Distributed to Leadership, Education and Psychology

Prominent Adult Learning Theories

A condensed literature review for a leadership cognitive study

Dr Mehmet Yildiz
Feb 14, 2020 · 10 min read
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Purpose of this article

In this article, I want to share the summary of the literature review which I conducted to underpin learning characteristics of technical leaders.

In this review, my aim is to introduce major adult learning theories and models as well as their major principles. These principles are used to recognise cognitive patterns of technical leaders whom I surveyed and interviewed both qualitatively and quantitatively for validation of findings.

These theories and models were used to support key ideas and discussions included in the major themes of the research study.

This condensed review of the theories aim to give introductory ideas to human cognitive scientists and leadership learning researchers. Understanding these theories can also be useful for educators, teachers, lecturers, trainers, instructors, mentors, and executive coaches in leadership disciplines.

I plan to share findings of the research study in future articles.

Overview of Adult Learning Theories

An extensive review of materials written on adult learning and leadership cognitive theories targeting technical leaders have shown that the following 7 theories have been widely used and frequently cited in various leadership learning and cognitive study peer reviewed journals and scholarly manuscripts.

1. CAL (Characteristics of Adults as Learners)

2. Connectionism

3. Andragogy

4. Experiential Learning

5. Constructivism

6. Information Processing

7. Situated Learning

These theories are frequently quoted in the learning, teaching, and human cognitive science body of knowledge.

I provide you with an outline of these theories focusing on the cognitive requirements of adults engaging within leadership disciplines.

I purposefully removed the granular details to keep this article in a reasonable size.

Theory 1: Characteristics of Adults as Learners

One of the widely known adult learning models is developed by Cross (1981). Cross presents the “Characteristics of Adults as Learners” (CAL) model in the context of her analysis of lifelong learning programs.

Cross’ model also attempts to integrate other theoretical frameworks for adult learning such as “Andragogy” developed by Knowles, M. (1984), and “experiential learning” by Rogers, C.R. (1969) & Rogers, C.R. & Freiberg, H.J. (1994).

Cross’ CAL Principles can be summarised in four points:

1. Adult learning programs should capitalise on the experience of participants

2. Adult learning programs should adapt to the aging limitations of the participants

3. Adults should be challenged to move to increasingly advanced stages of personal development

4. Adults should have as much choice as possible in the availability and organisation of learning programs

Theory 2: Connectionism

The “Connectionism” is a classical learning theory developed by Thorndike, E. (1913). Learning is the result of associations forming between stimuli and responses (S-R).

Such associations or “habits” become strengthened or weakened by the nature and frequency of the S-R pairings. The paradigm for S-R theory was trial and error learning in which certain responses come to dominate others due to rewards.

The hallmark of connectionism was that learning could be adequately explained without referring to any unobservable internal states.

The “Connectionism” theory consists of three primary laws (Thorndike, E. et al. 1928) :

1. Law of effect — responses to a situation which are followed by a rewarding state of affairs will be strengthened and become habitual responses to that situation,

2. Law of readiness — a series of responses can be chained together to satisfy some goal which will result in annoyance if blocked, and

3. Law of exercise — connections become strengthened with practice and weakened when the practice is discontinued. A corollary of the law of effect was that responses that reduced the likelihood of achieving a rewarding state (i.e., punishments, failures) would decrease in strength.

The “Connectionism” theory suggests that transfer of learning depends on the presence of identical elements in the original and new learning situations. In later years, the concepts of “belongingness” and “polarity” were introduced within this theory.

So-called “Connections” are more readily established if the person perceives that stimuli or responses go together. So-called “polarity” which specifies that connections occur more easily in the direction in which they were originally formed than the opposite.

In the 1930s, Thorndike also introduced the “spread of effect” idea which means that rewards affect not only the connection that produced them but temporally adjacent connections as well (Thorndike, E. 1932).

