.

  5. Provide learning guidance.

  6. Elicit performance (practice).

  7. Provide feedback.

  8. Assess performance.

  9. Enhance retention and transfer to the job.

Imagine this as a recipe for effective learning. Just as a cake needs flour, sugar, and eggs in a specific order, Gagné tells us that there are nine instructional events that work best when followed in sequence.

Practical application: If you're training employees on a new software system:

1. Gain the learners’ attention: Start with a compelling scenario showcasing a common challenge they face without the software.

2. Inform students of the objective: Clearly state that by the end of the session, they will be proficient in using the new software to solve that challenge.

3. Stimulate recall of prior learning: Ask them about their experiences with previous software and how it compared to the current challenge.

4. Present the content: Introduce the new software, its features, and benefits.

5. Provide learning guidance: Offer step-by-step guides, cheat sheets, or video tutorials as a reference.

6. Elicit performance or practice: Allow them to use the software, perhaps simulating the scenario from the start.

7. Provide feedback: As they practice, offer real-time corrections, and praise.

8. Assess performance: Once they've had ample practice time, evaluate their ability to use the software effectively.

9. Enhance retention and transfer to the job: Discuss real-life applications and scenarios they might encounter and encourage them to apply what they've learned immediately.



  • Structured and systematic

  • Addresses varying learning needs

  • Facilitates outcome measurement

  • Can be rigid

  • May lack learner engagement

  • Complex to design and implement

14. ARCS Model Of Motivation

Author: John M. Keller

Year: 1980's

Definition: Keller’s ARCS Model stands for Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. It's a motivational framework designed to stimulate and sustain learners' motivation throughout the instructional process. In essence, it's about:

  1. Attention - Capturing and sustaining the learner's focus.

  2. Relevance - Making the learning meaningful by connecting it to the learner's own experiences and goals.

  3. Confidence - Ensuring learners believe they can succeed and understand the learning objectives.

  4. Satisfaction - Ensuring learners find the learning process rewarding and fulfilling.

Picture it as the rousing pep talk before a big game or the heart-pounding score in a movie’s climactic scene. It's all about stimulating that internal drive to learn and pushing forward!

Practical application: Let's say you're conducting a workshop on digital marketing for small business owners. To grab their Attention, you might start with a surprising statistic about how a particular digital strategy can triple their sales. For Relevance, you'd share success stories of similar businesses and how the digital strategies you're about to share helped them soar. To boost their Confidence, break down complex concepts into manageable steps and celebrate small wins throughout the workshop. And for Satisfaction? Well, maybe provide them with a toolkit at the end, filled with resources and templates they can immediately implement, showing them the tangible benefits of attending. So by the end, they're not just learning, they're eager to put that knowledge into action!



  • Elevates learner engagement

  • Adaptable to various learning scenarios

  • Fosters self-directed learning

  • May not suit all learner types

  • Requires a deep understanding of the learner's profile

  • Potentially challenging to balance all four components effectively

Tips for Implementing Learning Theories in Practice

Just because you have all these learning theories at your disposal, doesn’t mean you should use all of them. So consider this your culinary guide to implementing learning theories in practice. It's like cooking up a five-star meal: you've got to pick the right ingredients and know how to mix them to achieve culinary greatness.

Picking the Right Ingredients for Your Audience and Subject

First off, choosing a learning theory is like picking the main ingredient of your dish. You've got to consider who's coming to dinner and what's on the menu. Training veteran managers? Andragogy could be your go-to protein. Teaching new hires basic skills? A hearty serving of Behaviorism might just do the trick. Remember, knowing your audience is like knowing whether to opt for salmon or steak.

How to Master the Art of Culinary Fusion with Theories

Who says you have to stick with just one cuisine, er, we mean theory? You can create a fusion dish that's the talk of the town!

  1. Pick Your Base Flavor: Decide on one main theory that lays the groundwork for your course—think of it as your base broth.

  2. Add Seasonings: Now introduce a few elements from another theory to spice things up—perhaps a dash of Cognitivism or a sprinkle of Constructivism. Make sure the flavors harmonize!

  3. Taste Before Serving: Before you unveil your gourmet course to the world, do a little taste test—better known as a pilot study. Does it delight the palate, or does it need a touch more seasoning?

  4. Plate and Serve: Once you've got the mix just right, it's time to serve it up. Watch as your learners dig in, savoring each bite of knowledge like it's a Michelin-starred meal!

Bon appétit, chefs of the learning kitchen!


And there we have it, folks—the A to Z, or should I say Andragogy to Gagné, of learning theories!

So what's the TL;DR here? Learning theories aren't just fancy jargon to impress your colleagues at the next L&D conference. They're your GPS for navigating the sometimes-confusing world of training and development, guiding you to more effective and engaging programs.

For all you L&D newbies out there, don't just stop at this article—dig deeper, experiment, and make these theories your new best friends. You won't regret it. Heck, you'll probably thank yourself the next time you're designing a killer training program.

Got any juicy stories or burning questions about your own experiences with these theories? Spill the tea in the comments below! We're all ears and always up for a good learning chat.

Catch you on the flip side, where we'll continue to turn theory into practice and make the world a smarter place, one training session at a time!



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