With the continuous changes in almost all sectors of our society, learning becomes an important tool in cope with this fast-evolving environment. This is particularly holds true for adults who, more than ever, are facing the need for fresh views about their world.

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It is thus essential that adult education is approached using the most appropriate learning theories. One adult education theory that provides helpful application in terms of instructional design is the social cognitive learning theory.

One of the major assumptions of social cognitive learning theory is that learning is a collaboration between the real world and that of the learner who takes on the responsibility for learning and develops his or her own metacognitive capabilities (Sherman, 2000).

The guiding principles of this learning theory are: meaning requires an understanding of the whole and its parts; learning is basically a search for meaning; in seeking meaning, the goal of learning is for the learner to develop his or her own understanding; and one must understand the mental representations that learners use in interpreting the world and the assumptions they make to strengthen those representations (Brooks and Brooks, 1993).

Applications based on this social cognitive theory allow adult learners to have meaningful learning.

This theory holds that meaningful learning will occur when the learning environment engages adult learners in the following areas: knowledge construction, not reproduction; conversation, not reception; articulation, not repetition; collaboration, not competition; and reflection, not prescription.

Knowledge Construction vs. Reproduction

Meaningful learning will occur when adult learners are encouraged to construct knowledge rather than reproduce knowledge. In the Piagetian perspective, the student learns by discovery. Here, for example, the use of technology as an instrument facilitates activity.

Examples of cognitive tools for adult learners include spreadsheets, databases, communication software, semantic networks, tools for building hypertexts, online cooperation environments, and multimedia. Within this approach, adult learners use tools to gain access to information, analyze and interpret knowledge, organize personal knowledge, and represent what others know.

Likewise, in the Vygotskian point of view, the student is considered a researcher, with much importance placed on learning in context and on cooperation within the learning community. This involves the idea of problem-based learning.

Traditionally, approaches in problem solving concentrate on transmitting content, which is then applied to solving the problem. But in problem-based learning, the order is the opposite. The primary activities are the problems to be solved and the contents are learned as and when they are needed to find the solution to the problem.

The main objective is to facilitate the transferal of learning. It emphasizes the importance of the learners learning not only to identify and solve problems, but also to generate new ones. In general, the construction of knowledge widens the genuine sources of knowledge by helping learners recognize that their personal experiences within and beyond classroom are groundworks for obtaining knowledge.

Conversation vs. Reception

To have a meaningful learning, the emphasis of instruction should be on “conversation” rather than “reception”. This means that learning is a result of the continuing conversations on a focused subject matter over time (Pask, 1975).

Like the apprenticeship learning, social development theory, and cognitive coaching, conversation theory highlights teachback, or the process wherein one person teaches another person what has been learned.

It also emphasizes joint learning activities that center on the relationships between concepts. Adult learners  understand these concept relationships in either of the two ways: they sequentially obtain information, or they look at the complete set of information and look for a higher-order relationship not necessarily sequential.

Traditionally, adult learners learn through reception learning, which happens when the educator completely shapes the instruction contents for the learners and provides them this  information, usually in a lecture format.

In this type of learning, the learner takes notes, memorizes the content, and feeds it back to the educator for the test. But this approach does not foster meaningful learning. This paradigm is not appropriate because it is more instructor-centric than learner-centric.

What is needed is active learning, which highlights the self-sponsored curiosity and intrinsic motivation of adult learners who fashion content and are actively involved in its shaping.

Active learning shifts the center of content structuring from the educator to the learner. By being actively involved in the formation of the instruction content, adult learners can gain a far better understanding of the information than they would otherwise have. Adult learners must be the focus of instruction since they get empowerment.

Articulation vs. Repetition

Meaningful learning will also occur when the learning environment engage adult learners in articulation rather than repetition. Learning theories have backed this claim. A discussion of memory can help explain this.

Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) level of processing theory asserts that the human mind processes information and learns at several different levels at the same time: the more levels experienced, the deeper the processing that occurs. These levels of processing model matches cognitivist approaches like anchored instruction, brain-based learning as well as constructivist approaches, such as Vygotsky’s social development theory.

Rote memorization is likely to be unsuccessful for long-term memory since deep processing does not happen and the information remains in short-term memory. When one gives information a context, it can be processed and fixed in long-term memory.

This suggests that deep processing of information or true learning can be achieved not through memorization (i.e., repetition) but only by placing information in personal, social, and conceptual context (i.e., articulation).

Collaboration vs. Competition

Another assertion toward a meaningful learning is that collaboration instead of competition should be fostered in the adult learning environment. Collaborative learning is characterized by PIGS (Positive interdependence, Individual accountability, Group interaction, and Social skills) (Johnson and Johnson, 1989).

Positive interdependence occurs when adult learners become aware that they need each other to successfully complete the learning task. Individual accountability is the individual effort and instructor assessment needed for the adult learner to successfully complete his or her role within the overall mission of the group.

Group interaction refers to the the cognitive sharing and coaching knowledge that adult learners engage in during the learning activity. lastly, social skills are traits, methods, and techniques that facilitate group interactions,such as decision making, leadership, communication, trust-building, and conflict management.

Vygotsky’s (1978) social development theory supports collaborative learning. This theory hypothesizes that social interaction and social development have a major role in  developing a learner’s cognitive abilities that include learning, thinking, and communicating.

The social development theory also postulates that culture is the main determinant of individual development. An individual's learning development is impacted in several ways by the culture in which the individual is raised.

Advancing the theory of social interdependence, Johnson and Johnson (1989) propose that individual outcomes are significantly related to  others’ actions and interactions via the cooperative learning experience.

Central to the promotion of collaborative learning is social constructivism which highlights the importance of context and culture in understanding of social events and activities. It also emphasizes the importance knowledge construction on the basis of this understanding (Derry, 1999).

The theory of social constructivism is grounded on  assumptions about reality, knowledge, and learning. It proposes that learning does not occur only within an individual, but is a social process. Therefore, meaningful learning among adult learners happens when they are involved in social activities.

In general, the advantages of collaborative learning in adult education include adult learners being better able to think for themselves as well as with others, examine topics and share knowledge, and make judgments about the knowledge obtained.

Collaborative learning allows learners to pool resources, share knowledge, and interact within the learning community to come up with theoretically more robust and complete deliverables than that which would be formed by one adult learner working alone.

In collaborative learning, team members, who may represent a cohort group, work together on a shared learning project or set of projects. Each member of the group gives his or her contribution to the joint learning effort.

It is the collaboration itself  that moves the team toward their goal, rather than simply the individual efforts of each team member.

In this setting, all members share a vision and all of them strive toward the completion of the output, with iterative checkpoints and learning milestones occurring along the path of the project path. In distance learning, much of this collaboration occurs in a virtual learning community where adult learners interact in cyberspace.