Applying Adult Education Theory to Curriculum Design

Last week Mclean’s online posted an article written by a university student title “Learning Styles are Bogus.”  He wrote the article based on one peer reviewed paper and his inability to study.

While I believe the article is flimsy, it made me wonder how many instructors look at only one theory when designing curriculum and do not take into account other learning factors.  Here is a quick rundown of a few adult education theories that should be consulted when designing curriculum.

Many in adult education are familiar with Bloom’s taxonomy and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but I doubt many curriculum designers finish their design and then refer to either the taxonomy or hierarchy.

Culture plays an important part in the learners’ expectations and assumptions about the learning experience.  With Canada’s mosaic of cultural groups, even those born in Canada have a different cultural than their neighbours.  Perhaps the learner attended a private school, a public school, or a religious school, such as those run by the Catholic school boards in Ontario and Manitoba.

These slight differences in Canadian high school education impact the expectations and assumptions of learners in higher education.  It is, therefore, up to instructors and curriculum designers to ensure that learners are taught in ways that are familiar to them.

Cross-cultural diversity must also be taken in to consideration.  For a more detailed discussion on this topic, please refer to my previous blog posting.

Preferred or predominant learning types is important to understand, but most learners can assimilated information if they read it, or use other visual means and have a physical activity based on the acquired knowledge.  The majority of students do not retain information strictly by hearing it.

On a personal level, I believe that learners benefit from either knowing their personality type through either Myers-Brigg or True Colors.  These insights can help the student with a best approach to learning.

Other information, such as a learner’s values, beliefs, and attitudes are helpful for curriculum designers to know; however, this knowledge can only be acquired through generalization.

Finally, it is important to know why a learner has chosen either the individual course or program.  Perhaps the learner had a passing interest in the program and at an intake orientation he or she found the program coordinator and faculty to be extremely passionate about their program.

Unless the faculty can transfer their passion from an intake to the classroom, then the learner will be disappointed with the learning experience.

Other adult education theories that should be consulted are Brundage & MacKeacher’s “Adult Learning Principles and their Application,” theorist Malcolm Knowles, Donald L. Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model, and Daniel D. Pratt’s “Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education.”  One of my favourite books, which provides a brief overview of most theories, is Patricia Cranton’s “Planning Instruction for Adult Learners.”

For curriculum designers and instructors, it is very difficult to address all the factors mentioned in this post; however, it is important to review basic adult education theory when updating and revising courses.


Remember, it is our job to make a difference for our learners, and that begins with applying adult education theory and knowing our audience.

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