Theoretical Bases and Research in Adult Education



Is there a unique theory of, or theory for, adult education? That question is a difficult one to answer and it is not fully answered in this chapter. The uniqueness of adult education and the adult as learner has been discussed, described, and researched for many years, especially by those who consider themselves to be adult education professionals. Some of the resulting information is summarized in this chapter, but it will be up to you to do your own study of the many references cited in this book.

Many of the factors prompting the long and continuous argument over the uniqueness of adult education have stemmed from the marginal status given adult educators by other educators or by professionals in related disciplines. For example, the majority of past educational research and theory building has been concentrated on youth, on curriculum design needs for K-I2 schools and for colleges, and on the leadership skills needed to teach and administer youth-related education. The United States has chosen to place its emphasis on the education of children and youth and, as a consequence, education and training of adults often has taken a back seat.

However, as suggested in Chapter 1, the many forces necessitating that people be engaged in learning throughout their lives have also resulted in expanded research in adult education, an ever increasing body of related literature, and increased attention on adult education as a unique field of endeavor. As knowledge about the adult learner and the design or operation of programs for the adult have accumulated through research and experience, those individuals who think of themselves as educators and trainers of adults have been able to move away from a marginal status to one of professionalism. Such a movement has done much to promote the research, writing, and commitment necessary to develop a theory base for adult education.

Whether or not adult education is a discipline, a field of endeavor, or a profession is not be argued here. You are referred to several of the references cited at the end of the chapter for more discussion on such topics. However, what is presented in this chapter is information, emerging theory, and theory borrowed from other disciplines that pertain specifically to educational programming for the adult as student. It should be obvious that there are several limitations in attempting to describe through one chapter the relevant research and theory for a field of study. Some readers will find little new information and would wish for more synthesis and a deeper probing regarding what is known about adult education. Other readers will find too much new information to digest with one reading. In addition, a decision was made not to footnote each separate research finding, research report, or book used so that the size of the chapter could remain relatively similar to the other chapters. Thus, it is my hope that the information is seen as a basic reference point and that, as I note in the opening paragraph, you will carry out additional study of the various references cited at the end of this chapter and other chapters.

Why Have a Theory?

A person who relates to other people in some manner requires or works from theoretical bases applicable to the problems being faced. Frequently, such bases cannot be verbalized or are not recognized; however, personal values, a philosophy of dealing with others, and procedural techniques stem in some manner from theory and practice. The adult teacher or trainer must know something about a teaching and learning process; an adult education administrator must know something about leadership; an adult counselor must know something about psychology.

Adult educators have at least one major goal in common with other educators and with many professionals from various social science areas--the utilization of the most effective organizational forms and interaction processes available for supplying educational services to people with learning needs. The differences in approaches to solving educational problems or to meeting known learning needs will usually stem from known differences in the person to be served.

Thus, information presented in this chapter is based primarily on research about the adult person as opposed to youth. However, it should be obvious that generalizations about adult learners are nearly impossible because of their various ages, educational backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels. Many of the findings or assumed theoretical bases presented in the next two major sections have not been verified with every different category of adult learner. Nor is there justification in most instances for suggesting that the information pertains exclusively to the adult person, as opposed to the K-12 or college age student. What is found to be a good teaching-learning technique for an older adult, for example, frequently can be very effective with a young adult or a child.

In addition, a considerable amount of the theoretical framework that supports any educator is borrowed and reformulated from a variety of disciplines. As Figure 7.1 shows, the adult educator makes use of knowledge from several sources, such as general educational theory and theory from a variety of the social sciences. The overlapping areas among the three circles represent how theory from one area also fits or is reformulated for use in another area. The journal Adult Education and its predecessor Adult Education Quarterly were used as primary sources for gathering information about ongoing research and research trends. Other journals, magazines, sourcebooks, and conference proceedings served as valuable resources, especially in thinking about various overlapping areas,but the two journals provided the most help.            

Figure 7.1. Theoretical Bases for Educators of Adults

Numerous topical areas could be discussed as adult education theory bases. The topics chosen for inclusion in this chapter as the bases for the next two major sections were obtained from analyzing the journal Adult Education and its predecessor Adult Education Quarterly and looking at past research, ongoing research, and research trends. Other journals, magazines, sourcebooks, and conference proceedings served as valuable resources, but the two journals provided the most help. The categories represent those areas where considerable attention has been given by researchers and where considerable information is known.

In addition, two time eras were used to reflect different levels of intensity and research style. The first era, roughly covering the 1960s and 1970s, includes research that tended to be more foundation building and based on survey, descriptive, and speculative methodologies. The second era, roughly covering the 1980s through to current time, includes research that has tended to be more clarification, expansive, and refined in nature. This era also has been built more from a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and philosophical methodologies. It also has been characterized by debates, critiques, and author responses that have reflected the maturation of the adult education field.

Undoubtedly, many areas of research that should be addressed are not covered in this chapter. For examples, technology, brain research, policy formulation, and concerns with post modern approaches to working with adults have only been receiving some attention in the past few years. However, space limitations and personal judgments by the author have limited the subjects to those about to be presented. A revision of this chapter in another decade or so most likely will reflect many of these changes and they are described in greater detail later in the chapter when speculations about future research are included.

