Four Major Theories in Adult and Post-Secondary Education


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:

Adults have moved from being dependent on others to being more self-directed.

The experiences of adults give them a “rich resource for learning” (Merriam et al 84).

An adult’s social role will help to determine how ready that adult is to learn.

Adults are more interested in solving problems immediately than learning basic information about a topic.

Later, two more were added:

Internal motivations are stronger then external motivators for adults.

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 | 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! | 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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6 years ago from India

Useful Major Theories. Voted up.

Japan’s coronavirus crisis sparks calls for revamping the school year

By Linda Sieg

TOKYO, May 20 (Reuters) – Advocates of changing Japan’s century-old tradition of starting the school year in April, when cherry blossoms bloom, are seizing on school closures caused by the coronavirus as a chance for reforms they say will internationalise education.

The proposed shift to a September start, in line with many Western countries, has huge implications for corporate recruitment, since most firms hire en masse after students graduate in April, when the financial year also begins.

“It’s a golden opportunity,” said Kunihiko Miyake, research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, who said the change would reverberate through society.

“It would dramatically change people’s mindset, education and recruitment and make this society … more flexible so we can survive.”

Worries about a truncated academic year after schools shut in March because of the coronavirus outbreak ignited debate over the change, which won backing from some high-profile politicians including Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.

The idea has been around for decades. A 2011 proposal by the president of the University of Tokyo failed to gain traction, despite backing from big business lobby Keidanren.

But now surveys show many voters and most regional governors are in favour, though most governors oppose a change this year. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has set up a working group to make recommendations next month.

“I’m eager to change the situation in a global manner. It’s a big chance, but we have to advance step by step,” Masahiko Shibayama, a former education minister heading the working group, told Reuters.

But introducing the change this year, however, would be a stretch, he said.

Supporters of the reform say a September start would make it easier for foreign students to come to Japan and Japanese to study abroad.

The number of such Japanese college students studying abroad peaked in 2004 before going into decline. Government efforts have boosted the numbers studying overseas but for most of them it’s just for a short-term stay, often of a month or less.

That’s largely because most Japanese companies hire new university graduates in April, so students who go abroad fear losing their chance to apply for jobs.


Some bigger firms have already become more flexible about when they hire in response to a labour shortage and competition for workers with high-tech skills.

But smaller companies, which employ about 70% of Japan’s workforce, would find it hard to cope.

“Leading companies will have no problem,” Waseda University President Aiji Tanaka told Reuters.

“But smaller companies … cannot adjust to recruitment throughout the year right away, so we will have to transform the industrial structure, the entire Japanese social system, to adapt to a global standard.”

Other changes are also needed to promote study abroad and lure foreign students, such as more courses in English, Tanaka said, calling focus on a September start “naive”.

Companies, too, would have to become more welcoming to new hires with overseas experience, educators said.

“There is a lot of lip service to globalisation by Japanese industry, but by and large the expectation for Japanese universities is to supply corporate soldiers,” said Andrew Horvat, a visiting professor at Josai International University.

The change is far from a done deal.

Critics say efforts should focus now on helping children catch up through online learning and other steps, not a new calendar.

Some also worry about breaking with tradition.

“I’m pro-reform,” the LDP’s Shibayama said.

“But it’s not only a business or social change, it might be a big change in Japanese tradition or culture and my hesitation is there – cherry blossoms are the symbol of a new start.” (Reporting by Linda Sieg Editing by Robert Birsel)