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Four Major Theories in Adult and Post-Secondary Education

Updated on June 30, 2013

Four major players in the field of adult education are Knowles with his theory of andragogy, McClusky with his “Margin” theory, Illeris with his “dimensions” of adult learning, and Jarvis with his belief that “all learning begins with experience.”


Knowles' Andragogy

Knowles’ Andragogy began with four tenets and has expanded to six. The original four were:

  1. Adults have moved from being dependent on others to being more self-directed.
  2. The experiences of adults give them a “rich resource for learning” (Merriam et al 84).
  3. An adult’s social role will help to determine how ready that adult is to learn.
  4. Adults are more interested in solving problems immediately than learning basic information about a topic.

Later, two more were added:

  1. Internal motivations are stronger then external motivators for adults.
  2. Adults want to know why they need to learn something; they question why they need knowledge.

McClusky's "Margin" theory

McClusky’s “Margin” theory believes that adults exist in a state of flux which they balance through finding their “margin,” which calculated by looking at the load that they carry versus the power that they have. The load “spends” the energy (power) that they have. Both load and power involve internal and external forces – they include all aspects of the adult’s life including responsibilities and assistance received (Merriam et al 93).

Illeris's "Dimensions"

Illeris believes that there are three “dimensions” that are parts of the adult learning process. These are cognition, emotion, and society. They are always present in every learning situation, regardless of if the society is the environment of the learner by him/herself or the classroom experience with other learners around. These dimensions are affected by the stimuli that learners receive. The stimuli are perception (learning through the physical senses), transmission (being taught by another person), experience (self-explanatory), imitation (self-explanatory), and activity (self-explanatory) (Merriam et al 97-98).

Learning can take place anywhere
Learning can take place anywhere | Source

Jarvis's Experiential Learning

Finally, there is Jarvis who’s theory is based on the concept that “All learning begins with experience” (Merriam et al 100). Jarvis believes that learning occurs when someone uses their senses to experience something and then learns about the new sensation. From there, the learner memorizes and practices the experience, and the experience becomes part of the learner. This builds the learner up for the next sensory experience, which will once again end with learning. Everything builds on the previous experience for Jarvis (Merriam et al 101).

Adult Learning Theories

Which of these theories do you find to be the most valid?

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Similarities and Differences

The similarity between these methods/theories seems to be that while they might explain how adults learn, I don’t know that any of them truly pose any new or innovative methods to help teach adults. As well, the majority of them seem to be true for both adult and child learners. How many of us in high school demanded “why do I need to learn calculus?”? How many of us discovered that what we learned in history related to what we learned about in science or literature? How many times did we get to practice what we learned in physics or chemistry, getting that sensory experience?

I find that each of these methods/theories seems valid, but none of them really seem to be groundbreaking – although perhaps they were when they were hypothesized.

Practical Application of McClusky

Personally, I love McClusky’s “margin” for the concept of how to measure overload in adults. However, I’m not sure that I believe it’s accurate or helpful. I’ve had students with massive life issues crop up, and they have been successful while other adults who would have had much lower loads and higher power find themselves easily frustrated or distracted and therefore fail. Having power and a low load may mean that the learner is only comfortable within that space, and having to balance more may actually not be possible for him/her. (Of course, that’s my personal theory, and I haven’t been able to test it, but from what I’ve observed of my students and in my own life, it seems to ring true so far.)

Practical Application of Knowles

To break it down further, Knowles, while interesting, definitely seems to be something that can be applied to all teaching, but, at the same time, it also seems to be very limited and will only apply to certain learners. Knowles believes that internal motivation is stronger than external. I don’t think that’s true in every situation – regardless of the age or experience level of the learner. However, I do think that when someone has an internal motivation, it will last longer than an external one. (For example, when my friends and I go to school, we always want to succeed and learn. Those are our internal motivations. The external motivation may be to get a higher paying job or a raise. But we can probably find better paying jobs that don’t necessarily involve what we’re learning, or there may be another way to achieve that job. Our external motivation will more easily be dismissed for us because our internal drive is stronger. But, again, I don’t think that’s true of all learners.) A lot of adult learners also go against the Knowles’ concept that they are only interested in attaining skills. If that was true, there would be no adult education classes that didn’t help adults advance. Yet Yale does a great job of attracting people to its free iTunes University classes on things like Advanced Game Theory. This is not a practical application course for most adults, but look at the download stats, and it sure seems like it has a good following.

Practical Application of Illeris

Illeris also seems to have a valid theory in his belief of three dimensions of learning, and I quite agree. By taking into account emotion, cognition, and society, he has dealt with the three biggest influences on life that I see. We are always affected by our emotions, even if we prefer not to admit it. Having a bad day can definitely make a difference in how well I learn! And cognition is, obviously, a very important part of learning. Society is also vital, especially since it is something that not all theories take into account. Thinking about displaced learners – ones who, for whatever reason - find themselves at the bottom of the ladder will be affected by it as well. I still remember a class that I took for my MLA that I hated – the teacher was quite awful. He also appeared to be racist and anti-Semitic. (But that’s another long story.) The important part was that when three of us gave a presentation, we were given different scores. The white male got an A. The white female got an A-. The black female got a B. What was the reason for this difference in score? He “felt” those were the grades we deserved. Talk about society affecting the learning process! Who do you think also felt the information in the class was not worth learning? The society around the learners affected their emotion, which quite definitely affected their ability to learn.

Focus and studying - not always easy!
Focus and studying - not always easy! | Source

Practical Application of Jarvis

Jarvis may well be my favorite of the four. This is because of my son. As someone who spends a lot of time paying attention to sensory experience because of my son’s sensory defensiveness, I have to say that Jarvis’s theory hits home. The things that my son struggles to learn are things that generally involve sensations that he does not enjoy. He has a problem working past these uncomfortable sensations that Jarvis believes we should learn from. Obviously, I’m applying Jarvis’s concept to child, and not adult, learners, but I think that most of the theories really are about learning in general. There is a very fine line in my mind between motivations and theories for learners.


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    • jabelufiroz profile image


      7 years ago from India

      Useful Major Theories. Voted up.


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