What is Adult Education and Training?

What is Adult Education and Training?

This week, I am preparing for the Illinois Council on Continuing Higher Education (ICCHE) joint conference with the Great Lakes Region for the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE).  I was reminded of this post (below) from several years ago where I review definitions of adult education and training. I read a recent article about “reinventing continuing higher education” where Walshok (2012) encourages the industry to “embrace new concepts, employ new tools, and form partnerships” to reinvent how we operate within this industry. Even more recently – hot off the presses, in fact – is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled: “The Adult Student: The Population Colleges – and the Nation – Can’t Afford to Ignore” published Feb. 5, 2018. If you work with adult students (as my ICCHE and ACHE colleagues and friends do), you already know of their importance and their needs. I look forward to this week’s conference to put these definitions into action and to continue what I have been working on for much of my career – the continual process of “reinventing” to serve the needs of our learners.

Definitions of Adult Education:

When does adult education really begin?  In our 20’s? 40’s? 60’s?  Or is the foundation for adult education and training built earlier in our life, possibly as early as our grammar school days?

In the study of pedagogy (theories of teaching and learning) and andragogy (theory of teaching adults) in education and industry, there is much debate as to what constitutes adult learning.  The truth is that from the day we are born until the day we die, we are always learning. Merriam and Brockett (2007) suggest that the definition of an adult learner depends on who you are teaching, where you are teaching and the general context of what you are teaching.

In the study of adult learning, we could go as far back as Confucius, Aristotle and Plato who were teaching adults using a process of mental inquiry and facilitation of cognitive development within the student’s mind (Knowles, Holton, Swanson, 2011).  In 1926, Lindeman wrote about the teacher as a guide to the adult student’s learning process. And modern theorists and even neurological scientists continue to study the way in which adults learn and how this is similar and different to the way a child might learn.

The following seven definitions of adult learning clearly demonstrate the continuing evolution and interest in the field.

Lindeman (1926): “If we are to make the most effective use of whatever quantity of intelligence is available, we shall need to grant the right of each personality to rise to its own level.  This means that increased inventiveness will be required to discover the kind of education which will most effectively meet the needs of varying capacities. Formal educational discipline cannot be accepted as the criterion for ability to learn.”

Bryson (1936):  “Adult education consists of ‘all the activities with an educational purpose that are carried on by people, engaged in the ordinary business of life’” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Knowles (1980): Adult education is “the process of adults learning” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Houle (1972): Adult education is “a process involving planning by individuals or agencies by which adults ‘alone, in groups, or in institutional settings…improve themselves or their society’” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Courtney (1989): Adult education is “for practitioners…those preparing to enter the profession, and…curious others who have connections with the field” (as cited by Merriam & Brockett, 2007).

Merriam & Brockett (2007): “Activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those who age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults.”

Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner (2007):  “Adult education is a large and amorphous field of practice, with no neat boundaries such as age, as in the case of elementary and secondary education, or mission, as in higher education. Adult education with its myriad content areas, delivery systems, goals, and learners defies simple categorization.”


The Chronicle of Higher Education. (2018, Feb. 5). The adult student: The population colleges — and the nation — can’t afford to ignore. [Report].

Knowles, M.S., Holton, E.F., & Swanson, R.A. (2011). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development. (7th ed.). New York: Routledge.

Lindeman, E. (1926). The meaning of adult education. (1989 edition). Norman, OK: Harvest House, Ltd.

Merriam, S. & Brockett, R. (2007). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction.  (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in  adulthood: A comprehensive guide. (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walshok, M. L. (2012). Reinventing Continuing Higher Education. Continuing Higher Education Review7638-53.


Online Teaching Tools for the Adult Learner

Check out my session from the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE) 2015 national annual conference held this year in St. Louis, MO. Thank you to all who attended the session!


Adult learners have unique needs, and the e-learning or online environment presents additional challenges.  Adult students seek return on their investment of time and money for education.  How do we meet these realities?  This workshop presents the unique learning needs of the adult student through the lens of adult learning theory. It addresses using adults’ experiences in a highly applied and meaningful way with e-learning tools to fulfill adult learner’s goals and desired outcomes.

Online Teaching Tools for the Adult Learner (emaze.com presentation)

Guest Post: Prior Learning Assessment – Earning Credit for Your Experience

The University of St. Francis has been a leader in providing prior learning credit to students, particularly adult students. The Prior Learning Assessment Program offers a way for earning credit granted for verifiable college–level learning acquired through life or work experiences that can be documented in a portfolio and is equivalent to a college course (experiential learning, training, employment, and certifications). For example, students who have earned the CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning & Performance) designation from ATD (Association for Talent Development) (formerly ASTD) can earn 3 semester hours of credits towards their MS in Training and Development at St. Francis.  This helps students move through the program quicker and provides credit for knowledge they have already achieved.

