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Adult Learners and Informal Learning

While John Dewey and Eduard Lindeman set the stage on lifetime learning, Malcolm Knowles focused specifically on adult learners. He found that adults are capable of learning throughout their lifetime. [1] However, adults regularly change what they are interested in due to changing life experiences and physical capabilities. Allen Tough moved Knowles research forward by focusing on informal learning. Tough discovered adult learners self-plan 73% of their learning episodes. [2] Tough added that there are four primary reasons why learners proceed with self-directed learning: desire to learn on own pace, desire own style of learning, want to stay flexible and easy to change, and want to structure their own project. Individuals who do not have an opportunity to benefit from formal learning can still advance their skills using informal learning. [3]

Solving Problems

One of the primary reasons for informal learning is solving a problem either personally or for someone else. People learn because they are presented with challenges that must be overcome, typically information is the key [4] Learners gather information to solve problems, they filter incoming content based on their needs and goals. [5] Employees tend to apply what they are learning in an informal learning environment because they are working on a real problem. [6]

Why do adult tend to go it alone?

Many adults tend to go it alone because they associate learning with school. Many people have negative associations with school and education. [7] Knowles adds, when adults enter an educational setting they assume a dependent role and often cling to bad experiences from the past. We have a tendency to keep individuals as dependent children rather than let them mature to adulthood and become self-directed. As a result, when individuals become adults they stop considering themselves as learners. Adult learners want to control their learning primarily what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. [8]

Professionals stand out

Professionals may take a different approach to learning, and are more inclined to be involved in informal learning. [9] Professionals try to stay current, and they typically have two important traits: they are more peer-oriented than supervisor-oriented, and they are often self-directed. Professionals have an easier time learning informally compared to clerical workers, primarily due to increased freedom and flexible time constraints for the former, [10] Professionals network with others, read literature, and attend learning opportunities in order to stay current on their field. [11] Marsick and Watkins also point out that many more workers are becoming professionals through training and standards.


  1. Knowles, M. S. (1950). Informal adult education: A guide for administrators, leaders, and teachers. New York, NY: Associate Presse.
  2. Tough, A. (1982). Intentional changes: A fresh approach to helping people change. Chicago Ill.: Follett Pub. Co.
  3. Marsick, V., & Watkins, K. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London;New York: Routledge.
  4. Shackleton-Jones, N. (2008). Informal learning and the future. Training Journal, 38 – 41.
  5. Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. Lexington, KY. Retrieved from
  6. Tobin, D. (2000). All learning is self-directed: How organizations can support and encourage independent learning. Alexandria VA: ASTD.
  7. Knowles, M. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (Rev. and Updated.). Wilton Conn. : Association Press.
  8. Mocker, D. W., Spear, G. E., ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, C., & Vocational Education, C. (1982). Lifelong learning: Formal, nonformal, informal, and self-directed. Information Series No. 241. Retrieved from
  9. Marsick, V., & Watkins, K. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London;New York: Routledge.
  10. Twidale, M. (2005). Over the shoulder learning: Supporting brief informal learning. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 14(6), 505–547.
  11. Marsick, V., & Watkins, K. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London;New York: Routledge.

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