The 1960s and 1970s--Building a Theory Base

The following subsections contain summarizations of various research findings during the 1960s and 1970s. A brief analysis of what the research and theory meant for the adult educator during those time eras are found as the concluding remarks for each subsection. Certainly not all of the possible implications are discussed. Some of the more recent historical research has begun to analyze these time periods and it is anticipated that future research will delve into these eras even more.

The Adult Education Participant

The adult education student has been studied often and in many ways. Adult education researchers and others began taking a concentrated look at adult participants in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s trying to find out who they were and in what they were interested. The 1960s and 1970s were periods in which usable survey instruments and prediction scales for studying the adult education student were developed and where group and individual differences in participants were examined.

One of the landmark examinations of adult participants was by Johnstone and Rivera in 1962 (see the Bibliography). Nearly 24,000 adults throughout the United States were interviewed to obtain information on their educational activities. Based on that information, it was estimated that approximately 25 million adults--more than one person in every five at that time--had been engaged in one or another form of educational endeavor. A great deal of that activity, nearly one-third, was in self-directed or independent study of some nature. About one-third of the endeavors were of a vocational nature and another one-fifth in the recreational sphere.

A 1972 survey (see Cross and Valley in the Bibliography) suggests that a significant increase in participation had taken place in the ten years between the two surveys. A usable sample of 1,893 respondents responded to questionnaires about their educational activity. From that information it was estimated that nearly one adult in every three is involved in some form of adult education. A greater involvement in recreational activity (approximately 42 percent), a slightly less involvement in vocational subjects, and a moderate increase in the study of general academic subjects were found when the 1972 information was compared with the 1962 data.

From the studies described above and from numerous additional research endeavors concentrating on fairly specific audiences, the following picture could be drawn about participants in organized adult and continuing education during the 1960s and 1970s. People who participate more than others in adult education were likely to be the following:

People who participated less in adult education were found to have lower incomes and socioeconomic levels, to maintain a fairly restricted social circle of friendships, to engage passively in sports, and to limit most of their activity to fairly immediate surroundings.

Researchers also studied specific audiences and users of specific types of adult education. For example, the more highly educated, those with plans for further continuing education, and those individuals living in highly populated areas were more frequent users of the public library. As another example, it was found that among adults with low educational achievement levels, the least educated, those under age 35 and over 65, unemployed individuals, homemakers, those with the fewest number of children, and people with the greatest withdrawal tendencies participated the least.

A number of reasons were found as to why people participate in adult education. As described in Chapter 3, Houle theorized that there were at least three basic reasons for participation in continuous educational activity: Some people had a specific goal in mind, some were activity or socially oriented, and some were just plain interested in constantly learning new things. Other reasons that have been determined include wanting to be a better informed person, to have initial or updating job information, to achieve a religious goal, to escape from environmental problems or pressures, and to comply with a formal requirement.

A variety of barriers to participation were uncovered during the research in this time period. Some of the important reasons given as obstacles to participation are as follows:

What does information of this nature reveal about the field of adult education? The teacher, potential teacher, or program administrator should be able to derive several implications. For example, offering formal adult education classes in neighborhood schools or community college buildings or even homes can lessen some of the barriers to participation. Independent study opportunities, financial assistance, daytime courses, and reduced credit and other bureaucratic or formal requirements are also corrective possibilities. Research reported in the next major section regarding the 1980s and beyond, provide some refinement understandings.

In addition, knowledge that current participants tend to be highly education oriented suggests that helping to promote a positive attitude toward education and learning among all citizens has the potential of prompting a greater utilization of education in the future.

Dropping Out and Persevering in Adult Education

Related closely to the accumulated information on participants in adult education is the research and evolving theory that existed during the 1960s and 1970s as to why some people drop out of educational programs. No accurate national statistics were available then or is now available on the percentage or number of adult dropouts in a given year, but it can range from none to a fairly high percentage in some classes or programs.

The research that was completed on this topic during those two earlier decades enabled the following picture to be drawn representing most dropouts. The dropout in comparison to the person who completes a course or program often has the following:

Several other findings were available. For example, younger people were more likely to drop out than older persons. Some researchers have suggested that age may be the most powerful factor in predicting who will drop out. Single individuals, females, minorities in an integrated learning environment, nonhomeowners, and those having an inactive employment status who enroll in job-related education frequently dropped out more than their counterparts. If strictly credit adult education classes were examined, individuals with lower academic abilities tended to drop out more; however, people with higher academic abilities were more likely to drop out of noncredit classes. On the other hand, several research studies showed no relationship between academic ability and a propensity to drop out when all forms of adult education were considered.

Some researchers also looked at persons who finished the adult education activities they started. They found that perseverers were more likely to do the following:

Enrollment in hobby-related adult education, recency of past education, and personal motivation also were found to be related to perseverance. One study reported, too, that professional and technical workers dropped out less than other occupational classifications.

Closely related to the idea of perseverance is the regularity of adult education class attendance. Researchers found that the degree of course understanding, a person's fulfillment of needs, the approachability of the instructor, and the amount of formal and informal class interaction were related to attendance. In addition, research on class attendance occasionally disclosed some rather surprising findings. In at least one study, attendance regularity and the sociability of one's classmates, were found to be negatively related.

At lower socioeconomic and educational levels the dropout problem often was tied to vocational reasons. For example, dropouts from a manpower training program often had resided in areas with the greatest employment opportunities, had previous work experience in service occupations, had received higher incomes before training, had a history of unemployment, and had less education compared to those who did not drop out. Dropouts also reported less satisfaction with the training.

