Using Adult Learning Theories to Plan for Professional Development

As I get deeper into this quarter, we are taking a deeper look at ISTE Coaching Standard 5:  

ISTE Standard 5: Professional Learning Facilitator 
5a. Design professional learning based on needs assessments and frameworks for working with adults to support their cultural, social-emotional and learning needs. 

My last study focus was on important aspects of designing professional developments. This module, I am looking at adult learning frameworks to specificially design professional development for adult learners. This leads into the question of which frameworks we should be using, along with how to implement them to achieve a positive learning experience in the professional development we plan. 

Let’s jump right in with my current research question: 

How can professional learning facilitators utilize adult learning framework to ensure positive learning experiences during professional development? 

To start this off, we need to take a look at adult learning in general.  

Helen Colman does a great job in her article by stating “adult learning theories are based on the premise that adults learn differently than children”. When I was first hearing about adult learning theories my opinions were split. One part of me felt that a brain is a brain and if there is one way to learn that is beneficial for children that it will be perhaps not as beneficial for adults, but it will still get the job done. But as I continued to learn about these theories I came to understand that yes, while some ways children learn can be similar to the ways adults learn, that we have to take into consideration that adults have a base of knowledge and experience that is vastly different than a child. Consider the beginning of an effective lesson with a child… we know that activating prior knowledge can be one of the best ways to have children connect with a lesson. This can be similar for adults, however, the way in which you do this, and which pieces of prior knowledge you are pulling from will be different.  

This leads us right into what the different adult learning theories are. There are many different great resources that list a number of different theories and go into detail on each. Some include 10-12 theories, and some focus on a smaller number and combine a few. The resources that I am pulling from mention 6 main theories: andragogy, transformational learning, experiential learning, self-directed learning, project based learning, and action learning.  

Here is a fantastic chart that Helen Colman created that gives brief descriptions of the 6 theories, along with the characteristics that are best suited for each theory. Keep in mind, her information is written with the goal to inform the general public of adult learning theories and how a specific platform can achieve the different theories. While not geared specifically for education, it is still quite insightful as an overview. 

Adult learners are autonomous and self-directed, and seek 
out learning based on personal needs. 
Adult learners must be able to apply what they learn in a 
practical way. 
A person's beliefs and expectations shape their view of the 
Ihrough a rational analytical process, a person can 
consciously change their old beliefs and implement new 
A hands-on approach where individuals learn by doing. 
Puts the learner at the center of the learning process. 
Learning happens through an active process of doing and 
Problem solving 
Structured formal learning 
Learners with a defined need to know 
Complex analytical processes 
Evaluation and a nalysis 
Long-term personal growth 
Mechanical skills 
Lea dership skills 
Process improvement 
Systematic thinking
Project Based 
Action Learning 
Process where individuals take complete ownership of the 
learning process to diagnose learning needs, identi$r 
resources, implement learning, and assess their results. 
Learners engage in active investigation of a real-world 
Gives learners a voice in the overall process through a 
process of inquiry, critical thinking, problem solving, 
collaboration, and communication. 
Learning is the result of programming and questioning. 
Learners take action on a problem and reflect upon the 
Process updates 
Self-m oti vated learners 
Technologv and software skills 
Project managem ent 
Process improvement 
M an u facturing 
Team building 
Fill in knowledge gaps 
Uncover areas of learning need
Retrieved from “6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them into Practice” by Helen Colman. 

These 6 theories are also not in separate boxes from one another. A learner does not have to fit into just one. This brings me to a list of tips on how to enhance adult learning, also highlighted by Colman. She really did a great job framing the adult learning theories and helping readers to understand how to incorporate them into professional development! 

1. Build a blended learning solution  

Some adults are more in-sync with learning when they are attending face-to-face workshops. Some are enable to engage in a higher level when they are at a conference, and some still can dive into information in an online course more successfully than when others are present. Building a blended learning solution allows for more people to be successful 

2. Link learning to expected results  

With students, success criteria can help to hone in on expected learning. For adults, linking the learning to the result we expect of them can also help to encourage the path towards success.  

3. Formalize your informal learning 

While the setting of a professional development may not seem formal in nature, by adding a piece of formality to it, it can help increase the experience. Providing a means to document or reflect on professional development or learning can formalize an experience and create purpose. 

