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Principles and Practice of Experiential Learning for Adults

By Beverley Walters, MA

“The review and analysis of literature sets the stage for a later process” (Stringer, 2007, p. 176).


One of the major strengths of adult education is the diversity that often characterizes it. The field can serve a vast array of adults through an equally broad variety of program delivery methods. Underpinning these methods are a number of key characteristics that are unique to adult learners and a number of principles and practices that are key to an experiential learning model. The consideration of these two topics established the conceptual framework for this literature review.


An Exploration of Adult Learning

An exploration into some historic definitions of terms used in adult learning was beneficial to determine their relative association with one another. The terms: adult, adult education, adult learner, and andragogy were reviewed in the context of their definitions and underlying assumptions.

Knowles, Holton and Swanson (1998) considered four definitions of the term “adult” that were embedded in Knowles’ theory of andragogy. They reviewed the biological, legal, social and psychological definitions of the term: “With regard to learning, it is the psychological definition of adult that is most crucial. We become an adult psychologically when we arrive at a self-concept of being responsible for our own lives, of being self-directing” (Knowles et al., p. 64).

Knowles et al. (1998) built upon the work of Boone (1985) who earlier produced a glossary of terms that defined both adult education and the adult learner. Embedded in Boone’s definition of adult education is the term ‘adult status’ which is consistent with Knowles’ psychological adult. Boone stated: “adult education is a process whereby persons whose major social roles are characteristic of adult status undertake systematic and sustained learning activities for the purpose of bringing about changes in knowledge, attitudes, values, or skills” (p. 14).

To build upon this concept of adult education, Boone also offered a definition of the adult learner: “a participant in any adult learning opportunity, whether special or regular, to develop new skills or qualifications, or to improve existing skills and qualifications, or to acquire information” (Boone, 1985, p. 14).

“The education of adults has been a concern of the human race for such a long time. Yet, for many years, the adult learner was indeed a neglected species.” (Knowles et al., 1998, p. 35). Lindeman “laid the foundation for a systematic theory about adult learning” (p. 37). Lindeman’s key assumptions about adult learners were summarized by Knowles and company:

(1) adults are motivated to learn as they experience needs and interests that learning will satisfy; (2) adults’ orientation to learning is life-centered; (3) experience is the richest source for adults’ learning; (4) adults have a deep need to be self-directing; (5) individual differences among people increase with age (Knowles et al, 1998, p. 40).


Historical Definitions

Knowles et al. (1998) reported that, for a time, the Dutch educator Ger van Enckevort believed he invented the term andragogy until it was later discovered that the term Angrgogik was first “coined by a German grammar school teacher in 1833” (p. 38). Currently, andragogy is defined as “the academic discipline that reflects and researches the science of the lifelong and life-wide education and learning of adults” (Reischmann, 2004, p. 2). Andragogy is the science that studies education and learning in adults. This definition was important in understanding the research of Malcolm Knowles who built upon the work of Lindeman and others when he formulated his own assumptions about andragogy.

Underlying Assumptions

The andragogical model was meant to inform curriculum designers who sought to increase their efficacy in the development of adult learning/adult education programs. It was interesting to note that the number of assumptions about andragogy has grown significantly and been re-defined since Lindeman’s model. Knowles’ andragogical model is based on six assumptions:

1.   The need to know. Adults need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.

2.   The learner’s self-concept. Adults have a self-concept of being responsible for their own decisions, for their own lives.

3.   The role of the learners’ experiences. Adults come into an educational activity with both a greater volume and a different quality of experience from youths.

4.   Readiness to learn. Adults become ready to learn those things they need to know and be able to do in order to cope effectively with their real-life situations.

5.   Orientation to learning. Adults learn new knowledge, understandings, skills, values, and attitudes most effectively when they are presented in the context of application to real-life situations.

6.   Motivation. While adults are responsive to some external motivators (better jobs, promotions, higher salaries, and the like), the most potent motivators are internal pressures (the desire for increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, and the like. (Knowles et al., 1998, pp. 64-68)


In summary, the historical definitions of adult, adult learner, adult education and andragogy, with their underlying assumptions gave meaning to my own definition of adult learning that I describe as:

The self directedness of adults to build upon their vast life experience by engaging in activities that would enhance their knowledge, skills and values in a relevant and practiced way for the purpose of applying new behaviours to situations that arise in various life areas and over the period of their life span. (Walters, 2009)


In keeping with this concept, I offer that adult educators must be responsive to the definitions of the ‘adult as a learner’ when designing educational experiences for them. This position is supported by Merriam and Brockett (1997), “We define adult education as activities intentionally designed for the purpose of bringing about learning among those whose age, social roles, or self-perception define them as adults" (p. 7).

Experiential Learning

Some key principles and practices have grown out of the critical linkage between experience and knowledge. Kolb (1984) defined learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience” (p. 38). In Kolb’s view, the process of experiential learning can be described as a four-stage cycle involving four adaptive learning modes. Vella (2000) drew heavily on the work of Kolb as she developed the theoretical underpinnings for the creation of workshops for adult learners.

