Additional Considerations for Adult Learning

LED-wordle” by Maha Abed is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The course modules have thus far exposed us to a range of theories, concepts and approaches to adult learning. One additional consideration in our discussion of adult learning is how facilitators take into account the needs of adult learners in order to design effective educational programs. What are the principles and goals involved in such programs? How do we account for the changes in the learning environments in the digital age? The readings in this module address some of these questions and provide us with further insights into the subject.

Synthesis of Readings

Adult Learning in the Digital Age

Merriam and Bierema discuss in Chapter 10 the onset of the digital age and the increased use of technology in adult learning environments. The ease of access to information in today’s connected world affects adult learning in two distinct ways: either as “just-in-time, relevant and self-directed” or “overwhelming, inaccurate, and misguided” (Merriam & Bierema, p. 191). The chapter goes on to provide an overview of how adult learners engage with technology, the benefits and challenges in e-Learning contexts, and how educators may help adults to overcome some of these difficulties.

pantallas” by Olga Díez is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Planning Educational Programs

Brookfield & Holst’s Chapter Five provides a unique perspective on radicalized learning and the principles that make up adult education. The authors define principles as the “values of those who are responsible for the program (that) determine what is actually taught” (Brookfield & Holst, 2011). The authors proceed to describe the goals of program planning, which include an understanding of our sociopolitical economic context, the current era in history, the nature of change, and the need to meet the demands of the dispossessed (Brookfield & Holst, 2011).


The ADDIE model presented by BrainMass highlights the five stages of the training design process originally developed in 1975. The first step, “assess”, requires that the facilitator understands the needs of students, including the current skill level and the skills they need to gain. The “design” stage identifies the learning objectives; while the “develop” phase focuses on producing the materials that fulfill the objectives. The “implement” stage is the actual training and the final stage, “evaluate”, is an ongoing process that takes place throughout the training.

AR-MEDCOM Commanders Training Workshop” by US Army Africa is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Strategies and Styles in Facilitating

MacKeracher’s Chapter 11 discusses the three styles for facilitating adult learning and the four theoretical models of facilitating. Each strategy has its own pros and cons and as explained by the author, “there is no ‘one best facilitating style’ for use with adult learners” (MacKeracher, p. 227). The three styles for facilitating differ mainly in the role and interactions between facilitator and learner. The four theoretical models of facilitating outline different goals in the structure of teacher-learner interactions. Facilitators must keep in mind that adult learning is most effective “when facilitating strategies match (adult learners’) needs and/or preferred learning behaviours and styles” (MacKeracher, p. 227).

Personal Reflection

There are several concepts from this module’s readings that resonated with me. One interesting idea in Adult Learning in the Digital Age is that technology has “infused every aspect of society to essentially change the thought process in learning” (Merriam & Bierema, p. 191). My feeling is that technology has affected the way we learn by allowing us to become more reflective, open to risk-taking, sharing ideas and collaborating together.

In Planning Educational Programs, I agree with the notion that principles and values must be considered in designing training and educational programs. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

In Strategies and Styles in Facilitating, I was intrigued by the “humanistic” theoretical model of facilitating, which focuses on the whole self and involves several learning domains. As in child pedagogy, it is important for adult learners to similarly recognize the emotional and social realms of learning – something highlighted by Daniel Goleman in his work on emotional intelligence.

Critiques and Missing Components

While the information presented in the chapter on Adult Learning in the Digital Age is valid, I feel that some of the concepts could have been explored in more detail. For example, I think the reader would benefit from a deeper examination of strategies and techniques that facilitators could employ to ensure the success of adult learners.

One of the challenges I found with the ADDIE model is its time-consuming nature. One rule of thumb in the develop stage is that 1 hour of class time requires at least 15-30 hours of planning time. Not to say that planning is not critical, but this is a lot of time to dedicate to this purpose, especially if the program is for a small number of students. Another critique of the ADDIE model is that it does not pay enough attention to the facilitator-learner interactions, but instead focuses primarily on content design.

Implications and Future Considerations

e-learning, world wide web” by algogenius is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As an online Master’s degree student myself, I can relate to both the conveniences and challenges of online learning. There is no doubt that this field is constantly evolving. I have even observed several changes in the format and delivery of my current online program since I first enrolled roughly 2 years ago.

As online learning becomes more relevant in today’s digital age and we continue to become overloaded by information, we must become critical learners in this process while maintaining balance in our lives in the face of non-stop connectivity. We must continue to make sure learning is at the heart of our interactions and thus, use technology to support this process.

