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To Please Adult Learners, Forget The Learning Styles Myth

Brian Rahill

August 15, 2022

The myth of learning styles has been haunting education for years. It’s the idea that you can help students learn by adjusting the format of your teaching to match the way students prefer to learn. Despite the popularity of the concept, there’s very little scientific evidence to support it.

If you want to help adults learn, you’re much better off focusing on adult learning theory. Adults seek out education and learning experiences to fulfill a handful of important needs. We’ll talk about each one and how you can use theories of adult learning to help your learners meet their goals.

But first, let’s bust the learning style myth.

Learning styles are a myth

While there are dozens of different learning style classification systems that have passed in and out of fashion over the years, VARK is probably the most prevalent. It’s the one that sorts students into visual, kinesthetic, reading/writing learners, and auditory learners.

This classification system came into vogue around the late 1980s, thanks to the work of a New Zealand school inspector named Neil Flemming. He based it on his observations in the classroom and created a learning styles inventory survey that he believed would help students understand how they learn. 

The problem is that the way you prefer to learn isn’t necessarily the best way to get information into your brain. It’s similar to how most people would prefer to sit on the couch and binge their favorite TV show, but that’s not the best way for them to get healthy. 

Even so, this myth is persistent. A 2020 Frontiers in Education article, reviewed much of the research on the subject and found that, “95.4% of trainee teachers agreed that matching instruction to Learning Styles is effective.”

Except the research doesn’t bear this out. A 2018 study found that students rarely studied in ways that fit with their preferred learning style. Those that did, performed no better than other students. 

It’s time to move on to an adult learning theory that has some science behind it. 

Intro To Adult Learning Theory

When you hear the term “adult learning theory” you might expect a single, unified theory of how adults learn. Except such a thing doesn’t exist. What we have instead, is a collection of models that explain how adults think about and use education. 

Some of them may be familiar to you. We’ll give you a quick intro to each one and offer some thoughts about how you can apply them in your classes and programs. 

Andragogy – Like Pedagogy, But For Adults

In the 1980’s American educator Malcolm Knowles put forth the idea of andragogy — that’s like pedagogy, but for adults. He called it the art and science of adult learning, but really it’s more of a philosophy. 

In it, he made five assumptions about adult learning. They are: 

  1. Mature self-concept – adults view themselves as independent and self-directed
  2. Greater experience – the adult’s personal experience is a resource for learning and learning should build upon it
  3. Readiness to learn – adults want to learn things that will help them fulfill their social roles 
  4. Orientation to learning – adults learn with a focus on problem solving rather than subject-matter focus
  5. Motivation to learn – the motivation to learn is internal

What does all of this mean for adult education programs? It means that adults seek out learning opportunities so they can better fill their work, family, and personal roles. They are already internally motivated and they tend to seek out learning experiences that solve real problems. 

This philosophy can impact both how you structure and how you market your classes. 

Adult Learning Theory Applied to Classes

Using the principles of andragogy to plan and structure classes can help you develop classes that are interesting and engaging for adults. For example try: 

  • Giving learners opportunities to go off in new directions and explore what interests them.
  • Teaching to the learner’s level of knowledge. Remember that adults are more experienced than kids and may bring a more complex worldview.
  • Making connections between the learning material and learner’s real lives as employees, business owners, leaders, parents, caregivers, or community members.
  • Building learning around real-world problems and challenges.
  • Equipping learners with the tools to evaluate their own progress.

Now you might be thinking: that’s great and all, but I teach improv to adults. How does any of that apply to our classes? 

Here are some applied examples: 

  • Make the prompts you provide for improvisation based on real situations learners might face at work or home
  • Discuss how improv improves empathy and communication, which can solve real-world problems at work and at home
  • Recognize that adults may have had both positive and negative experiences with off-the-cuff communication, public speaking, and being in the spotlight. You should respect where the learner is coming from and offer exercises that acknowledge their experience. 

Adult learning theory applied to marketing 

The philosophy of andragogy tells us what adult learners want and need from education including independence, solutions to problems, and tools to fulfill their roles. Applying this to marketing can help you describe your classes in ways that appeal to adults.

First, ask yourself: 

  • Does this class teach skills that will help the student at work, at home, or in their community? 
  • What real-world problems does this class help learners solve? Remember that boredom and lack of creative fulfillment are real problems that need solutions. 
  • What desires or goals are learners trying to reach by taking this course?

Then use your answers to create better marketing messages: 

“This watercolor illustration class will help you build confidence and vision, whether you want to illustrate your own book or earn some extra income as a freelance illustrator.”

More Adult Learning Theories to Explore

We started this discussion by talking about a learning myth that didn’t have much science behind it. So now you may be wondering: is andragogy scientifically proven?

Not really — because it’s more of a philosophy than a science. But there are some scientifically backed adult learning theories that align with the philosophy of andragogy. Let’s take a look at those.

Experiential Learning Theory

Many researchers have explored the experiential learning theory. Basically, it says that people learn by doing. It outlines a cycle of learning that starts with an experience. The adult reflects on the experience, then formulates ideas about that experience. They test their ideas by experimentation. Fortunately, many adult ed programs and classes are already experiential. 

Improve your courses by creating opportunities for all four steps: experience, reflection, ideation and experimentation. 

Here’s an example for a First Aid Course:  

  1. Experience: Provide an emergency scenario
  2. Reflection: Ask learners to reflect on their thoughts, feelings and reactions
  3. Ideation: Encourage them to write down the steps they would take in this scenario
  4. Experimentation: Run a simulation where learners have to provide basic first aid

Self-Directed Learning

Self-directed learning is so embedded in adult education that there’s a whole international journal dedicated to the topic. Remember, based on andragogy, adults are already internally motivated to learn. 

All adult learning is self-directed to some degree. Adult learners choose which classes to take and when. For asynchronous, online classes, they can even control when and where they study.  

You can create more opportunities for self-directed learning by: 

  • Letting learner curiosity guide your classes
  • Offering plenty of time for questions and discussion
  • Giving learners tools to assess their own level of knowledge

Transformational Learning

This deeply researched theory says that every adult comes to class with their own experience, perspective, values, and feelings. Exploring and challenging these assumptions through transformational learning helps learners become more independent and self-aware. 

You can facilitate transformational learning by: 

  • Focusing on diversity. Diverse examples can help learners feel included and open their minds to new points of view. 
  • Creating opportunities for discussion. Encourage learners to share their perspective.
  • Challenging learners to identify and consider the basis of their assumptions. 

Feedback Fuels Improvement

We hope this overview of adult learning gives you some things to consider as you plan and market your next classes. But whatever adult learning theories you apply, remember to ask your learners for feedback. They can tell you what they want better than any researcher or philosopher. So, keep asking and keep listening.

Brian Rahill

Brian is a scientist-turned-education technology executive. He has founded and led technology companies for more than 20 years and uses his analytical mind and experimental approach to spur growth in small and medium businesses and start-ups. He is passionate about using technology to enhance access to lifelong learning.

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