The heart of Kolb’s experiential learning model is a cycle of learning that proposes four learning modes: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. A key idea in Kolb’s model is that experiential learning occurs most effectively when all four modes in this cycle of learning are completed. (p. 9)


According to Vella (2000), developers of experiential workshops needed to consider the design of learning tasks. “A learning task is an open question put to learners who have all the resources they need to respond” (p. 8). In 1994, Vella and Menendez decided that any effective design for experiential workshops had to have four components:

1.   a learning task that connects learners with what they already know and with their unique context

2.   a learning task that invites them to examine new input (concepts, skills, or attitudes)-the content of the course

3.   a learning task that gets learners to do something directly with that new content, somehow implementing it

4.   a learning task that integrates this new learning into their lives. Menendez and I called this model the four I’s: Inductive work, Input, Implementation, Integration. (Vella, 2000, p. 33)


As stated earlier, the program model that was the subject of my research project was the Life Skills and Career Development Coach Diploma program. Year-one is the Life Skills concentration with a focus on the development of expertise for managing group process and the demonstration of advanced facilitation and coaching skill. Year-two is the Career Development concentration which is heavily influenced by the experiential methodologies applied to the first year of study with the addition of a great many theoretical constructs specific to the field of Career Development.

As the LSCD program was built upon the theoretical underpinnings of experiential learning in adult education, I thought it appropriate to explore the history of Life Skills coaching in terms of its experiential nature.

Life Skills Coaching

The initial theoretical formulation for Life Skills training was developed by Adkins and Rosenberg when they were engaged by the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, from 1965 to 1968. “It was during this period that the term Life Skills was coined to describe the kind of behaviour-based psychological learning needed to help people cope with predictable developmental tasks” (Walters, 1991, p. 15). In November 1968, the two psychologists were invited to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to profile their Life Skills program.

In mid-1969, Life Skills, Saskatchewan NewStart, became a division of the Training, Research and Development Station of the Department of Manpower and Immigration, Canada. At this point Ralph Himsl and Mary Jean Marin, under the leadership of Stuart Conger, introduced the notion of problem-solving as an important component in the design of Life Skills lessons and the course itself. They helped shift the focus from almost a purely human relations program to one in which there was a balance of human relations, behavioural skills and knowledge which became known as a problem-solving model. (Sluser, Allen, Mehal & Palmateer, 1995, p. 7)


A change was made to the term Life Skills educator, and facilitators of Life Skills groups became known as Life Skills coaches. The term ‘coach’ was thought to more adequately reflect the practice of guiding individuals in the development of skills. An additional change was made to the four phase lesson plan that Adkins and Rosenberg designed in that a fifth stage was added to the lesson process that linked in-class experimentation of various skills to an application phase conducted outside the learning environment, in a work or personal interest field.

By 1974, Life Skills, Saskatchewan NewStart, was defined by its five stage lesson process which included: (1) a stimulus, where the Coach presents a problem or topic that will be the basis of the lesson; (2) an evocation, which is the exploration of learner experiences, feelings and opinions related to the topic; (3) objective inquiry, is the new knowledge or lesson content the Coach brings forward; (4) skill drill, is the experimental component that affords learners the opportunity to practice new skills related to the content of the objective inquiry; (5) evaluation, is the last phase of the lesson in which learners actively and constructively engage in how they will apply what they have learned (knowledge) to situations arising from involvement in their major life areas outside the classroom (experience). (Walters, 1991, p. 2)


The core essence of experiential learning began to emerge from the various principles and practices applied in the field of adult learning and specifically, the design of experiential education. Brooks-Harris and Stock-Ward (1999) produced a sequence of activities for experiential workshops that included: “Introduction and Overview; Reflecting on Experience; Assimilating and Conceptualizing; Experimenting and Practicing; Planning for Application; and Conclusion” (p.3). These learning activities built upon six definitional characteristics of experiential workshops, identified as: “(1) short-term, intensive learning; (2) small group interaction; (3) active involvement; (4) development of competence, (5) problem solving; (6) behaviour change as an outcome” (p. 3). A review of experiential learning since 1968 revealed a continuous thread of consistent information contained in the definitions, assumptions, practices and principles within the framework of adult education.



In a previous section of this literature review, I identified my own concept of adult learning as: the self directedness of adults to build upon their vast life experience by engaging in activities that would enhance their knowledge, skills and values in a relevant and practiced way for the purpose of applying new behaviours to situations that arise in various life areas and over the period of their life span.

I integrated this definition of adult learning with the commentary of authors who addressed the design of experiential learning activities and was able to discern the core essence of experiential learning for adults.

The core essence of experiential learning for adults is an intentional design that reflects the definition of adult status and incorporates past experience, new knowledge and relevant practice, followed by integration into one or more of the adult’s major life areas. (Walters, 2009)



Boone, J. E. (1985). Developing programs in adult education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Brooks-Harris, J. E., & Stock-Ward, S. R. (1999). Workshops: Designing and facilitating experiential learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Knowles, M. S., Holton, E. F., & Swanson, R.A. (1998). A theory of adult learning: Andragogy. In The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development (5th ed., pp. 35-72). Woburn: Butterworth Heinemann.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Merriam, S. B., & Brockett, R. G. (1997). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reischmann, J. (2004). Andragogy: History, meaning, context, function. Retrieved February 16, 2009, from http://www.andragogy.net. Version Sept. 9, 2004.

Sluser, R., Allen, S., Mehal, M., & Palmateer, S. (1995). The new dynamics of life skills coaching. Toronto: YWCA.

Stringer, E. T. (2007). Action research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Vella, J. (2000). Taking learning to task. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walters, B. (1991). A guidebook for trainers of life skills coaches. (Available from Box 1006, Bragg Creek, Alberta, Canada T0L 0K0)