5R Adult Learning Assignment 1: The Adult Learner

This is a blog series detailing my seven 5R assignments for Adult Learning, an 8-week course I’m taking at UNM with Gary Smith. The name 5R comes from the requirements for each assignment: Read, Reflect, Research, Relate, Resources. Read reflects checking off a box – reading the assignment and working through the learning module components, which may include an assigned video. Reflect details tying the reading to the learning objectives for the module, although I hope that this part can situate our learning into the frameworks we’ve previously built. Research then describes using scholarly resources (minimum 2) to further build on our reading and to question the inherent assumptions within the assignment. Relate provides us the opportunity to embed our learning within our experience. Resources means listing at least two other resources that might be of interest to classmates and that relate to the learning material. The rubric for the assignments is available upon request.

The Merriam & Bierema (2014) chapter provided a clear description of adult learning, particularly as it sits in contrast to the learning we typically think of as K-12 learning (formal childhood learning). The chapter’s adult learning description delineated the social contexts for adult learning, including globalization, technology, the knowledge economy/society, and changing demographics. The argument underlying these social contexts was why learning should continue into adulthood (in deep contrast to those who say they “stopped” learning as soon as they were done with their degree and therefore never want to “learn” again). Adult learning was therefore broadly defined as “activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception, define them as adults” (Merriam & Brockett, 2007, pp. 8). This definition somewhat parallels that of heutagogy, where the learner is provided primary agency for their own learning and in which adapting and applying learning in new situations is a critical component (Bali & Caines, 2018).

In research concerning adult learning, adults’ social and psychosocial roles tend to distinguish who is treated as an adult rather than their physical or cognitive development, or even their legally defined role. It seems that a driving force behind adult learning is adults’ motivation, which tends to tie learning to experience and context rather than learning for the sake of learning. Learning theories – some major examples include behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, constructivism (cognitive and social), and constructionism – help define the pathways to learning further by elucidating the processes that support those learning pathways. Learning can happen in many different settings – formal, nonformal, informal, or integrative – and lifelong learning is a conceptual global goal, which includes “lifewide” and “life deep” learning contexts (Aspin, Evans, Chapman, & Bagnall, 2012, as found in Merriam & Bierema, 2014).

While the chapter articulated above defines adulthood clearly, labels many learning settings, and justifies why adult learning is important in the world today, it does not clearly define what learning is. Learning is more aptly defined in the Introduction of Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman (2010) as:

  • a process which takes place only in the mind of the student through their interpretation and response to their experience in the classroom, and therefore can only be inferred from student performance, behaviors, and outputs.
  • involving a change over time in the student’s “knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes” (pg. 3).


This definition seems fairly complete and comprehensive, but it really only partially defines learning in the context of the student/teacher relationship. Of course, there’s an argument to be made that the entire notion of learning is muddy, with sometimes seemingly radically different definitions from the fields of psychology, evolutionary biology, modern biology, neuroscience, education, etc. Learning is clearly a process by which humans change, but how long that change persists and how it affects the human in question (i.e. the student) is up for debate.

I appreciate Eyler’s (2018) inquiry-based point of view in How Humans Learn – while learning may or may not be a concept we can clearly define, we can clearly see patterns that involve learning throughout these fields, including “curiosity, sociality, emotion, authenticity, and failure” (Eyler, 2018, pp. 12). These patterns then lead to a deeper analysis of why humans have developed these learning patterns and why these patterns are useful in the classroom. While all of these patterns spark recognition and enthusiasm in my mind, the two that fundamentally undergird all of learning are authenticity and failure.

I have taught 15 classes a year for almost 17 years now at CNM Community College, and I see these two learning patterns repeat daily in myself, my peers, and my students. Sometimes the two patterns combine into one whole – an authentic failure. Recently I had an authentic failure when I started graded my students’ second exams in Organic Chemistry II. This semester I’ve employed a pedagogical technique called “ungrading”, in which feedback is predominant over points lost or gained by the students. I’m covering my own personal take on “ungrading”, which I’m employing in Organic Chemistry II this semester, here, if you’re interested in the process.

It turns out that “ungrading” is difficult and time-consuming. Falling back into old patterns is relatively easy. That’s what happened in my authentic failure – I started grading the exams by taking off points for missed problems instead of eliminating points and focusing on feedback.  But the agency given to the students for their own assessment in this process is unparalleled. And it is definitely worth the time and the learning curve.

Which, of course, leads me back to the original intention of this assignment – to define adult learning. Where learning begins, ends, and what it entails is probably in the eye of the beholder. The best we can do is hope that our pedagogical methods might spark learning in our students.


Questions for Reflection

  1. How do adult learning theories further intersect with heutagogy and connected learning?
  2. How can informal learning be integrated into formal learning in ways that don’t require credentials of some type (like badges)?



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Aspin, D. N., Evans, K., Chapman, J., & Bagnall, R. (2012). Introduction and overview. In D. N. Aspin, J. Chapman, K. Evans, & R. Bagnall (Eds.), Second international handbook of lifelong learning, Part 1 (pp. x1v – 1xxxiv). New York, NY: Springer.

Bali, M., & Caines, A. (2018). A call for promoting ownership, equity, and agency in faculty development via connected learning. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41239-018-0128-8

Eyler, J. R. (2018). How humans learn: The science and stories behind effective college teaching. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., & Brockett, R. G. (2007). The profession and practice of adult education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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