4. Build communities for practice 

Allowing adults to have an opportunity to collaborate while learning can help to target training opportunities. While large scale trainings and learning opportunities are sometimes beneficial, a targeted approach for smaller groups or communities to learn strategies or content that is specific to their position can have a longer lasting result. 

5. Chunk your content 

By breaking your content into smaller chunks, learners are able to take pieces of learning at their own speed. This also enables learners to have time to reflect on each topic before starting a new one.  

6. Incorporate microlearning 

Different than breaking learning into smaller chunks, microlearning enables an adult learner to specifically target 1 strategy or skill that is completable in a matter of minutes.  

7. Enable personal learning paths 

Encourage self-directed learning! While this is not always an option, allowing adult learners to have voice and choice will absolutely lead to more positive experiences. If a full self-directed learning opportunity is not available, allowing for a chosen learning path can be a great way to still enable choice in learning experiences.  

8. Align learning to needs, not wants  

Similar to planning lessons for students, you define the end result and the need that is present. From there, you can include the wants… or choices of staff. This will prioritize the need for learning, while also allowing for the voice within the learning experience.  

To wrap it all up, each adult learner is unique and has different learning styles. By incorporating some of the adult learning theories into professional development plans and learning opportunities, you can help to ensure positive experiences. Here is one last graphic that helps to sum up some great tips to keep in mind while planning a professional development experience.  

Visible Teacher Online 
(e.g., Rafings, 
Standards Answer Keys 
documentation for a 
variety OF se++ings 
(e.g.,fiipped classroom, 
jus+-h-time video 
support; Quick
Retrieved from Professional Development: Technologies Key to Success 

Which tip resonates with you? How do you encourage positive learning experiences with staff? 


Colman, H. (2020, April 29). 6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them into Practice. 6 Adult Learning Theories and How to Put Them Into Practice. 

Davis, V. (2015, April 15). 8 Top Tips for Highly Effective PD. Edutopia. 

ISTE Standards for Coaches | ISTE. (n.d.). ISTE. Retrieved January 30, 2021, from 

Kearsley, G. (2010). Andragogy (M.Knowles). The theory Into practice database. Retrieved from 

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet. 

Kosturko, L. (2015, October 14). Professional Development: Technology’s Key to Success. Getting Smart. 

Pappas, C. (2020, April 15). The Adult Learning Theory – Andragogy – of Malcolm Knowles. ELearning Industry. 


  • Kaelynn Noel Mumley

    Wow, what a great post! You do a good job at explaining tough subjects and your writer’s voice is so laid-back and friendly. The chart from Helen Colman was helpful and taught me about a couple of learning theories I did not have time to research myself. The most impactful part of your post was when you explained the 8 ways to incorporate adult learning theories into PD. These were straight-forward and made it seem so achievable. #7 and 8 stood out to me the most. It can be so hard to personalize PD for each staff depending on their needs and interests when you’re also trying to reach school or district goals. It reminded me of two articles that I read by Carla Meyrink, a principal who has done some remarkable things with their PD time. If you haven’t read them, they’re worth your time.

  • Megan

    I love the 8 tips for enhancing adult learning. Tip 8 for sure stands out to me as being so important. Like you mention similar to designing a lesson plan it is important to think about the learning goals for adults when designing PD. What do we want them to learn/discover/explore and how will we make that happen. I also think the idea of building a community is important. As adults we need people that we can share ideas with, ask for help, and learn together. I think these communities of learning help strengthen teaching and learning for adults and students.

  • Jan White

    Thanks for sharing the Helen Coleman chart. It clearly defines and summarizes the different adult learning theories. The eight tips to think about when designing positive learning experiences for professional development all make sense in the light of the adult learning theories. Tips 6 and 7 resonate with me. I prefer the idea of micro learning (6) – being able to focus on one task or skill and integrate it into classroom practice quickly. I think success in bite size pieces generates excitement and encourages even more learning. Also, I value being able to choose my own learning path (7). Knowing that adult learners are more likely to me motivated and engaged in learning that they have deemed necessary should help those who design professional learning to target professional learning to specific needs of educators.

  • Joseph Halbert

    I really like the idea of paths – I know from my own experience that when I get to choose my path at a continuing legal education (CLE) event, even if I attend a clunker or two I feel better about it because I chose it.

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