Home Equipping Leaders Adults Dimensions of Adult Learning (December 2008)

Dimensions of Adult Learning (December 2008)

Learning is a complex process of paying attention to information and experience, determining how important it is, and then making meaning of the information and experience. Learning occurs in formal settings, such as university courses, workplace seminars, or Bible studies. Learning also occurs in informal settings, such as talking with friends, reading at home, or visiting a museum. Regardless of the setting, adult learning has at least three dimensions: cognitive, affective, and behavioral.

The Cognitive Dimension
Adult learning involves mental processes. Adults think. They think about what they see, hear, and experience. They consider the relevance of information and identify ways they can apply it in their lives.

The cognitive dimension of learning also entails analysis and synthesis of information or experience. Our brains are "wired" to match incoming information and experience with what we already know. When our brains find a match, previous information and experience is confirmed. If the information or experience is new, our brains create new categories, revise existing categories, or reject the information or experience. We use these categories as filters for viewing the world and evaluating new information and experience.

The Affective Dimension
Adult learning involves emotion. Adults feel. They experience joy, fear, anger, embarrassment, and enthusiasm. The feelings that occur when adults encounter new information or experiences affect whether or not adults accept or ignore them. Positive emotions facilitate acceptance; negative emotions may lead to dismissing information.

The affective dimension of learning also includes values and relationships. Over time information or experience that is most meaningful to an adult becomes a value. Values influence how adults perceive the world and how they respond to experience. Adults’ relationships with other members of a class or group also influence learning. Adults learn more easily when they trust each other and experience respect and support from the other learners in their group.

The Behavioral Dimension
Adult learning involves behavior. Adults act. They work, play, eat, exercise, pray, and visit friends. They practice actions to gain proficiency (e.g., playing the guitar or studying the Bible). Actions reinforce learning, provide insight into one’s values, and deepen understanding.

Consider Your Adult Learning Opportunities
Some models for adult education combine the cognitive and behavioral dimensions of learning into an action/reflection process. Learning emerges from reflection on action, which leads to more action.

When you consider adult learning in your congregation, which of these three dimensions of learning are most evident?
  • Which dimensions are least evident?
  • If any dimension is missing or just one is highly prevalent, how does that affect the adult learning opportunities and adult learners?
  • How do these dimensions of learning interact with and reinforce adult learning for living as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Carol F. Krau is Director, Adult Faith Formation and Discipleship at the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN.

For Further Reading
Toward an Adult Church: A Vision of Faith Formationby Jane E. Regan (Loyola Press, 2002).

Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith by James W. Fowler (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

Learning and Change in the Adult Years: A Developmental Perspective by Mark Tennant & Philip Pogson (Jossey-Bass, 2002).

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