However, not all the reasons found for dropping out can be directly related to the student. For example, the stated requirements of the involved adult education agency, the reception given enrolling students, the informality of the learning setting, and the attention given to student needs, all were found to be related to the dropout problem. Even the type of instructional method employed by the teacher and the course contents can have a bearing. More information on the instructional setting and teaching methods is given in later subsections.

The adult educator should be able to derive various implications from the information presented above. Who are recruited into certain educational programs, supplemental and attention needs of potential dropouts, bureaucratic and administrative decision needs, and the classroom atmosphere requirements are all important elements of the learning environments. Perhaps the most important finding such research described above revealed about adult education is that differences between persisters and dropouts do exist; consequently, continuous research will be required if a workable theory on helping all kinds of adults is to be developed.

Intelligence and Achievement Factors

The ability of the adult to achieve in educational settings was studied by several researchers. In addition, adult intelligence has been of research interest for a number of years. For example Wechsler (see Bibliography) was a pioneer in researching adult intelligence. Although various IQ tests for adults exist with varying degrees of validity, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS ) was one of the tests most often utilized for research and counseling purposes.

The achievement ability was examined in many ways. One study showed that grades as a measure of achievement were related in a positive direction with advancing age, vocabulary levels, amount of education, and socioeconomic status. Other researchers found that achievement is related in a positive direction to recency of education, to whether or not a person had participated previously in adult education, and to whether or not a person had formal college education. Another research effort found that the knowledge of humanities, social science, and history improved with age, whereas knowledge of mathematics and science decreased. Research on a specific type of adult student found that students in extension courses achieved as well as regular undergraduate students.

Related to achievement potential is the topic of attitudes. For example, considerable evidence existed to suggest a theory of increasing close-mindedness with advancing age. One study found a negative relationship between achievement and overall social conformity (agreeing with others). However, a steadfast generalization cannot be drawn because such variables as the amount of education, religious affiliation, and income level can have a direct bearing on change potential. Indeed, some researchers found no evidence of increased rigidity with age.

The implications of the above research and emerging theory are many. Obviously, adults have the potential to succeed with learning endeavors throughout their lives. Intelligence tests can be used with adults for a variety of reasons of interest to adult educators. In addition, prospective teachers of adults need to be cognizant of changes that take place with increasing age or decreasing income levels in order to make the appropriate adjustments within the classroom setting or in the development of learning materials.

Learning and Psychology

So much information, research data, and theory existed during the 1960s and 1970s related to adult learning and psychology that it is impossible to do justice in describing the material in one small subsection. Adult educators, psychologists, and researchers from various disciplines have studied the adult learner for a number of years. Thus, only a summary of the information is included here. The reader is referred to several of the sources described at the conclusion of this chapter for more detailed discussions.

Various researchers isolated differences between adults and youth that can or do affect learning. For example, the following was known then about learning and the aging process:

In addition, changes in attitudes, motivation, satisfaction, and self-concept are probable throughout the lifespan. Such changes and declines continuously affect a person's learning needs, interests, and abilities.

The findings on age differences are not intended to paint a gloomy picture for the older person in terms of learning. Quite the contrary, one of the most consistent findings about the adult as learner centered on the potential to acquire new knowledge and skills throughout the entire lifespan. Early research on adult learning in the first half of the twentieth century showed gradual declines in learning potential with age. However, the removal of speed of performance in testing learning ability and various other factors led most researchers in the 1960s and 1970s to conclude that there no apparent relationship existed between the age of a person and learning performance. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that older persons can learn some things better than younger persons because of their wealth of experience and, frequently, a more positive self-concept.

In addition, sex of the learner was not found to be related to learning ability. However, recency of education, prior participation in adult education, health status, social status, and a variety of other factors were related to learning potential. The amount of education a person has also makes a difference, although the educationally disadvantaged can and do learn.

Thus, the educator responsible for facilitating learning by adults can expect individual differences, should take into account decreasing performance speeds, and should believe that every student has the potential for high achievement. In addition, various psychological and physiological factors, such as hearing and vision, change with increasing age; they have a relation to adult learning and instruction, which in turn can affect the selection of different teaching methods and materials. The next subsection discusses some of the research on methods and media usage in adult education.

Methods and Media

Considerable research on the use of various instructional methods and media with the adult learner was completed. Perhaps the fact that experimental research designs are fairly easy to establish by altering methods and media stimulated research in this area. Although continuing research is necessary, some generalizations are possible and a theory of methods and media usage is beginning to emerge.

One of the most frequently studied and compared methods is the lecture--the narrative transmittal of information to a class of students. The use of the lecture with adult students is very widespread as would be expected, given the educational traditions existing throughout the world and the administrative necessity of classes and classrooms in most institutions. However, the lecture does not have universal appeal nor has it been completely successful. The lecture was found to be best suited to the presentation of information for immediate recall uses; recall can be made even more effective when supplemental discussion or visual aids are used. Unfortunately, such information is often not retained very long.

The intent here is not to be hypercritical of the lecture method. Lecturing to students is often the only practical means for presenting certain information and, indeed, some teachers will only feel comfortable with the lecture approach. In addition, the lecture method and the appeal of the method to students will be quite different from one situation to the next because of the content being covered, the use made of supplemental learning aids such as visual materials, and the amount of student-to-student or student-to-teacher interaction that is possible. Consequently, the purpose of the next two paragraphs is to indicate the effects of some variations.

