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What is Adult Learning?


Think of workshops, book groups, training events, museum programs, one-on-one mentoring, skill clinics—these are some of the avenues of adult learning.  Picture the face of a new American learning English, a CEO in weekend class for an MBA, an incarcerated young adult completing a high school diploma, a community theater group preparing a play—these are some of the faces of adult learners.

Encompassing a wide range of educational pursuits in many settings and contexts, adult learning can be defined as:  “all forms of learning undertaken by adults having left initial education and training, however far this process may have gone.” (Study on European Terminology in Adult Learning, Final Report, July, 2010, p. 6.)

Adult learning takes on different names according to context.  At work, it may be called “professional development” or “training.”  Around town, adult learning is often referred to as “community education.”  Among the many formats and subject areas of adult learning, other terms applied can include:  night school, language study, wellness class, group fitness, executive degree program, riding lessons, driving school, citizenship test preparation—and many more.

Why it matters for students to study and practice adult learning


Learning is the way of the human being.  Our neural networks are made to process, analyze, grow and stretch.  Through learning, we become ourselves: capable, caring and contributing people able to act in the world with agency and through our particular perspectives and gifts. 

Simply put, we are all adult learners for much more of our lifespans than we are youth learners.  Adult learning is your future.  You are, or are on the brink of becoming, an adult learner.

Beyond the immediately personal, adult learning is key to everyone’s collective future as well.  Societies, communities, neighborhoods, families—human groups at any scale—benefit from clear thinking and creative expression.  Adult learning is vital to innovation, problem-solving and the often overlooked, yet ever important, art of maintaining what is already working.  Think of it as building human capital.

When you study designing instruction for adults you acquire the master keys for creating and facilitating meaningful experiences for learning and action.  These backwards planning and design thinking approaches serve well in multiple settings with people of all ages to foster new thinking and agency. Think of the worst class or meeting you’ve been in; now think of the best.  What makes the difference is good design and facilitation. 

Opportunities at Cornell


The Education Minor at Cornell offers a unique opportunity to learn and practice adult learning.   Students enrolled in adult learning EDUC courses apply their learning by becoming an educational mentor for a CU employee; i.e. an adult learner, through the Community Learning and Service Partnership, (CLASP).  CLASP is an adult education program for employees working in Campus Services.  With student “learning partners” employees study a range of subjects from practicing the English language to using computer applications to preparing for the US citizenship exam.  Courses include:  EDUC 2200/DSOC 2100, Introduction to Adult Learning and EDUC 2210/DSOC 2210, Designing and Facilitating Learning for Development.