The Connectionism theory has the following principles:

1. Learning requires both practice and rewards (laws of effect /exercise)

2. A series of connections can be chained together if they belong to the same action sequence (law of readiness)

3. Transfer of learning occurs because of previously encountered situations

4. Intelligence is a function of the number of connections learned

Theory 3: Andragogy

The “Andragogy” theory, developed by Knowles, specifically focuses on adult learning. According to Knowles, adults are “self-directed” and “expect to take responsibility for decisions”. Knowles, M. (1984) emphasises that adult learning programs must accommodate this fundamental aspect.

Andragogy makes some assumptions about the design of learning and presents the following principles:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something.

2 Adults need to learn experientially.

3 Adults approach learning as problem-solving.

4 Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

These assumptions and principles show that instructions for adults need to focus more on the process rather than the content being taught. Learning strategies or techniques such as case studies, role-playing, simulations, and self-evaluation are useful.

According to this theory, educators adopt a role what we can call “facilitator” or a “resource allocator” rather than instructors, lecturer, or grader.

Theory 4: Experiential Learning

An outstanding theory of adult learning which is commonly known as “Experiential Learning” has been cultivated by Rogers, C.R. (1969). Experiential learning addresses the needs and wants of the learner.

Rogers lists these qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by the learner, and pervasive effects on learner.

At later years (in the 1970s), Roger’s theory of learning made progress as part of the humanistic education movement popularised by Patterson and Valett. (Patterson, 1973) and (Valett, 1977).

Experiential Learning has the following major principles:

1. Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is relevant to the personal interests of the learner.

2. Learning which is threatening to the self (e.g., new attitudes or perspectives) are more easily assimilated when external threats are at a minimum.

3. Learning proceeds faster when the threat to the self is low.

4. Self-initiated learning is the most lasting and pervasive.

These principles show that adults have unique learning habits and patterns. Rogers distinguished two types of learning what he called “cognitive (meaningless)” and “experiential (significant)” (Rogers, C.R. & Freiberg, H.J. (1994)).

The former corresponds to academic knowledge such as learning vocabulary or multiplication tables, which is dominant in academic environments.

However, the latter refers to applied knowledge such as learning about engines in order to repair a car, components of a computer to fix, or build a computing device, which is desirable in the workplace. This theory seems to be applicable to adult workplace technical learning as it suggests a hands-on approach with desirable outcomes.

Rogers’ Experiential Learning theory seems to influence several educators as considered to be a significant theory in the adult learning process such as Combs, (1982)

Theory 5: Constructivism

In the sixties, another theory what is called “Constructivism” by J. Bruner (1960) started influencing the adult educators. According to this theory, learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge.

The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so. Cognitive structures such as schema and mental models provide meaning and organisation to experiences and allow the individual to “go beyond the information given” Bruner, J. (1966).

According to Bruner, a theory of instruction should address four major aspects:

1. Predisposition towards learning,

2. The ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner,

3. The most effective sequences in which to present material,

4) The nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.

“Constructivism” has expanded to seventies, eighties, and even nineties via Bruner’s more recent publications (Bruner,1986, 1990). A new perspective and theoretical framework which encompass the social and cultural aspects of learning have been associated with the theory.

The Constructivism theory has the following major principles:

1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the student willing and able to learn (readiness).

2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the student (spiral organisation).

3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).

Theory 6: Information Processing Theory

In the late 50s and early 60s, a learning theory which is associated with information processing was developed by G. A. Miller. It was called “Information Processing Theory”. Miller (1956) has provided two theoretical ideas that are fundamental to cognitive psychology and the information-processing framework.

The first concept is “chunking” and the capacity of short-term memory. Miller presented the idea that short-term memory could only hold 5–9 chunks of information (seven plus or minus two) where a chunk is any meaningful unit.

A chunk could refer to digits, words, chess positions, or people’s faces. The concept of chunking and the limited capacity of short-term memory became a basic element of all subsequent theories of memory.

The second concept is TOTE (Test-Operate-Test-Exit) which is proposed by Miller, Galanter & Pribram (1960). Miller et al. suggested that TOTE should replace the stimulus-response as the basic unit of behaviour.