For facilitators, it is incumbent that they develop methods to create a sense of community for online adult learners and foster meaningful teacher-learner interactions. The question is then how do facilitators promote principles, values and digital citizenship in an era of online learning? Furthermore, how can instructional design (including the ADDIE model) be adapted to accommodate the changes of the digital age and ensure the success of adult learners?


(2013). Adult Learning Techniques – Part 3 [Online video]. BrainMass. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from

Brookfield, S. D., & Holst, J. D. (2011). Radicalizing learning: Adult education for a just world. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley.

MacKeracher, D. (2004). Making Sense of Adult Learning (2nd edition.). Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice (1st edition.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Neuroplasticity and Adult Learning

"It's all about neuroplasticity" by Jaap den Dulk is licensed under CC BY 2.0
It’s all about neuroplasticity” by Jaap den Dulk is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Last month, the University of Michigan athletic department was embroiled in a major controversy when the Head Coach of the football team decided to play his quarterback after he suffered what appeared to be a serious blow to the head or concussion during the game. The incident came amidst lawsuits from former football players against the National Football League (NFL), alleging the league denied that concussions lead to brain damage and the debilitating disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). These reports have tarnished the image of the NFL and led many families to start thinking twice about signing up their children for youth football leagues.

Keith Olberman’s commentary below provides an interesting perspective on the disturbing effects of repeated concussions on a player’s mental health:


The fallout from this debate has led to renewed efforts on the part of scientists, psychiatrists and neuropathologists to study the brain and understand how to effectively treat brain injuries. One area of brain research that has received particular attention is “neuroplasticity”. Not only does neuroplasticity provide hope in overcoming brain injury, but it also has implications on the brain’s ability to develop, grow and learn throughout our lives.

Neuroplasticity is defined as the “constantly changing mass of cell connections” (Hill, p. 75) that facilitates the brain’s ability to change and rewire neural pathways. Our prior understanding of the brain suggested that it stops growing during childhood years. What research has now revealed is that the brain is structured in such a way that it can adapt to the changing conditions around us.

"Neuroplasticity" by gever is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Neuroplasticity” by gever is licensed under CC BY 2.0


So how does neuroplasticity help those who have suffered brain injuries? Well, in the case of former NFL players, especially those with “impairment in the areas of general cognitive functioning, information processing, reasoning, and memory”(Buczynski, 2011), studies have revealed that neurons in the brain “compensate for injury and adjust their activity in response to new situations or changes in their environment” (Hammond, 2010). Furthermore, if there is damage in one part of the brain, then the “responsibility for that function is simply rerouted to another part of the brain” (Hill, p. 76). Practitioners are now using these concepts of neuroplasticity and the application of noninvasive techniques to reverse brain damage in players who have suffered concussions from high-contact sports (Amen, 2013).


Interestingly, neuroplasticity is not limited to issues of concussions and brain damage. This is why it has become an increasingly popular field of study for psychologists and educators alike. If neuroplasticity boils down to the ability of the brain to change, adapt and grow, then surely it has implications on the capacity of individuals to learn throughout different stages of their lives and particularly into adulthood. Considering the brain is more flexible than we initially believed, it can be argued that aging brains of adults are primed for learning. The correlation between aging and learning therefore proves that “lifelong learning is not confined to childhood” (Walker, 2010). As McGuckin (2010) cleverly comments, we ought to revise the old adage from “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” to the case of “use it or lose it” (p. 4). Her observations signify something more profound: that if the brain is able to continue rewiring and adapting as it ages, adults should expose themselves to stimulating experiences and opportunities for learning throughout their lives. If we fail to challenge ourselves, Walker (2010) insists there can be adverse effects on the brain: “the brain’s function can gradually erode over time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function” (Walker, 2010).

"Lifestyle changes" by Penn State is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Lifestyle changes” by Penn State is licensed under CC BY 2.0


For neuroplasticity to take effect and the processes of rewiring in our brains to unfold, experiences and environments must be engaging and conducive to learning. Hammond (2010) characterizes these experiences as “brain activity” and highlights it as one of the key principles for brain reorganization. Such activity can be achieved through “challenging intellectual environments, interacting in social situations, or getting involved in physical activities” to trigger the growth of brain connections (Hammond, 2010). In a sense, we must be creative in finding challenging activities and enriched environments that augment brain restructuring. This means looking beyond the traditional means of the classroom and instead, exploring opportunities which allow learners to “experience new things, learn new concepts and stimulate the brain”, resulting in a malleable or “plastic” brain (Walker, 2010).