For example, one study determined through follow-up testing that groups of adults who obtained information by reading it did better than those who were presented the material through lectures. Another study showed that adult students had a significant preference for classes in which instructional methods more novel than the lecture were used. Still another study found that more than 70 percent of would-be adult learners preferred a method other than lecture.

When the participants in lecture courses for credit were compared with those in noncredit discussion groups the following differences were found: Those in the lectures were younger, more often single, more educated, and higher skilled occupationally. They also had less previous participation in adult education. The opposite circumstances were found for those in the discussion groups.

Placing people in groups in terms of compatibility, building group cohesiveness, and giving people group process skills are other methods or techniques found to be successful in promoting learning. Research has also found that group learning activities and workshop settings were superior in promoting learning when compared with learning that resulted from only reading materials. Such a finding is probably not too surprising; however, short-term workshops were found not effective in one study in altering long-term attitude change. In another study it was found that the amount of in-class interaction was related to the regularity of attendance. Such research shows the complexities involved in attempting to build a theory on instructional methods or settings.

Various forms of media or specific instructional techniques also were studied in relationship to the adult learner. Some reported findings are as follows:

The reader should examine some of the sources at the end of the chapter for more information on the use of media and specific techniques for instruction.

It was also found that various channels of communication or types of informational presentations, such as formal adult education courses, books, mass media forms, and demonstration each have clearly profiled audiences. For example, the lower the educational level the greater the desire for demonstration or case study materials. Thus, knowledge obtained through experience and by reading about research like that described above should help the adult education teacher and administrator be more successful.

Program Planning and Administration

The operation of adult education programs or agencies is a task that requires broad and diverse skills. So has the research in this area been diverse. Planning adult education programs, evaluation, the assessment of needs, and administrative processes are some of the skills required and researched by adult educators.

Most of the research on needs analysis with adults is evolving toward a theory that suggests successful adult education programming is predicated on a determination and utilization of interests and wants that can be described in some way by prospective students. In other words, people participate in adult education because they want to become better informed, to be with people, or to be better prepared for a job; thus, the educational program needs to be directed toward such goals. However, there is evidence that determining what a person perceives as a need and what that same person demonstrates as a need may result in two entirely different findings, with the resulting programming efforts made more complicated.

There was considerable research in the 1960s and 1970s to support the notion that involving the adult student in the program-planning process is beneficial in terms of success. For example, in one study adults who participated in the establishment of course objectives were found to have more positive attitudes toward the learning experience after its completion than did those who had not helped to establish the objectives. Related research has shown that when students can examine the learning expectations ahead of the actual experiences in realistic, believable behavior, usually in terms of behavioral objectives, the learning was enhanced.

There was also some descriptive research relative to what are the factors of a successful adult education program. Awareness of community needs, solid support for adult education by an educational board, local community help with the adult education activities, continuous evaluation, long-range planning efforts, flexibility in programming, good counseling services, and the use of many different materials as learning resources were some of the variables found to be important. Program planners and administrators should be able to utilize such findings in their own planning efforts.

Much of the remaining research in the area of program planning and administration was scattered over a variety of topics:

Many of the implications related to the research described above should be obvious in terms of planning and administering adult education programs. Teachers and administrators need to supplement the information with existing theory and research from education in general and from abroad range of behavioral science literature. In addition, more research on community-related problems, communication theory, interpersonal relationships, and the above topics will be required before a theoretical basis for adult education programming can be said to exist.

Teachers of Adults

The type of adult education teacher received some research attention. For example, attendance regularity was found to relate to the type of instructor, with a more approachable and interactive teacher more likely to experience higher attendance regularity among the students. More experienced teachers were also found to misjudge more often than less-experienced teachers the importance attached by dropouts to an overall set of goals. However, Adult Basic Education teachers who had prior training in ABE were found in one study to have a higher retention rate among students.

Examinations of teaching styles also were carried out. One study found that a permissive attitude in the classroom increased comprehension on the part of the adult student. Warm and expressive teachers received the most favorable evaluation in another study. The material in the next major section on a teaching and learning process known as andragogy provides more discussion on styles of adult teaching.

There are several implications from such findings for the training of teachers. Most of the positive findings could also be used as bases for selecting teachers. However, more research on adult education teachers will be required before a generalizable body of knowledge can be made available.

The 1960s and 1970s Evolving Theory Areas


Andragogy (see the references by Knowles) is the name given a teaching and learning process designed for the adult learner and the adult education teacher. The process is predicated on beliefs that the adult aged person is capable of self-direction, has unlimited learning potential, and possesses ever changing learning needs.

Knowles evolved five assumptions as bases for the process:

  1. A person at adulthood perceives himself or herself as capable of self-direction and self-motivation.
  2. The experiences one brings to an educational setting are a rich resource for learning.
  3. Learning should be related to the various developmental needs of an adult (spouse, parent, retired person, etc.).
  4. A problem-centered orientation to learning is necessary for the adult student.
  5. The adult learner wishes to immediately apply much of the new learnings acquired.

