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The Basics of Experiential Learning and Adult Learning Theories

Multi–disciplinary training sessions are often a component of the work of problem–solving collaborative teams. Regardless of the issues under consideration, teams often convene or attend training sessions to inform themselves and others about the work they will undertake. For example, a team considering how to implement or strengthen gender responsive programming in their jurisdiction might seek out or deliver a training program on emerging best practice in working with female offenders. Whatever the topic, teams need to be mindful of the most effective ways to conduct training sessions so that all team members—regardless of their learning styles—can benefit from the information that is presented. There are two influential theories—Adult Learning Theory and Experiential Learning Theory—which suggest important considerations when planning and delivering training events for a diverse audience of adult learners.

Core Principles of the Theories

As Malcolm Knowles, known as the “father” of Adult Learning Theory suggests, the following principles are key to understanding adult learners and providing them with the type of training that will meet their diverse and individual needs:1

Likewise, understanding another popular theoretical framework—the concept of experiential learning theory and learning—is also particularly important in working with adult learners. This framework suggests that individuals learn by first being taught abstract concepts and then having the opportunity to reflect upon and test out those concepts. In other words, “Experience is used to test out ideas and assumptions rather than to passively obtain practice. It is active exploration.”2

Different Types of Adult Learners

Kolb and his colleagues suggest that there are four categories for adult learners, who process information in very distinct ways, and that trainers should be sure to accommodate these various styles of learning in order to be maximally effective.3

Regardless of mode, learning usually varies between the concrete and the abstract, and between the reflective and active.

How Can Training be Tailored to Meet the Needs of Adult Learners?

Trainers should attempt to accommodate this variety of learning styles and to meet the learning needs of their audience. The following are suggestions for creating an adult learning environment that accommodates learning styles:


1Knowles, M. (1975). Self–Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet; Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

2Gibbs, G (1987). Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Birmingham: FEU Birmingham Polytechnic.

3Kolb, D.A. (1981). Learning styles and disciplinary differences. In A. Chickering (ed.), The modern American college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass; Kolb, DA (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice–Hall.