The video below provides a neat explanation of how learning new tasks or experiencing different emotions cause new pathways to be carved in our brains.


Like many developing areas of research, the study of neuroplasticity faces a number of criticisms. A common critique is that neuroplasticity is susceptible to negative effects on the human brain. If the human brain is malleable and can be rewired, then negative factors in our environment can also affect the function and structure of the brain. The brain may be vulnerable to influences such as “ambitions and excesses of others, whether they are misguided parents, well-meaning cultural trendsetters or despotic national leaders” (Zuger, 2007). Another criticism is that if brain damage is extensive and the brain is unable to repair itself and reorganize its lost function, neuroplasticity has no relevance. Some critics cite “neuroessentialism” as another shortcoming of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that referring to the brain is an intellectual trend and people bring it up only to make their arguments sound more scientific. Finally, research in the field of neuroplasticity is relatively new. It is still too early to draw any major conclusions from its study. Researchers are still analyzing the science and the behavior of neuroplasticity, and therefore, basing educational theories and teaching practices on findings of neuroscience is premature (McGuckin, p. 5).


Despite the criticisms and shortcomings of neuroplasticity, its implications and future considerations still deserve due consideration. Clearly, brain injury is a serious matter and until the research in this field is developed further, the severity of concussions should not be overlooked. Officials in high-contact sports leagues, like football, hockey and boxing, must continue to consult the latest research and decide safety protocols for athletes. Although research by neuroscientists like Dr. Amen has shown an “improvement in brain function and cognitive performance” of former NFL players (Amen et. al, p. 5), further study is needed to determine the full impact on human development and the possibility (and extent) to reverse damage.

In terms of adult learning, it is clear that new research and knowledge of the brain “dispels forever the notion that adults have difficulty learning” (Hill, p. 78) and instead reinforces the idea of lifelong learning. This new knowledge has shaped my thinking in regards to adult motivation to learn. Adults can overcome feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, lack of trust, and prior negative experiences based on the ability of the brain to continuously learn.

Exercise Plays Vital Role Maintaining Brain Health” by A Health Blog is licensed under CC BY 2.0


In light of my revelations on neuroplasticity, I have learned about several prescriptive and useful recommendations for practitioners of adult learning. There is much to gain from the work of professionals who have been focusing on victims of brain injury. For example, Dr. Amen’s approach with former NFL players has shown how professionals can successfully work with retired athletes to alleviate some of the difficulties they face upon retirement. His rigorous program includes a “revised diet, regular exercise, limited alcohol use, eliminating drug use and cigarette use, getting enough sleep, as well as nutritional supplements…” (Amen, 2013).

In terms of adult learning, introducing the concept of a “growth mindset” to learners can help overcome feelings that we are not talented or smart enough. Practitioners can encourage adult learners to understand that change is possible and that we can do things that we thought could not be done before. Of course, practitioners of adult learning need to be mindful that effort and struggle are required in order to make progress. Unique experiences and inspiring activities are necessary in order to stimulate brain reorganization. Brain fitness, mental exercises, physical activities, volunteer work and educational travel are all examples of opportunities to promote lifelong learning in innovative ways. Practitioners of adult learning have a vast number of resources available to them to motivate adult learners and to advocate lifelong learning.


Amen, D.G. (2013, February 2). Study Shows “Reversing Brain Damage” Among NFL Players Is Possible. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Amen, D.G., Wu, J.C., Taylor, D. & Willeumier, K. (2011). Reversing Brain Damage in Former NFL Players: Implications for Traumatic Brain Injury and Substance Abuse Rehabilitation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 43:1, 1-5.

Buczynski, R. (2011, April 13). Terry Bradshaw, the NFL, and the New Brain Science Research. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Hammond, K. (2010, June 26). Neuroplasticity. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Hill, L.H. 2001. The Brain and Consciousness: Sources of Information for Understanding Adult Learning In S.B. Merriam (Ed.), The New Update on Adult Learning Theory (pp. 73-81). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGuckin, D. & Ladhani, M. (2010). The Brains Behind Brain-Based Research: The Tale of Two Postsecondary Online Learners. College Quarterly, 13:3, 1-7.

Walker, S. (2010, April 23). Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Zuger, A. (2007, May 29). The Brain: Malleable, Culpable and Vulnerable. The New York Times, p. 1. Retrieved from