Translating such assumptions into a teaching/learning process implies that mutual needs-diagnosis and planning are necessary; the learner should be an important resource in the learning activity, and that the learning should be problem centered. Therefore, the teacher becomes a resource person, facilitates the process, and serves as an expert only when required to or when he or she has some special expertise.

Although a clearly defined theory of andragogy with an abundance of supporting research was not derived during these two decades, considerable support can be found in related research by others. Several researchers, for example, found that student-centered education where the instructor serves as a facilitator of the learning by adults rather than a transmitter of knowledge is preferred and often the most effective. Evidence was also available that indicated if participant are involved in planning a learning activity they will be more successful in that learning. In addition, there were research findings available that supported the notion of learning being more effective if any related activities can make use of the participant's experience.

A great deal more research will be required to bring support and a fuller understanding of the above assumptions and procedural suggestions, most of which have been synthesized from related theory or based on teaching experience. However, the information available on andragogy provided an exciting area for future research and discussion during the 1980s and beyond.

The Adult's Learning Projects

Another exciting area of research is based on the initial work by Tough (see Chapter 3) and supplemented since then by several additional research efforts. Developing from this research is a theory pertaining to the self-directed adult learner and the potential adult educators have in facilitating such learning.

Following are some of the tentative conclusions that can be drawn from the research completed during the 1960s and 1970s:

  1. Learning projects are carried out by almost every adult.
  2. Learning in credit courses is only a small amount of the total learning carried out (usually less than 5 percent).
  3. A majority of the learning is self-planned (approximately two-thirds).
  4. Books, pamphlets, newspapers, friends, and relatives are the most important sources of information.
  5. Most learning is practically oriented or of a self-fulfillment nature.
  6. The home is the most preferred place of learning.

Traditionally, adult educators have dealt primarily with adult learning that takes place in organized classes or formal groups. However, the case made throughout this book with respect to the lifelong learning forces and the emerging changes required of adult educators make the research on adults' learning projects quite important. The implications center around how such learning can be facilitated, what roles can or should professional adult educators undertake, and what new skills will be required for educators. Obviously, more research is required before the total implications are understood or before a theory of working with the self-directed learner is understood. A discussion of such research is described in the next major section.

The 1980s and Beyond--Supporting and Refining a Theory Base

Indeed, there was some research related to both andragogy and adults' learning projects during the 1980s and 1990s, but not as much as might have been expected. There were a few graduate theses and dissertations related to andragogy and a few journal articles. Indeed, Knowles updated his 1970 publication on the Modern Practice of Adult Education in which he presents the andragogical framework in 1980 (see the bibliography). However, in the adult education literature there also was a periodic denouncing or raising of fundamental questions about the teaching and learning processes that evolved from andragogy notions. Many adult educators adapted aspects of the andragogical process into their own teaching approaches while others have gone down different paths. Research still is needed in the future on such notions as andragogy, the use of learning contracts with adults, and the role adult learners should actually play in the teaching and learning process.

There also were a few graduate student studies involving the protocol Tough developed related to adult's learning projects during this latter time period; fewer still of these studies made it to a national journal. What really happened was the broadening of research on self-directed learning and an encompassing of Tough's foundational work into this broader arena. One of the sections below describes this area of research.

Thus, the following sub-sections describe six of the major research areas from the 1980s and beyond that dealt in some way with adult education and lifelong learning. Limiting such research to only six sections in many ways does an injustice to the work of an increasing number of scholars. To obtain a full understanding of the research related to adult education you should peruse in such sources as the following:

It should be noted that many studies related to the history of the adult education field exist in periodicals, proceedings, and textbooks. The topics covered in these studies are not reflected in the following sub-sections. In addition, the Adult Education Quarterly, although published in the United States, frequently contains "international" studies, research conducted by people outside of the United States and Canada; these, too, are not reflected below. A final sub-section does provide a brief summary of some the miscellaneous research that was conducted from the 1980s on to current times.


There has been considerable research throughout the 1980s and 1990s related to Adult Basic Education (ABE), General Education Development (GED) or high school completion testing, and adult literacy. Although federal and state monies in support of such research has varied during these decades, enough interest and need for knowledge about the plaguing problem of illiteracy among adult in the United States remains to prompt ongoing research.

This research has covered such varied topics as field dependence and field independence cognitive style testing, understanding social networking among adults with low reading skills, how computers can be used for literacy training, competency based literacy efforts, how to motivate students in ABE programs, and understanding the role of communication in literacy. There also have been efforts to understand how literacy is impacted by various demographic differences, such as minority status, gender differences, and ethnic background.

Transformative Learning

The initial work of Jack Mezirow in the United States (see the bibliography) on perspective transformation based on the work of the German philosopher and theorist, Jurgen Habermas, has transmuted into the prevalent topic of transformative learning. Perspective transformation involves examining how we become critically aware of own assumptions about life and how, in turn, we are transformed into new ways of thinking and doing through our own learning processes.

Based in part on or related to such topics as critical theory, critical thinking, constructivism, and postmodern reactions to perceived twentieth century failings, transformative learning as a topic has generated considerable research in the past 20-25 years. For example, a perusal of the Adult Education Quarterly during this time period will reveal many articles by Dr. Mezirow and others, criticisms of or reactions to Mezirow's work, and his own responses to such critiques: "An enduring tension between Mezirow's transformational theory and its critics is the debate over the role of power in transformational learning" (McDonald, Cervero, & Courtenay, 1999, p. 5). In essence, a healthy dialogue in that journal and elsewhere has persisted, several books have been spawned, and some of what we know about working with adults has been expanded.