The following post about prior learning assessment is provided by guest blogger, Pat McClintock, Coordinator of Adult Student Advising and Prior Learning, University of St. Francis

Can prior learning assessment (PLA), recognition of prior learning (RPL), or prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) play a role in your educational and professional endeavors?

Yes, PLA, as it is most commonly known, can play a huge role in attaining credit toward a bachelor’s degree as well as some graduate work. As a trainer, you may have certifications or work experience that could translate into college credit. Or, you may have students who are currently working toward a degree that may have certifications or examinations that may be eligible for college credit.

For many years, higher education institutions have used this process to help adult learners to receive college credit for college-level learning from work and life experience. According to the results of an American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO, 2014) survey, more than two-thirds of responding institutions reported that they accept one type of prior learning credit and most accept more than one.

PLA is assessed in many forms: DSST and CLEP course challenge and oral examinations; standardized tests; credits earned through the American Council of Education’s Guide to the Evaluation of Educational Experiences (ACE Guide, n.d.); and submission of a portfolio that correlates with coursework in a degree program.

Consider checking out the ACE National Guide to College Credit for Workforce Training: http://www2.acenet.edu/credit/?fuseaction=browse.main . It contains ACE credit recommendations for formal courses or examinations offered by various organizations, from businesses and unions to the government and military. If you are a trainer for a specific course or exam, you can request a credit review at: https://www2.acenet.edu/salesforcecreditwebinquiry/


American Council on Education. (ACE). (n.d.). National Guide. Retrieved from: http://www2.acenet.edu/credit/?fuseaction=browse.main

American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO). (Dec. 2014). 60 Second Survey Results: Credit for Prior Learning Practices. Retrieved from: http://www.aacrao.org/docs/default-source/PDF-                        Files/aacrao_dec_2014_60_second_survey_credit_for_prior_learning_practices.p   df?sfvrsn=4

University of St. Francis.  (2015).  Credit for work experience. Retrieved from: http://www.stfrancis.edu/admissions/adultdc/credit-for-work-experience/#.VMlXjnbwvqc

University of St. Francis. (2015). MS Training and Development. Retrieved from: https://www.stfrancis.edu/academics/master-of-science-training-development/

Competency-based Education as a Disruptive Innovator

Summary of presentation to the Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE) annual conference. October 28, 2014. Las Vegas, NV

Competency-based education is a current “buzz” topic in higher education due, in part, to large funders such as the Gates and Lumina Foundations supporting research and new models of education. Competency-based education places an emphasis on the assessment of learning outcomes. Learning is broken into individual competencies that students must demonstrate they have mastered. In some models, prior learning is converted from competencies to credit.

The theory of disruptive innovation developed by Harvard University professor Clayton Christensen, “describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors” (Christensen, 2014). Disruptive innovation revolutionizes an expensive, inconvenient and complicated industry to one that is more affordable, convenient and simple (Christensen & Horn, 2013). Is higher education expensive, inconvenient and complicated? Competency-based education can help make the industry more affordable, convenient and simple, if done right. Continuing education units, in particular, have the opportunity to drive the conversation due to the nature of working with non-traditional populations and entrepreneurial systems.

Competency-based education is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970’s, the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) put forth grant support for innovators in prior learning assessment (PLA). Initiatives such as student portfolios for credit, College Level Examination Program (CLEP), American Council on Education (ACE) credit equivalents and the Military Assessment of Training for Civilian Hiring (MATCH) programs have been providing competency–based credit at institutions for a long time. Some of the newer models go further by thinking outside the credit box. For example, Western Governors University is exclusively competency-based where students advance based on demonstrating mastery of content rather than credits. Therefore, the student has the ability to progress quickly depending on their prior learning. Southern New Hampshire University also evaluates direct assessment of learning not tied to the credit hour. The University of St. Francis in Joliet converts prior learning to credits using a portfolio process to measure competencies and also provides block credit for credentials such as military training.

There are numerous other examples and best practices in competency-based education. Continuing education managers are encouraged to view the topic through the lens of disruptive innovation and to think differently about how to apply the concept within their unit. For example, is there a technology enabler that can speed up a portfolio process? Is there a business model for prior learning assessment that can revolutionize the institution? Can prior learning assessment be moved from the advising office to the admissions office? How can students quickly advance through the process of education without losing the value and integrity of programs?

Competency-based education has the potential to add value to the adult education field. It is outcomes focused, provides benefits to the adult learner’s emotional and cognitive connection to learning, and has the potential to lower the cost and time to attainment of a degree. Competency-based models also have the potential to disrupt our industry. However, as units of continuing education, we have the opportunity to participate in the disruption by promoting new models on our campuses.


Christensen, C. M. (2014). Disruptive Innovation. Retrieved from:


Christensen, C. M., & Horn, M. B. (2013). How disruption can help colleges thrive.

Chronicle of Higher Education, 60(5), B30-B31.