In a TOTE unit, a goal is tested to see if it has been achieved and if not an operation is performed to achieve the goal; this cycle of test-operate is repeated until the goal is eventually achieved or abandoned. It was obvious in the literature that the TOTE concept provided the basis of many subsequent theories of problem-solving and production systems such as mentioned by (Dilts, Epstein & Dilts, 1993).

The “Information Processing Theory” has the following major principles:

1. Short-term memory or attention span is limited to seven chunks of information.

2. Planning (in the form of TOTE units) is a fundamental cognitive process.

3. Behaviour is hierarchically organised such as chunks and TOTE units.

Theory 7: Situated Learning Theory

In the late 80s and early 90s, a new theory has been established by Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990) what is called “Situated Learning Theory”. This theory has been associated with “technology-based learning”.

Lave argues that learning as it normally occurs is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs such as it is situated. Obviously, this contrasts with classroom learning activities since they involve knowledge, which is abstract and out of context.

Lave & Wenger (1990) emphasise that “social interaction” is a critical component of situated learning because learners become involved in a “community of practice” which embodies certain beliefs and behaviours to be acquired.

As the beginner or newcomer moves from the “periphery of this community to its centre”, they become more active and engaged within the culture and hence assume the role of expert or “old-timer”. They stress that situated learning is usually unintentional rather than deliberate and is the process of “legitimate peripheral participation.”

The situated learning theory has further been expanded by Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989). They focus on the idea of “cognitive apprenticeship”. The “Cognitive apprenticeship” supports learning in a domain by enabling adult learners to acquire, develop and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity.

Learning, both outside and inside the school, advances through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge.” Another contributor to the situated learning theory is Suchman (1988) who explores the situated learning framework within the context of artificial intelligence.

In later years several educators such as McLellan (1995) and Cognition & Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1993) have further interpreted this theory in various contexts.

The Situated Learning Theory has the following major principles:

1. Knowledge needs to be presented in an authentic context, i.e., settings and applications that would normally involve that knowledge

2. Learning requires social interaction and collaboration


There are numerous resources in the literature on Adult Learning theories and models reflecting learning patterns of leaders, however most of them are repetitive and appear to be a reiteration of the above mentioned major theories.

Hope this article provided a small taste from the learning body of knowledge to gain insights on cognitive indicators of adult learners within leadership disciplines.

For masters or doctorate students undertaking studies related to these theories, I can provide a comprehensive bibliography upon request.


The theories covered in this article were originally cited from scholarly journals exclusive to research institutions or were based on paid subscriptions. Therefore accessing those journals can be costly and time consuming.

However, to make it useful for the interested readers of this article, I provide web accessible references to give ideas on these theories.

1.Dynamic Learning by Dilts & Epstein

2. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning

3. The Adult Learning Theory: Andragogy of Knowles

4. Comb’s Educational Leadership

5. Roger’s Principles of Learning

6. Educational psychology by Thorndike & Edward

7. Experiential Learning by Rogers

8. Theories of counseling and psychotherapy by Patterson

9. Constructivist Theory by Bruner

10. Miller’s Short Term Memory

11. Plans and the structure of behavior by Miller, Galanter and Pribram

12. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Lave & Wenger

13. Ideology (Concepts Social Thought) by David McLellan

14. Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning by Brown, Collins, & Duguid

15.Suchman’s Plans & situated actions: The problem of human-machine communication

Further reading

Related to this study, you may check the relevant article on diversity research for technical leaders which may provide a useful perspective.


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Dr Mehmet Yildiz

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Technologist/Cognitive Scientist empowering writers. Founder of ILLUMINATION curating & amplifying important messages. Connection: https://digitalmehmet.com


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Dr Mehmet Yildiz

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Technologist/Cognitive Scientist empowering writers. Founder of ILLUMINATION curating & amplifying important messages. Connection: https://digitalmehmet.com


Outstanding stories objectively and diligently selected by 40+ senior editors on ILLUMINATION

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