The scholarship in this area has examined many interesting topics, variables, and societal features. For example, there have been efforts to better understand such areas as social action, power, and public policy in light of transformative learning concepts. Researchers have examined such specific topics as trying to identify what triggers transformative learning, how transformation can be impeded by cultural or societal factors, understanding the role of ego development in transformative learning, and learning how the transformative process is affected by relationships a person has with others. Even such specific topics as involvement with HIV, career change, and the role of spirituality in relation to transformative learning have been examined. The research in this area no doubt will continue for many years to come.

Program Planning and Evaluation

Perhaps because of their very utilitarian nature, the processes of planning, managing, and evaluating learning programs or activities for adults have received considerable attention by researchers during the past two decades. It would seem that we can never know enough about the whole program planning process and scholars continuously find new areas of concern needing better understanding.

Researchers have studied such topics as better understanding how to assess needs, how to use the information resulting from such studies, trying to understand needs information in light of such issues as job satisfaction, and even the value in involving adult learners in assessing their own needs. Better understanding the role of objectives or objective setting was of interest more in the 1980s, while the 1990s saw a movement toward better understanding the entire planning process in light of power sharing or power relationships.

Adult Learning

As would be expected, there continues to be much interest in the topic of adult learning as a research area. Not included here is some tangentially related discussion on the topic of self-directed learning, as there is enough interest in that topic to warrant a separate section to follow this one.

A variety of topics have been studied during the past two decades related to adult learning, how adults learn, and the role of adult learning in the way we do our teaching and training. In fact, entire books have been written on the topic (see the bibliography for this chapter and earlier chapters). Learning styles, cognitive styles, and learning preferences have been studied in various ways and with various measuring tools. Researchers also have looked at very specific audiences, such as older adults, African Americans, and particular groups of women to better understand adult learning. In addition, researchers have worked to understand such topics as how to motivate adult learning, how to understand learning transactions, the role of culture in adult learning, the nature of experiential learning, and how best to facilitate adult learning.

Within the past few years we seem to have understand enough about adults as learners to examine some very specific aspects. For example, researchers have looked at meta-cognition, developing a theory for whole-person learning, and even the impact of portfolio development on adult learning. It seems safe to say that the interest by researchers in the future on adult learning will continue unabated. In fact, it is exciting to think about how our increasing knowledge will enhance how we teach and train future adult learners.

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning (SDL) as a concept, process, and even learning style or approach has received considerable attention by researchers since the early work of Houle (1961) and Tough (1979). Like any new idea, though, supportive research, controversy, and even condemnation have also been associated with self-directed learning. The International Self-Directed Learning Symposium, held annually since 1986, has brought worldwide attention to the concept and helped build the positive image prevalent today in the minds of many people involved with teaching and training of adults (Durr, 2002; Long & Associates, 2000).

Some of that controversy and criticism stems from the fact that much of what has been written about SDL comes from a perspective heavily steeped philosophically in humanism. There has been much postmodern criticism of humanism (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999) that has spilled over into critiques of SDL, but there still remains much scholarship on the topic. For example, researchers have looked at the concept of autonomy, how organizing circumstances are crucial to self-directed learning, the role of learning contracts in the self-directed learning process, and the relationship of critical thinking to SDL.

Although little research has been published in the past decade or so related to adult's learning projects and the interview protocol developed by Tough to gather related information, there have been several other instruments developed that measure some aspect of SDL. Perhaps the most well known and used is the SDLRS (Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale) developed by Lucy Guglielmino (see the bibliography). This instrument has been both well utilized for research purposes but also well criticized and, subsequently, well defended. The Adult Education Quarterly and the proceedings emanating from the annual International Symposium on Self-Directed Learning have contained many chapters or articles related to this instrument. In many respects, even given some of this controversy, the SDLRS has been the most instrumental mechanism in both continuing the interest in and pushing forward our knowledge of SDL.

Two other instruments also have contributed to the knowledge base. One is the OCLI--Oddi Continuing Learning Inventory (Oddi, 1984, 1986). The second instrument is the Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale (Pilling-Cormick, 1998, 2001). Although neither instrument has yet had the same impact on SDL research, both are valuable tools to help us understand more about the topic. It is anticipated that this is another topic that will continue to receive considerable interest in the years to come.

Dropping Out and Persevering in Adult Education

This topic, described extensively in the 1960s and 1970s section, continued to receive much attention by researchers during the 1980s and 1990s. Not only has it been difficult to determine all the reasons people drop out or persevere in adult education programs, new programming efforts, changing societal and demographic factors, and ever-evolving federal or other types of support mean new variables are constantly being introduced.

A couple of instruments have been utilized more than others in attempt to understand more about participation factors. The Classroom Environment Scale (Moos & Trickett, 1974) has been used to understand more about how relationships, goal orientations, and perceptions on change impact on drop out. The Education Participation Scale (Boshier, 1971, 1983) has been an even more popular tool utilized to better understand participant motivational orientations. The studies using either of these tools have helped move forward our understanding of dropping out and persevering in adult education. It is anticipated that this topic will continue to intrigue researchers in the years to come.

