Adult Learning in the USA


Adult learning is an essential issue for the U.S. population and the state since it directly affects people’s carrier and financial opportunities. At the same time, government and society need to understand that the characteristics of adult thinking and cognition are different from that of children and consider them for the development of policies and learning standards. Although scholars study this subject and put their findings into practice, the history of adult learning is not long enough to say that the knowledge is sufficient. Consequently, this paper will study the history of adult learning and the current features of adult education to determine the prospects for its development.

History of Adult Learning

The history of adult learning as a systematic discipline is relatively short. The first attempts to systematically study adult learning began in the early twentieth century, and evidence-based theories that are relevant today emerged in the 1960s. One of the first was Malcolm Knowles with the andragogy theory, which explained the characteristics of an adult learner that distinguish him from a child. Among these differences are mainly intrinsic motivation, use of experience, problem concentration, and the need to know the reasons for the learning (Merriam, 2017). These distinctions were intended to create the most comfortable learning environment in the classroom.

Another theory of self-learning was proposed by Tough, who, on the contrary, argued that adult learning does not necessarily mean that a person should sit in a room alone and study. However, a person should self-direct the learning effort, for example, by finding a mentor’s help or using online classes (Merriam, 2017). These theories are fundamental and represent the period of the first attempts to systematize knowledge about adult learning.

The second stage can be distinguished by a change in emphasis from studying the characteristics of individual learners to the socio-political context that affects them. For example, contextual learning theory determines that adult learning is influenced by the people around during studying, the tools used, and particular activities (Merriam, 2017). In other words, communities with the same interests or skills using practical tools and activities help adults learn faster and better.

Recent theories of adult learning also provide new perspectives on the learning process. Unlike its predecessors, contemporary theories focus on the idea of ​cognitive learning, such as through the body, feelings, and spirit. For example, the theory of somatic learning assumes that the adult learner gains knowledge through the body, sensations, and emotions and feels the experience rather than thinking about it (Merriam, 2017). Thus, a person gains knowledge and skills through intuitive learning but not by memorizing facts and theoretical arguments, as noted by Dirkx (Merriam, 2017). Nevertheless, despite the differences in approaches to the study of adult learning, all of them, regardless of the time of their creation, can be applied in practice. These theories show different perspectives on the issue, but, more often, they do not contradict each other.

Adult Learning Standards

Adult Learning Standards are set out in different documents and may differ from state to state, they should be based on national standards. At the same time, the requirements are divided by areas of knowledge, as well as by the levels of programs in which adult learners participate. For example, the standards for adult English learners are set out in a separate document and have specifications, although they meet the general criteria for college and career readiness.

The primary documents that determine the minimum requirements for adult education are College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education. This document is based on the Common Core State Standards, which are developed for children’s school education but have been amended to suit adult learning’s specifics (Pimentel, 2013). Simultaneously, the document identifies the necessary shifts to ensure sufficient adult education for college or career entry.

First, the author identifies the need to complicate texts for reading and regular practice of the academic language (Pimentel, 2013). In addition, teaching adults how to use argument and evidence in reading, speaking, and writing and gaining literacy across all disciplines are also the required shifts. These features relate to literature, history, and natural sciences, although the document also considers the standards of mathematics. For example, narrowing down topics necessary for adult learners for college or career is required since the subject of mathematics is broad and complex (Pimentel, 2013). These emphases highlight the most important directions in adult learning.

However, the standards also define the organizational characteristics of the lessons for adults. For example, teachers must use various media and formats to convey teaching material (Pimentel, 2013). This approach allows educators to engage different types of information perception, which differ in people, ensuring better assimilation of knowledge by each student. In addition, the standards define the types of exercises needed for learning, for example, the analysis of topics, words in texts and their forms, or the sequence of studying mathematical formulas and equations. This approach ensures that adult learners receive a sufficient level of education to be ready for college or careers. The same statement applies to the standards for other study programs, such as English language learning, since they also aim to provide adults with higher education or career opportunities.

U.S. Legislations on Adult Learning

For a long time, adult learning was not an issue that was seen as essential to American society. For this reason, the first laws to promote adult education began to be adopted only in the second half of the twentieth century. The first investment effort was the Adult Education Act 1966, which significantly boosted the development of new educational plans and teacher training. This law also provided an impetus for national and state programs that covered adult education.

In 1991, President Bush signed the National Literacy Act, an improved version of the Adult Education Act 1966 (Mortrude, 2018). In 1998, the federal government also passed the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), which made it easier to collaborate and fund local providers of adult education (Mortrude, 2018). This act made adult learning even more accessible to people who wanted to complete a high school education or receive post-secondary education.

The most recent legislative changes have also focused on funding adult education to make it more affordable. In 2014, Congress passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), according to which most programs operate today, and local organizations receive grants (Mortrude, 2018).

Simultaneously, adult education services and their promotion can be offered by both large state associations, for example, the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, the Coalition of Lifelong Learning Organizations, and local agencies. Both public and private agencies can also receive grants and funding if they meet the standards and conditions for application. This law aims to increase the chances of adults who face challenges to become more skilled in the labor market and succeed in their careers. In other words, WIOA allows adults not only to obtain a high school diploma but to receive the post-secondary education necessary for the job.

Future of Adult Learning

The growth of research and the accumulation of practical and theoretical knowledge of adult learning demonstrate that this area has significant development potential. In addition, the U.S. government and agencies are making substantial efforts to make education accessible to adults since the growth in the number of educated people develops the labor market. Consequently, the continuation of these trends will increase the U.S. population’s literacy and improve the quality of education. However, the events of recent years and the rapid development of technology demonstrate that the government needs to take into account new features of education. For example, distance learning has become a necessity during the pandemic, so funding and lesson organization must be considered to deliver quality learning. In addition, most of the learning standards and the law were revised more than five years ago, which indicates the need for an update.


Therefore, this brief overview demonstrates that adult learning is a relatively young field of science. However, the development of this area is noticeable since it has gone through several stages of scientific research and reached a qualitatively new level. Simultaneously, the study of approaches and principles of adult learning continues, and the U.S. government invests considerable funds and makes legislative initiatives to provide educational opportunities. Consequently, this trend demonstrates that adult learning has significant development prospects.


Merriam, S.B. (2017). Adult learning theory: Evolution and future directions. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 21-37.

Mortrude, J. (2018). Adult education is evolving through theory, legislation, and innovative practiceThe Center for Law and Social Policy. Web.

Pimentel, S. (2013). College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult EducationMPR Associates and U.S. Department of Education. Web.

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