Miscellaneous Research

To summarize all the interesting scholarship of the past two decades into one miscellaneous section does an injustice to the variety of research approaches, devoted work by many scholars, and continuously building knowledge base about adult education and lifelong learning. Fortunately, there are the many journals, sourcebooks, handbooks, and annual conference proceedings already cited in this chapter or throughout the book, as well as a number of excellent text books published by Jossey-Bass Publishing, Krieger Publishing, and the many other publishers interested in the education and training of adults to whet the appetite of curious readers. However, the following three paragraphs provide a brief glimpse at what is there.

To begin with, some researchers have developed a passion for better understanding what it means to be a "minority" adult learner. For example, several researchers have looked at African American male and female adults in terms of such aspects as career development, motivation, and learning needs. Gays, lesbians, Latinos, new immigrants, and even vegans are other such groupings. Some scholars have written about various aspects of feminism, racism, and other forms of oppression in relation to adult education.

Several topics of interest in earlier decades also received attention by a few researchers during the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these topics include adult development, andragogy, community or community development, continuing professional education, counseling adults, higher education and the adult learner, mentoring, teaching or training adults, and workplace learning. Several specific sites or settings for adult learning also continued to receive attention, such as labor unions, prisons, and rural or urban areas with heavy concentrations of poverty. Some new areas beginning to receive increasing attention in terms of adult education research include distance education, technology, ethics, knowledge about HIV, and issues surrounding culture, politics, or power.

Finally, several researchers have looked in some way at the nature of adult education research, itself. For example, we now know much more about citational patterns used by scholars. We know more about different approaches to and methodologies used in adult education research. Various instruments used in adult education research have been analyzed, critiqued, and defended. Even the many scholarly pieces that have been devoted to dialogue, debate, and critique pertaining to some aspect of research or theory development have been useful in pushing forward what we know about adult education. The next two decades should bring more refinement in our knowledge base.

Research in Adult Education

A considerable amount of adult education research has already been completed as the discussion in the preceding chapters shows. Research continues to be a growing topic of interest and activity among professionals in the field reflecting, no doubt, the field's maturation. Certainly, continued research is needed if theoretical bases for adult education and lifelong learning are to be established. Several sources cited at the end of the chapter provide the interested reader or prospective researcher status or projective information relative to adult education research.

Not only is the research in adult education diverse and increasing in amount, it also appears that the kind of research being carried out is becoming more sophisticated. A great deal of research descriptive in nature is still being completed and is still needed; however, many adult education researchers are asking "why?" questions in addition to "what?" and "where?" questions. Experimental designs, multiple variable manipulations and analyses, various historical or qualitative approaches, and annual adult education research seminars and conferences at the national and international levels are all indications of the vibrancy of adult education research. In addition, the research skills of professionals coming from graduate departments of adult education are steadily improving. Such changes will not only affect the theory bases for the field, but also will have impact on policies and practice in adult education.

Implications for Teachers and Trainers of Adults

Several implications have already been presented in the various subsections describing theoretical bases for adult education. Some of the research information presented is specific to the adult learner and some is generalizable to any age. Thus, it behooves the teacher or trainer of adults, experienced or new, to have as broad an understanding of the research and literature as possible because of the potential ramifications for curriculum design, in-class methodology, and person-to-person relationships with the student or trainee. Hopefully, the information presented and the sources cited at the end of the chapter facilitate an initial understanding of the adult learner and of the adult education enterprise.

Study Stimulators

1. How does an understanding of a theory affect the approach a person takes in dealing with people?

2. Analyze your own teaching or training process in the light of the information presented in this chapter. Will your process need any changes to be effective with the adult learner?

3. Select ten adults at random. Determine the nature and amount of their adult education participation within the past year.

4. What differences would you believe exist between a person who is involved more often in organized adult education and one who is involved more often in self-directed learning?

5. Given what is known about people who are more likely to participate in formal adult education, how would your recruiting of adult students be affected?

6. Given what is known about people who are more likely to drop out of adult education programs, what would you attempt to do to reduce the incidence of dropping out?

7. Do you believe it is necessary or useful to know an adult's learning or cognitive style? Examine and analyze one or more the learning or cognitive style measuring tools used with adults.

8. What are the implications of the available data on adult achievement in terms of motivating a general population of adults to learn? What are some different motivational techniques you might use for members of various minority groups?

9. Describe some differences you perceive to exist between adults and youth in terms of learning needs and preferences.

10. Given some of the information known about the adult learner, how would you design a class or training session for a group of adults?

11. What types of teaching or training methods would you employ with the adult learner? What use would you make of the World Wide Web?

12. How might you involve the adult student in planning and implementing an adult education course?

13. What are some implications for the education of youth from the theory and findings emerging about adults as learners?

14. Suggest some future needs for the field of adult education in terms of research design, the types of questions to be answered, and theory-building requirements.

Selected Bibliography

Boshier, R. W. (1971). Motivational orientations of adult education participants: A factor analytic exploration of Houle's typology. Adult Education, 21, 3-26. An article that introduces Boshier's now famous and well used Educational Participation Scale (EPS).

Boshier, R. W. (1983). An A.B.E.-oriented form of the "Education Participation Scale." Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Adult Education Research Conference (pp. 20-26). Montreal, Quebec, Canada. An introduction to Boshier's work in developing a version of the EPS aimed at research with ABE students.

Cross, K. P., Valley, J. R., & Associates. (1974). Planning non-traditional programs. San Francisco: .Jossey-Bass. The book presents an overview of non-traditional study in the United States. A summary of a 1972 research project on adult participation in education, a survey of non-traditional opportunities, and technological uses in non-traditional programs are presented.

Dirkx, J. M. (2000). Transformative learning and the journey of individuation (ERIC Digest No. 223). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education. Available electronically: Dirkx presents some of the latest thinking on transformative learning in this synthesis piece.

Durr, R. (2002). The 17th International Self-Directed Learning Symposium. Available electronically: At this site Durr describes the upcoming SDL symposium and describes how to obtain past conference proceedings.

Guglielmino, L. M. (1978). Development of the self-directed learning readiness scale (Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia, 1977). Dissertation Abstracts International, 38, 6467A. This is the field's first introduction to the SDLRS, a instrument that has been used frequently to examine aspects of self-directed learning.

Guglielmino, L. M. (1997). Reliability and validity of the Self-Directed Learning Readiness Scale and the Learning Preference Assessment. In H. B. Long & Associates, Expanding horizons in self-directed learning. Norman, OK: Public Managers Center, College of Education, University of Oklahoma. After considerable critique of and exchanges in the literature about the reliability and validity of the SDLRS, Guglielmino presents the latest supportive information.

Houle, C. O. (1961). See Chapter Three.

Imel, S. (1998). Transformative learning in adulthood (ERIC Digest No. 200). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education. Available electronically:  Imel provides an overview of the literature, discussion, and knowledge base related to transformative learning. She describes some implications for practice, too.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and human interests. Boston: Beacon Press. A Germen philosopher and theorist, Habermas provided some original thinking in this book that had a far ranging impact on both general and adult educational theory, as well as other fields of inquiry.

Johnstone, W. C.,  Rivera, R. J. (1965). Volunteers for learning. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co. This massive volume reports on the educational activities of nearly 24,000 adults living in the United States. Educational opportunities for adults are included. A variety of tables support the narration.

Knowles, M. S. (1970). See Knowles (1980) in Chapter Four. The 1970 edition was entitled The modern practice of adult education: Pedagogy versus andragogy.

Knowles, M. S. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species (4th Ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing Co. In this book Knowles describes and compares various theories. He relates much of the discussion and various research findings to the andragogical teaching and learning process. The appendixes provide useful supplemental information on learning and the adult potential.

Long, H. B., & Associates. (2000). Practice & theory in self-directed learning. Schaumburg, IL: Motorola University Press. Long has been the editor of all the annual proceedings from the International Symposium on Self-Directed Learning. This book presents a useful overview of the current knowledge and theory on SDL.

McDonald, B., Cervero, R. M., & Courtenay, B. C. (1999). An ecological perspective of power in transformational learning: A case study of ethical vegans. Adult Education Quarterly, 50, 5-23. The authors describe how by looking at one particular group of adults, issues related to power and power relationships complicate an understanding of transformational learning. 

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Although Mezirow had introduced his notions of perspective transformation and transformative learner two decades earlier and had participated in much debate in the literature regarding his notions, this is the first book length presentation by him of his thinking and experiences.

Mezirow, J., & Associates. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Mezirow pulled together a team of colleagues to present a fairly thorough discussion of transformative learning and its various permutations.

Moos, R., & Trickett, E. (1974). Classroom environment scale. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press. The authors describe the development and uses of their instrument.

Oddi, L. F. (1984). Development of an instrument to measure self-directed continuing learning. (Doctoral dissertation, Northern Illinois University, 1984). Dissertation Abstracts International, 46, 49A. Oddi developed the Oddi Continuing Learning Inventory (OCLI) as a doctoral dissertation.

Oddi, L. F. (1986). Development and validation of an instrument to identify self-directed continuing learners. Adult Education Quarterly, 36, 97-107. Here Oddi provides the basic information on her instrument in a journal article format.

Pearson, E. M., & Podeschi, R. L. (1999). Humanism and individualism: Maslow and his critics. Adult Education Quarterly, 50, 41-55. The authors utilize Maslow as a mechanism to describe some of the discussion that surrounds humanism and individualism and their uses in adult education scholarship.

Pilling-Cormick, J. (1998). The Self-Directed Learning Perception Scale. In H. B. Long & Associates. Self-directed learning: Application & theory. Athens, GA: Adult Education Department, University of Georgia. Pilling-Cormick provides some introductory information on the SDLPS, also developed as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto.

Pilling-Cormick, J. (2001). The SDLPS Profile: Using the SDLPS. In H. B. Long & Associates. Self-directed learning and the information age. Boynton Beach, FL: Motorola University. [Available only as an interactive CD-ROM. For information contact Motorola University, 1500 Gateway Boulevard, MS 93, Boynton Beach, FL 33426-8292 or see their on-line information at] Pilling-Cormick presents additional information on the instrument's uses.

Taylor, E. W. (1998). The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review (Information Series No. 374). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH. Available electronically:  Taylor did his dissertation on the topic of transformative learning and in this monograph he thoroughly explores the concept and describes Mezirow's contributions, too.

Tough, A. (1971/1979). See Chapter Three.

Wechsler, D. (1944). The measurement of adult intelligence. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins. This early classic describes the nature and classification of adult intelligence with a description of the developmental process involved in constructing an adult intelligence test.


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